Monday, 23 September 2019

Midlife Cowboy @ Pleasance Theatre

Midlife Cowboy @ Pleasance Theatre

If country music is about dramatizing the mundane, then Midlife Cowboy is country and western through and through. Written by Radio 4 comedian Tony Hawks, this new musical yee-haws its way to the Pleasance Theatre, but not our hearts.

The narrative is as mundane as they come, concerning a handful of Swindon residents and their local country and western club. It's led by a middle-aged couple whose marriage is facing difficulties, through a lack of children and potential infidelity. And their upcoming gala night performance piles on additional stress as they seek for new members and wrestle with their (lack of) talent during rehearsals. Drama!

It’s like some white middle class fantasy; small scale drama in small town Britain. The drama feels stiff and forced, not aided by a lack of energy in the performances. And Hawks' script has an absence of jokes, with tired innuendo and punchlines that fall flat, despite being explained by the characters in case we didn’t get them the first time. Later, the drama relies on a gay twist that’s played for laughs – what could have been a chance to challenge preconceptions is missed in lazy humour.

There is some fun to be had here with the jaunty tunes and lighthearted plot. The songs may be derivative, but they’re catchy enough and well performed by the five-strong cast alternating between various instruments as well as taking lead vocals. A few too many repetitive ballads tend to drag the pacing, however, and the lack of microphones leaves both singers and musicians exposed. A bit of editing would've tightened up this sagging cowboy.

Though largely in support roles, Georgina Field brings plenty of character and zaniness to the role of Penny, and James Thackeray shows off some strong vocals as Dan. Mainly, though, there’s not enough of a reason to care about these people or their relationships, and it all predictably ties up neatly in the end. As fluffy entertainment – and it’s not trying to be anything more – it’s enjoyable enough. But this cowboy with confidence is too bland to have us line dancing home.

2/5

Watch: Midlife Cowboy runs at the Pleasance Theatre until 6th October.

Photo: Adam Trigg

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Big: The Musical @ The Dominion Theatre

Big: The Musical @ The Dominion Theatre

It's fitting that everything about Big: The Musical has been super-sized: the programme, the venue, the production value. But the show itself - and the star cast - don't live up to the billing.

Based on the 1988 film starring Tom Hanks, the show fits neatly into the current 80s revival trend, from Stranger Things to IT and more. It's wholesome fun, a coming-of-age film blown out of proportion - literally. A young boy wishes to be big, a wish granted by a mysterious carnival game, allowing a kid to live in an adult world and urge us all to embrace our inner child. It's as typically 80s as they come - indeed, why are all parents in 80s culture so irresponsible?

Except this musical is far too shallow and soulless to fully explore any themes, no matter how family-friendly. John Weidman's book has a distinct lack of jokes, and those that are there don't land; David Shire's music - broadway toe-tappers meet 80s synths - is largely forgettable; and Morgan Young's direction is far too static. A few numbers feature Young's choreography, but they too fail to excite.

The set design (Simon Higlett) impresses, with great use of the revolving stage and towering video screens (with design by Ian William Galloway). Yet in the cavernous space of the Dominion, all is lost. The drama is, ironically, small, as are the performances. In the lead role Jay McGuiness (of The Wanted and Strictly fame) has a soft crooning voice and is an athletic dancer, but he's not quite leading man material. As love interest Susan, Kimberley Walsh (of Girls Aloud and Strictly fame) offers shaky vocals and a one dimensional delivery that misses the (minimal) comic potential of the lines. Matthew Kelly and Wendi Peters also feature.

In this world, even the adults act like children, dressed though they are in drab grey office-wear. They're mostly out-acted and out-danced by the cast of actual children - as best friend Billy, Jobe Hart deserves praise. On the whole, though, there's a criminal lack of energy on stage. Not even a defibrillator could jolt some life into this show.

The one scene everyone expects is the floor piano number. And it's cute, with some nice chemistry between McGuiness and Kelly. But it's hardly the show-stopping moment in a musical in dire need of one. An overly long first half leads to a show that drags and lacks dynamic range in its music, singing or narrative.

We watch musicals for their heightened drama and theatrical magic. But here we have a flat reflection of boring adult life. This Big is too big for its boots.

2/5

Watch: Big: The Musical runs at the Dominion Theatre until November 2nd.

Big: The Musical @ The Dominion Theatre

Big: The Musical @ The Dominion Theatre
Photos: Alastair Muir

Friday, 13 September 2019

Amsterdam @ Orange Tree Theatre

Amsterdam @ Orange Tree Theatre

Nowadays Amsterdam is known as a city of liberalism, of a diverse ethnic population, a thriving LGBT community. But the city has a dark history from during WWII - after all, it was the home of Anne Frank.

It's this dichotomy that Maya Arad Yasur's Amsterdam tackles, directed by Matthew Xia - his first production as Artistic Director of Actors Touring Company (co-producing with Theatre Royal Plymouth). The play has two parallel narratives linked together by, of all things, a gas bill - a bill that's gone unpaid from the '40s until now. In that time we witness prejudice and xenophobia across the generations, the legacy of the war.

It's in the storytelling that Amsterdam is unique. Four performers address the audience directly as they narrate the story in short fragments and snippets. Occasionally they'll ring a bell to signal a footnote or translation of non-English words - initially fun but eventually tiresome. The result is a dizzying, virtuosic display of interlocking lines and thoughts.

Yasur includes plenty of dry humour in her writing and isn't afraid to reveal inner thoughts and questions we would never vocalise. Amsterdam is a juxtaposition of shock and entertainment. What's clever too is the lack of dialogue, meaning the central protagonist - an Israeli female Jewish immigrant, typically 'other' - is left without a voice.

Yet for such a human subject matter, it's hard to empathise with the characters. That's due to the idiosyncratic delivery that seems to highlight the play's technical structure more than emotion. The pace is relentless and the fragmented lines are disorientating, making the plot difficult to follow. The narrators argue over tiny details but, despite their clear delivery, the play lacks dynamic range and emotive potency.

Instead, Amsterdam is a web of wordplay that makes us think - a little too much - rather than feel. It resonates, though, not only with the city's own history but that of current day Europe.

3/5

Watch: Amsterdam runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 12th October.

Amsterdam @ Orange Tree Theatre
Photo: Helen Murray

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

World's End @ The Kings Head Theatre


World's End @ The Kings Head Theatre

It’s funny how things can take you back. Films, music, food – they can all be indicative of a certain time and place. In World’s End, the debut play from writer James Corley, it’s the references to a video game that immediately transport me back to 1998 when the latest game in the Zelda series was released, taking me on an epic quest across a mysterious fantasy realm. The play may be set in that year with the political backdrop of the Kosovan war, but it’s the references to this game and the use of its music that set the scene for me more than anything.

Corley draws parallels with the game’s coming-of-age themes and his lead characters – two young men who explore their sexuality as they bond over Nintendo. But life isn’t as simple as saving the princess. Ben (Tom Milligan) is a nervous, fidgeting presence with a stammer, patronised by his overbearing mother Viv (Patricia Potter). Besnik (Mirlind Bega) has an equally overbearing father in Ylli (Nikolaos Brahimