Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Into the Woods (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

Gillian Bevan as the Witch

The problem with Into the Woods is that it finishes half way through. James Lapine's story is definitely a game of two halves, and it's the second half which really lets down the first. This is a common complaint about Into the Woods, and there seems to have been little attempt by Matthew Xia, the director of this production, to avoid this.

And maybe that's because it's largely unfixable. The ponderous nature of the second half - which fixates on the nature of cause and effect, who's really to blame for the events of the first half, and the grander notion of destiny and responsibility - drags the production to such a halt that the magic of what's gone before is soiled.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Saturday Night Forever (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Delme Thomas. Pic: Keith Morris

Monologues are tricky things to pull off. By definition, there's only one performer, so that performer has to be at the top of their game to grab the audience's attention and keep it, captivated, imprisoned, enchanted, for the length of the piece. In the case of Saturday Night Forever, actor Delme Thomas more than capably scoops up every single person watching him and takes them on a rollercoaster journey which runs the whole gamut of human emotion. This is a powerful piece performed by a powerful actor who knows his craft, and makes for essential viewing.

Thomas plays Lee, a young gay man living in Cardiff who tells us his story. He starts off by telling us about his life with his boyfriend Matthew, how and why that relationship crumbled, and then how a new relationship developed. It's a pretty straightforward story - one of love and lust, anguish and tragedy - but playwright Roger Williams has laced it with such truth and honesty that whether you're gay or straight, young or old, you can't help but relate to Lee's life.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Cinderella: The Panto with Soul (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Alex Parry as Verucca, James Haggie as Buttons and Dan
Bottomley as Hernia. Pics: Phil Cutts

It's a lovely touch that Judith Croft, the designer of this all-singing, all-dancing panto at Theatr Clwyd, has transformed the auditorium into a fairytale location, extending the magic of the stage into the audience, making the set just as inclusive as the dialogue.

Because that's what panto is all about - getting the audience involved in the action, making them feel part of things, and inspiring young minds into perhaps one day returning to the theatre to try something new and different. Eager young eyes watching Cinders go to the ball in 2015 are the discerning box office fodder of 2035, after all...

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Land of Our Fathers (Venue Cymru, Llandudno)

Land of Our Fathers is set on Thursday, May 3rd, 1979. Or rather, the story begins on that day. It's more accurate to say that Land of Our Fathers is set throughout May 1979, because the protagonists are six South Walian coal miners trapped hundreds of feet beneath ground following a colliery accident. It's a chamber piece boasting a bland but beautifully realised set (well done Signe Beckman) and six wonderfully written characters. But is the story strong enough to hold the attention for two and a half hours?

A play this long needs to have enough twists and turns to really demand the attention of the audience, and indeed Land of Our Fathers does have its fair share of soapy revelations and melodrama. I'm not altogether sure what does happen warrants such a taxing duration; it could have been shorter without much damage to the plot. Some might say the play is as much an endurance test for those watching as being trapped beneath ground for days on end is for the miners. That's one way of looking at it. But to be honest, the audience is not trapped down a mine and might appreciate a little more brevity.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My People (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Pic: Catherine Ashmore

"There is no Wales to speak of, no real national life: no art, no dance, no folklore; no literature... except for the foolish mouthing of its preachers."

So said Caradoc Evans, writer of My People and once (and, for some, perhaps still) the "most hated man in Wales". Evans's short stories, published 100 years ago, portrayed life in Nonconformist Wales for what he believed it really was - hypocritical, stunted, short-sighted and ultimately self-deceived. He saw the power that the chapels of Wales had over their congregations - who, remember, were far greater in number then than today - as limiting to people's spiritual development. Without the luxury of self-expression and the freedom to lead life as one chooses (rather than by the rigid guidelines of organised religion), the Welsh culture could not develop or grow, and may never be a part of the wider world around it.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Pomona (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

Every time I catch a Metrolink tram between Salford Quays and Manchester city centre, I'm fascinated by the stop at Pomona. It's an empty, soulless, despairing place. Nobody ever gets on, and nobody ever gets off. The tram stops, waits a few seconds, then continues on its way. Nobody is ever seen there, and there's barely any movement beyond tumbling litter and the occasional disorientated pigeon.

Pomona is a lonesome place in the heart of Manchester which seems to exist outside of normal reality. There's just nothing there, apart from graffiti-scrawled walls and what appear to be empty office blocks. And it's this same experience that inspired 28-year-old Alistair McDowall to write Pomona, which has won him a London Evening Standard Theatre Award nomination for Most Promising Playwright.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Little Shop of Horrors (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Pics: Catherine Ashmore

Staging something as wacky and raucous as Little Shop of Horrors is an ambitious venture for any theatrical company. You need big sets, big costumes, big talents, and bigger and bigger props. It can't be cheap to put on a show like this, and I imagine this production has stretched the Mold theatre's coffers and creativity to the limits, but thankfully they really pull it off.

Little Shop has a chequered history. Most people have seen or heard of the 1986 Hollywood film starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin, and some people might be aware that director Frank Oz based that film on the 1982 stage musical by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. But there must be very few people who realise that back in 1960, there was a cheap non-musical film version directed by the king of B-flicks, Roger Corman. It starred nobody you've heard of, but did feature a 23-year-old Jack Nicholson in a bit part.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Dirty Dancing (Venue Cymru, Llandudno)

It felt like I was the only person in the audience who hadn't seen the film, but I'm sure that wasn't true because there were other men there too. Sure, the men were outnumbered by the women 10-1, but I bet a fair few of those men had seen the Dirty Dancing film under duress, or had acquired knowledge of it by osmosis.

Because Dirty Dancing is seriously big for women of a certain age. Along with Ghost and Pretty Woman, it's one of those films they completely lose themselves in, just like men do with Star Wars or Rocky or Top Gun. So although I expected to be surrounded by a majority of ladies when I went to see Dirty Dancing ("The Classic Story on Stage"), I wasn't quite prepared for the unadulterated excitement and passion that I witnessed. It was exhilarating!

The lady next to me was reciting whole passages of dialogue, word for word, verbatim, as they were spoken on stage (thankfully, her husband kept shushing her). The row behind me was very excited before the curtain lifted, swapping memories of the classic 1987 movie, and giving their thoughts about Patrick Swayze (I eventually had to tune out as these thoughts were getting a little too racy!).

Friday, October 02, 2015

Interview with artist Sue Williams about Throb

This is an earlier version of a feature first published on October 2nd, 2015 by Arts Scene in Wales

The barriers we put up between ourselves and those we love when it comes to sex are the subject of an ambitious new multi-form work called Throb which has been five years in the making.

But it's not just barriers that visual artist Sue Williams is interested in – she's also fascinated about breaking down those barriers, and examining the communication (or sometimes, lack of) between the genders when it comes to sex.

Sue is teaming up with other creatives to make Throb an innovative, exploratory, challenging project combining her own paintings and drawings with the work of award-winning poet Rhian Edwards, the choreography of Romain Guion and Marta Zollet, and the musicianship of composer Pete Wyer. Also integral to the creation and direction of Throb is cardiologist Dr Nick Ossei-Gerning, whose expertise is the taboo subject of erectile dysfunction.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

All My Sons (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Pic: Catherine Ashmore

When Arthur Miller's All My Sons made its stage debut in 1947, it must have been at its rawest and most powerful for audiences. Taking the subject of war profiteering and the effect conflict has on families, the play was as relevant as it would ever be. Almost 60 years later, those themes can still be applied to more modern conflicts - from Vietnam to Afghanistan - but the post-World War Two setting remains the ace up its sleeve.

Three years ago, businessman Joe Keller was exonerated after being charged with knowingly shipping damaged aircraft engine cylinder heads from his factory, which ultimately led to the deaths of 21 pilots. His business partner Steve Deever took the blame and was jailed, but during the trial maintained that Keller was just as responsible for the deaths, having been made aware of the faulty parts in a telephone call. That telephone call could not be proven in court, and Keller claimed he was ill with pneumonia at the time.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Absent Friends (Old Rep Theatre, Birmingham)

The biggest clue to Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends is the title. There may be a six-strong cast on the stage, but the various stories being played out are as much driven by characters who are not present as those that are. Rather like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot or Kevin Elyot's My Night with Reg, the characters we do see are directly influenced in either their attitude or life choices by those we don't - a frighteningly accurate reflection of real life. We may not realise or admit it, but we're all influenced by our experiences with people who may no longer be in our lives, whether we like it or not.

Absent Friends is reminiscent of Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party, but actually predates that more famous production by three years. It concerns a gathering of old friends several months after the tragic death of Colin's fiancée, Carol. The setting is a middle class living room in 1974, complete with brick fireplace, poufs and sunburst wall clock. The dimensions of the set are meant to reflect a realistic front room to encourage the awkwardness and tensions that develop in the play, and the careful placing and spacing of the barely adequate seating arrangements cleverly contributes to this conceit. There are six characters and seven places to sit, but not all of these seats are comfortable or appropriate, so it's interesting to watch the movement around the set throughout the play.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Interview with pianist Ivan Ilić about his 2015 tour

Pic: Michelle Blioux

This feature was commissioned by Arts Scene in Wales

Ivan Ilić has been described as one of the world's most adventurous pianists, a man who likes to think outside of the box and bring something new and fresh to an art-form that can sometimes be a little tried and tested.

He has controversially rearranged the order of Debussy's Preludes, attempted to redress the imbalance between the use of the left and right hands in piano-playing, and championed Godowsky's little-known left-hand studies on Chopin's Etudes, all to great acclaim. Such innovation has propelled Ilić to the forefront of creative solo piano-playing on an international level – he's damned good at what he does, but he's best at doing what nobody else has thought to do.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

An Inspector Calls (Venue Cymru, Llandudno)

"It is the business of the community not simply to glorify itself but to produce better persons, to enrich its individual sphere..."

J B Priestley was a forward-thinking, radical socialist whose political achievements have been forgotten somewhat in the 70 or so years since he was at his most influential in this regard. Today he is best remembered for his works of fiction - such as An inspector Calls - and less so for his ideological breakthroughs in politics and philosophy. But Priestley's world-view is the very bricks and mortar from which An Inspector Calls is built, and his agenda is still very much evident in the production today.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Llawn03 (Llandudno Arts Festival) Day 3

Have you ever wondered what language mermaids speak? No, neither had I, not until I saw Bedraggled on Day 3 of Llawn03 and found out the perfectly obvious truth: they speak flobalob (a bit like the Flowerpot Men!).

Yes, welcome to the crazy, surreal and slightly fractured world of the Kitsch 'n' Sync collective. On Day 2 they flabbergasted us with the sci-fi silliness of Babs and Stella, but Bedraggled was a step beyond. This comic dance theatre performance consisted of three mermaids washed ashore who dance well in unison (despite their flippers) but who lose their tempers easily and even turn an unsuspecting audience member into their marine deity, complete with a plastic octopus on his head.

Llawn03 (Llandudno Arts Festival) Day 2

Definition of 'different': a tour of Llandudno's lost theatres aboard a red double-decker bus festooned with pink balloons, accompanied by a drag queen singing operatic arias and a mute who likes to act out through the medium of mime.

That's Divina and Dymphna's Day-Glo Bus Tour in a rather cracked nutshell. And it was fabulous! The bus was originally to have been an open-topped affair, so it was a shame it wasn't in the end as Divina De Campo's stacked high-heel boots made her so tall that she couldn't stand up straight with a roof on top! But it made the tour a much more intimate affair. As we were driven around Llandudno's "treacherous one-way system" to visit the former locations or currently derelict theatres of the resort, Divina educated us in her own amusing style about the buildings' history, their origins, heydays and downfalls, while Dymphna D'Arcy careered up and down the aisle acting out Divina's commentary.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Llawn03 (Llandudno Arts Festival) Day 1

Anybody out for a few beers in Llandudno on Friday night might be mistaken for thinking their drinks had been spiked when they saw a group of people dressed in white smocks and wearing blank, white face masks gathering outside a disused garage in the heart of the town.

It made for a surreal experience, but this was not a bizarre religious sect or a re-enactment of the unsettling Solutions section of The League of Gentlemen's Christmas special (if you've never seen it, where have you been?!). It was the meeting place for Joel Cockrill's installation Ffloc, an immersive experience which converts an old mechanic's garage on Mostyn Broadway into a walk-through world of loud music, projections and bilingual voiceovers.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Phoenix Dance Theatre Mixed Programme 2015

There can't be many dance pieces which are directly inspired by the work of Charlie Chaplin and Goldie Hawn, but when choreographer Christopher Bruce heard a section of music by American composer Kenji Bunch, the ideas that flooded into his mind were clear and precise.

Shift is the first of two of his pieces performed by Phoenix Dance Theatre in their 2015 mixed programme, touring the UK this Autumn and which premiered at Mold's Clwyd Theatr Cymru to a young and enthusiastic audience.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Preview of Llawn03 (Llandudno Arts Festival 2015)

There can't be many arts festivals which use such diverse locations as a cave, a pier, a ski slope, a bandstand and even a Victorian-style bathing machine to host its events, exhibitions and "happenings".

But Llawn03 – Llandudno's third annual arts festival, held over a three-day weekend in September – is full of surprises like that. The aim of Llawn is to rediscover and celebrate the rich history of the North Wales seaside resort in new and refreshing ways, not just through the usual artistic methods of theatre, dance and song, but also performance art, interactive events, an open-air theatre, and even a bus tour conducted by a drag queen!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Annie (Venue Cymru, Llandudno)

When you think of Annie, you think of a precocious little girl with a frizzy red wig singing schmaltzy songs about being orphaned and hoping for a better tomorrow. And to some extent, that's right, especially if you're thinking of John Huston's 1982 film. But Annie - The Musical shows there's more to it than its rather unkind reputation would have you believe.

Because it's really a story about America in the Great Depression, about how unemployment in the States reached a frightening high of 25% in 1933, the year Annie is set. Families lost their jobs and their livelihoods, many lost their homes and were forced to congregate like gypsy travellers in public parks, cobbled-together shanty towns known as Hooverville. America in 1933 was on the skids - 5,000 banks failed, drought ravaged the country's agricultural heartland, and there seemed to be no hope on the horizon to pull it out of the economic mire. But then President Franklin D Roosevelt was elected to the White House, and his public work programmes helped turn things around.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Triptych (Galeri, Caernarfon)

Gwyn Emberton and Albert Garcia in Triptych III

Most of us cannot imagine what it's truly like to serve in a war zone. All the role-playing video games and CGI-bolstered Hollywood blockbusters in the world cannot truly recreate what it must be like to actually be there, in the thick of it, day in, day out, with no way out and no real desire to find one. There is no Stop or Off button for the soldiers who serve Queen and country on our behalf. There is only the honour, and the horror.

Triptych is the brainchild of De Oscuro producer Judith Roberts, who has been working with ex-service personnel and their families for almost 18 months to get a better idea of what it feels like to be in conflict situations such as Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan or the Falklands. We have a good idea what it looks like to be there, but the actual emotional impact it has on the soldier, the mental legacy they are left with upon demob, can be elusive, often because veterans cannot or will not discuss their thoughts.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Wonder.land (Palace Theatre, Manchester)

When Alice fell down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel, the portal was all too literal. There was a rabbit, on his way to Wonderland, and he had a hole. Beautiful in its simplicity. But what would a modern-day rabbit hole equivalent be? How to update the portal to Wonderland for 2015?

And therein lies the genius of Wonder.land, the 21st century remix of a perennial family favourite by Moira Buffini and Damon Albarn. In 2015, the obvious portal to a world of wonder, colour, craziness and danger is the mobile phone in everybody's pocket. Through the screen on our mobile devices, we can be transported anywhere and everywhere, through the magic of Japanese technology and the world wide web. There are no limits to where you can go and what you can see on a mobile phone, which is why Wonder.land runs with this so brilliantly.

Wicked (The Lowry, Salford Quays)

One of the cleverest aspects of Wicked is Gregory Maguire's story. Audiences are so familiar with L Frank Baum's source material - or rather, the 1939 film adaptation of it - that much character introduction can be dispensed of because the audience already knows who almost everybody is (or is going to be).

And that's where the beauty of the narrative shines brightest - Wicked starts out as a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, then the narrative overlaps with that of the film, and by the end it's running concurrently with it. The ease with which the story on the stage enhances and expands the audience's established knowledge is masterful, and it's a delight to join up the dots. It's the joy of being able to pause the film and say: "Meanwhile, over there..."

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Wales Dance Platform Day 3 (Riverfront Arts, Newport)

Cat Ryan and Despina Goula. Pic: Roy Campbell-Moore

The third and final day of Wales Dance Platform was a hectic affair, the scheduling of which was knocked out of kilter right from the off with some time-consuming set-pieces in the first session. However, it was sadly too easy to forget the exhibitions on display, both by Roy Campbell-Moore. The first was The Beauty and the Grit, which showed just how well Roy can capture the intimacy of the performer without intruding on their art. As a former dancer himself he knows when it's working and when it's not, and presents what he calls unsentimental images of dance, exposing both the wonder and the torment - the beauty and the grit.

Wales Dance Platform Day 2 (Chapter, Cardiff)

Gary and Pel

Whoever decided to have Alex Marshall Parsons' Gary and Pel kick off Day 2 of Wales Dance Platform deserves a round of pirouettes. The duo is a tour de force of comedy, using both slapstick and mime, and really warmed the crowds up during their opening performance in Chapter's foyer.

Gary and Pel are two comedy characters played by Alex himself, along with Kim Noble. Gary looks like a reject from The Little Shop of Horrors, while Pel is a vision in bright yellow fright wig straight out of the B-52s. They "drive" into view in their shocking pink cardboard car and proceed to leap about the space with the energy and vigour of a pair of antelopes. Their faces are what elevates this physical piece from mere entertaining to downright brilliant, Alex in particular being blessed with a range of expressions that say every word he does not speak. I love the persona Kim has built up too, like a cross between Elvira, RuPaul and Cindy Lauper.

Wales Dance Platform Day 1 (Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff)

Christopher Owen

Over the course of 48 hours across three consecutive days in three different venues, Wales Dance Platform 2015 crammed in performances, films and photography from over 40 independent companies and artists. The weekend was hectic, but never less than entertaining, and enabled many performers and creators to get together, perhaps for the first time, and share one another's ideas and talents. It wasn't just a weekend of performance - it was a celebration of independent dance and a chance for those who work on the contemporary dance scene to make connections and develop relationships.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Kafka's Monkey (Home, Manchester)

Kathryn Hunter; photographed by Tristram Kenton

Mankind has always been fascinated with trying to find a way to "talk to the animals". We are a species of Dr Dolittles, forever trying to make ourselves understood by our pets, or on a more scientific level, trying to forge a bond between ourselves and our ape cousins. Because, rather arrogantly, we think it would be best if we could communicate with them, probably with a morally ambiguous means to an end.

Kafka's Monkey is an adaptation of Franz Kafka's 1917 short story A Report to an Academy, in which an ape, which has learnt to behave like a human, describes his transformation and tries to relate his feelings on the matter.

This is a one-woman (or should that be one-ape?) show in which the remarkable talent of Kathryn Hunter is slap-bang in the spotlight for almost an hour. She portrays Red Peter, an ape which has been injured and captured by hunters in the West African jungle and brought to Europe. It is Red Peter's imprisonment, inside a cage aboard the ship during the voyage to Europe, that forces him to try and copy his human captors, to try and become one of them.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Legally Blonde: Preview of Aberystwyth Arts Centre's summer show

Rebecca Stenhouse plays Elle Woods

This feature was first published on June 18th, 2015 by Arts Scene in Wales.

That old adage of 'never work with children or animals' doesn't scare Anthony Williams. He's the director of this year's summer spectacular at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, and while it may not involve children, it does have two dogs on the cast list.

Legally Blonde: The Musical is a cult favourite which tells the story of sorority girl Elle who decides to follow her ex-boyfriend Warner to law school in order to win back his affections. Famously, Elle has a pet Chihuahua called Bruiser which she takes almost everywhere with her, but the inherent unpredictability of having live animals on stage doesn't daunt Anthony too much.

Oh Hello!: Interview with Jamie Rees

This feature was first published on June 18th, 2015 by Arts Scene in Wales

The Carry On series of films has given audiences so much joy and laughter ever since the first one in 1958, and the repertory company of stars who made up the regular cast have a special place in our hearts.

There was cackling Sid James, busty Babs Windsor and snooty Kenneth Williams… but it is the camp, bespectacled Charles Hawtrey who is the subject of this one-man show starring Jamie Rees, which has a handful of dates in Wales this summer as well as a stakeout at the Edinburgh Fringe.

The play is written by Dave Ainsworth, who first performed his own script more than a decade ago. But Jamie says that he always knew he could do a better job!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

And Then There Were None (Rhyl Pavilion)

It's hard to review a whodunit - and particularly an Agatha Christie one - without writing about who did it. The beauty of the plot is in the way it is constructed so delicately by Christie, and then unravelled like a ball of wool leading to the final denouement where all is revealed and the audience gives a collective intake of breath.

So no spoilers here. But what I can tell you is that this play isn't known as one of Christie's best thrillers for nothing. It has the perfect ingredients - a cast of characters, all with their flaws and secrets, drawn by a mysterious puppeteer to a remote island cut off from the mainland to satisfy their own murderous intentions.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Blur (Venue Cymru, Llandudno)

It was a bit of a surprise earlier this year when Blur announced the release of their first new album as a foursome in 16 years. And it was even more of a surprise last month when they announced they would be playing a handful of warm-up gigs for the summer, and one of them would be in my home town of Llandudno!

I mean, that just doesn't happen... My favourite band ever, back together, releasing new material and playing live on my doorstep? It seems fantasy can become reality.

Much has been made of the fact Blur's date at Llandudno's Venue Cymru was their first gig in Wales for 18 years (since December 1997, to be precise). But that was in Cardiff; this was their first gig in North Wales ever. But, as frontman Damon Albarn told the crowd, the oversight was never intentional.

Monday, June 01, 2015

5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline (Home from Home, Manchester)

Note: Although this production was promoted by Home, it actually took place in the more fitting location of Rusholme Army Reserve Centre, Manchester.

The human body really is the front line in almost everything we do, whether that be warfare, weightlifting or washing up. What our mind wants to do, the body fulfils, and that is the theme for Rosie Kay's 5 Soldiers, which looks at how the human body remains essential to war, even in the 21st century when we have missiles, drones and mines to do our dirtiest work remotely.

The choreography starts off as militaristic, regimented, stiff and repetitive, but that's because activities such as drilling, marching and training are at the heart of every soldier's professional existence. Whether on a reserve army camp in the UK, or in the thick of the battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq, a soldier's life is informed and shaped by everyday routine. That knowledge gives the soldier a template for his or her existence, and gives something to focus on amid the horrors all about.

The Car Man (The Lowry, Salford Quays)

Whether you're a man or a woman, straight or gay, you cannot fail to be moved in some way by the sexual charge of The Car Man. Matthew Bourne's take on Georges Bizet's classic 1875 opera Carmen has S-E-X running through it like a stick of rock, setting out its stall right from the off with a rousing, and arousing, Act 1 Prelude.

The women sport plunging necklines and floating skirts, while the men are dressed in oily jeans and vests, their steel-capped boots in no way hindering their balletic, yet intensely masculine, movement. The entire production is charged with sexual tension and erotic charm - the setting is transferred from 19th century France to Dino's diner and mechanics' yard in 1960s Mid West America, and while Bizet's story remains intact, the new location adds a flourish of West Side Story mixed with Giant and A Streetcar Named Desire.

The Funfair (Home, Manchester)

When you think of the funfair, you think of an assault on the senses - the sights, the colours, the smells, the noise, the surreal atmosphere of fun and laughter. And although this adaptation of Ödön von Horváth's 1932 play Kasimir and Karoline certainly has all of these ingredients, at the end of the piece I wasn't quite sure what I was meant to be taking away from it.

The original is set at the Munich Oktoberfest in Depression-hit 1929, but Simon Stephens's 21st century update relocates the action to a fairground and renames the title characters Cash and Caroline. There's no denying that Mike Gunning's lighting and Ti Green's set design are sumptuously effective, managing to be original and creative despite the over-familiar tropes and iconography of the setting. The huge, red pleated curtain acts as a cyclorama against which silhouettes are cast, and this provides some memorable visual moments, such as the one-horse merry-go-round, and the highly impressive zoetrope.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

{150}: Interview with Marc Rees

Marc Rees, photographed by Warren Orchard

This feature was first published on May 27th, 2015 by Arts Scene in Wales

In July 1865, a converted tea-clipper called the Mimosa sailed into harbour on the Chubut coastline of Argentina with around 150 Welsh men, women and children aboard. They'd left Liverpool docks full of hope and trepidation, wondering what their new lives as Welsh settlers in the Argentinean region of Patagonia would be like.

It was the idea of a preacher from Bala to have a "little Wales beyond Wales", which could not be corrupted or assimilated by Western English-speaking culture as had happened in North America.

And it is this historic journey, the trials and tribulations of setting up the colony, and how the descendants of those colonists live today, that has inspired Marc Rees's {150} project, a unique collaboration between the two national theatres of Wales.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Stories from a Crowded Room (Galeri, Caernarfon)

Have you ever been in a restaurant enjoying your food, perhaps a juicy steak or a spicy jambalaya, and the waitress has asked if "everything's OK with your meal"? And you've said yes, but actually meant no? Have you ever tried to avoid someone you recognise by crossing the street so that you didn't have to speak to them? Have you ever tried to connect with someone, but they just missed the point?

The intricacies of human nature are what Stories from a Crowded Room is all about. It's about love and loss, rejection and companionship, anger and solitude. What Earthfall has accomplished in this magnificently immersive dance performance is highly effective, affecting and intensely personal to those gathered to observe.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Wales Comic Con (Glyndŵr University, Wrexham)

It was a surreal Sunday. As the sun beat down on the campus at Wrexham's Glyndŵr University, I found myself surrounded by all manner of out-of-this-world creatures and characters. There were hordes of jawas, stormtroopers and Boba Fetts from Star Wars, superheroes like Spider-Man, Batman and Arrow, as well as the odd Middle-Earth wizard. There were even characters from Frozen walking around.

And that's the fun of an event like Wales Comic Con: fans of cult and genre TV, film and comic books are so passionate about their subject that they immerse themselves wholeheartedly in it. People dress up (or down, as in one eye-popping case where a young lady was trying to recreate Princess Leia's slave costume from Return of the Jedi) and emulate their fictional heroes with such obvious love and attention. The time and effort that must have gone into creating some of the cosplay outfits is phenomenal. There was even a Beast from X-Men, complete with blue hairy mane and white lab coat (surely a contender to win the cosplay masquerade trophy!).

Marc Almond (Bridgewater Hall, Manchester)

It might be 34 years since Soft Cell's definitive cover of Tainted Love hit number one on the UK singles chart, but listening to Marc Almond in 2015 is like stepping into a time machine and travelling back to the heady days of the Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. His voice is timeless, ageless, deathless.

Almond entertained a packed Bridgewater Hall like a man half his age, despite his own protestations that he isn't getting any younger (amazingly, Marc is 57!). Well, nobody is, Marc, but at least when you take to the stage you try not to let the years slow you down. He shimmied and slid across the stage, arms flailing and posturing as the band slammed out a stream of dance tracks from across the whole of Marc's varied career.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Light of Heart (Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold)

In a shabby London boarding house at the heart of London's theatre scene lives a collection of men and women who seem on the cusp of failure and despair. There's little money about, and even less ambition, but as The Light of Heart develops we see hope and fortune pave a road forward and upward... for some, at least.

The Light of Heart, first staged in 1940, has a cracking good story, sculpted with an intimate understanding of live theatre by the great Welsh playwright and thespian Emlyn Williams. It is particularly gratifying to be able to see the play performed in Clwyd Theatr Cymru's intimate Emlyn Williams Theatre, where Simon Kenny has constructed a beautifully ramshackle bedsitter set, complete with peeling wallpaper, torn lino and filthy window panes. Although set in the 1930s, this is a world more familiar through the kitchen sink dramas of the 1950s and 60s, such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or A Taste of Honey.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Magic Flute (Venue Cymru, Llandudno)

The Welsh National Opera's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute is a visual feast, packed with bold colours and Lewis Carroll-style absurdities, such as a giant killer lobster and a menagerie of amusing zoo animals.

The Magic Flute tells the story of Tamino, who at the top of the production is rescued from being killed by a murderous lobster  (don't ask) by three ladies, all of whom fall desperately in lust with him. This opening routine gets things off to a great start, with the aforementioned crustacean snapping its claws at Tamino through several doors until it is defeated. Tamino finds himself in a nine-doored room in the sky and after meeting a birdcatcher called Papageno, is challenged by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the evil clutches of Sarastro.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Herbal Bed (Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold)

If our courts judged us today as the people of England were judged in the 17th century, we'd surely all be in jail or penniless. That, or wearing a white smock and standing in the porch of our local church every Sunday as public penance.

The late Peter Whelan's phenomenally engrossing The Herbal Bed tells the true story of Susanna Hall, the daughter of a certain Mr William Shakespeare, who, in the bawdy summer of 1613, becomes embroiled in a devastating public accusation of adultery which threatens her entire family.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tân (Galeri, Caernarfon)

Anybody familiar with the history of the Welsh language and the campaign to save it from dying out in recent years will have heard of the Welsh Not. For those unaware, it was a wooden sign which some schoolchildren in Wales were forced to wear around their necks if they were ever caught speaking Welsh. The board would be passed from child to child depending on who was last caught speaking Welsh, and the child left with it at the end of the day was punished.

It was part of a concerted effort in the early Victorian era to stamp out Welsh and drive it into extinction, but luckily attitudes changed toward the language in the 20th century and over the last 100 years or so there have been dedicated efforts to rescue it from the brink and repopularise it.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

National Dance Company Wales Spring 2015 (Venue Cymru, Llandudno)


National Dance Company Wales's 2015 Spring Programme shares two pieces that were also performed during their 2014 tour, but luckily I got to see three brand new routines when they visited Llandudno this week. The three pieces are very different and serve to satisfy an audience with eclectic tastes in modern and contemporary dance.

It kicks off with the superlative Walking Mad, a sprawling set-piece choreographed by Swede Johan Inger which imaginatively and wittily uses a garden fence to help move the performance along.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Cirque Berserk (Rhyl Pavilion)

Gone are the days when a trip to the circus would mean marvelling at what the animals could do. And that's a good thing. Because now we can marvel at what the humans can do, and surely that's much more amazing than watching a poor elephant stand on its hind legs or a horse roll over?

The talent on display from Cirque Berserk is jaw-dropping, as it tells us in its publicity. You have everything from acrobats to knife-throwers, from stunt motorbike riders to clowns. The only obvious thing missing is a strongman, but then I suppose watching a steroid-pumped behemoth lift six times his body weight probably isn't as entertaining or impressive as it once was.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Hamlet (Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold)

Chosen as Clwyd Theatr Cymru artistic director Terry Hands's swansong before he steps down after 17 years in April, Hamlet is a triumph he should be rightly proud of.

Hands knows his Shakespeare: he was artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company between 1978-91 and brings all his experience into this one final production at Mold. And you can tell that his vision is to focus on the text and not dress it up with elaborate sets and costumes. The play is the play, and Shakespeare's words are what drives it.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Scuttlers (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

When you walk into the auditorium at the Royal Exchange Theatre for a performance of Scuttlers, you enter a different world. The in-the-round nature of the theatre makes everything it stages immersive for the audience to a certain degree, but as you get your ticket checked for Scuttlers, you'll need to step over or past various young lads lolling about in the aisles, maybe incapacitated through gin or simply too tired from work at the factories.

This is what live theatre is all about, of course - taking the audience to a different place or time, immersing them in the world of the characters. The fact the actors stay in character before the play begins, and during the intermission, gives much more power to the piece itself.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Y Tŵr (Galeri, Caernarfon)

William Gwenlyn Parry's classic Y Tŵr (The Tower) hasn't been performed for more than 15 years, and so this revival from Invertigo Theatre is much overdue, especially as the play is so well known across Wales, among those who remember the first production in the 1970s, those who saw the S4C film, and those who remember studying it at school.

A tower of over-sized building blocks dominates the simple but focused set. These blocks make up the titular tower, which itself represents the climb every man and woman must endure through life as they progress from childhood to adolescence to adulthood and ultimately old age.

At the start of the play an everyman and his everywoman come into the world as playful children, happy to simply mess about, chat and rib each other. They start out life without a care in the world, as do most of us: it is only the process of growing up which can deprive us of such innocence.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Celebrating talent in the Welsh arts - Wales Theatre Awards 2015

The talented winners of the Wales Theatre Awards 2015

Oh what a night! On Saturday, January 31st the grand ceremony for the Wales Theatre Awards 2015 took place at Sherman Cymru in Cardiff - and what a fantastic evening it was!

The awards aim to both recognise and promote the impressive talent that Wales had to offer in the world of the arts - and in particular theatre, opera and dance - over the preceding 12 months. In December I'd been asked very kindly by organiser Mike Smith to be a nominating critic for the awards' long-list, and apart from the fact I was very honoured and flattered to be invited, I also thought it was important to make sure North Wales was properly represented in the nominations. A lot goes on in South Wales, and in particular Cardiff, in the sphere of arts and culture, but there's also plenty going on "oop north" too which I believe does not get the recognition or praise it should.

After nominating for the long-list I was then asked if I would go down to Cardiff to take part in the round-table discussions to whittle the long-lists down to a short-list in each of the 17 categories. I was more than happy to go along and have my say on behalf of North Wales!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Wales Theatre Awards 2015 nominations announced

The shortlisted nominations for the 2015 Wales Theatre Awards were announced this evening in the Theatre Bar at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. The nominations are listed below, and the awards ceremony will take place on Saturday, January 31st, 2015 at Sherman Cymru, Cardiff.

Updated January 12th 2016 with the winners

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

High Society (Venue Cymru, Llandudno)

Archive: This review was first published on January 31, 2013 by the Daily Post

High Society has had a chequered history. It all began as a stage play in 1939 written by Philip Barry, but under the guise of The Philadelphia Story.

That was turned into a film the following year, also known as The Philadelphia Story, and then 16 years later came the Cole Porter musical film version, retitled High Society. And now it's back on the stage, but in musical form and still as High Society, at Llandudno's Venue Cymru.

It's a very pleasant tale of a New York socialite whose wedding plans start to go awry with the unexpected arrival of a handsome journalist as well as her ex-husband. There's really not very much more to the plot than that, and various predictable couplings, re-couplings and unrequited couplings either crash and burn, or take flight on the wind.

Rape of the Fair Country (Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold)

Archive: This review was first published on February 20, 2013 by the Daily Post

Alexander Cordell's Rape of the Fair Country is the first in a trilogy of books about the South Walian ironmaking family, the Mortymers.

The book has been adapted for the Clwyd Theatr Cymru stage by Manon Eames, who has created a production aimed squarely at those interested in social history and human drama.

When I attended the press night I was told Rape of the Fair Country was an historical epic, with the emphasis very much on the historical. Which is true. But to be honest, it's also important to underline the fact this play is epic, because the first act amounts to a bum-numbing 90 minutes, and after an all too brief 15-minute interval, act two ploughs on for a further hour and a quarter. This play is not for the fidgety or weak of bladder, so be warned!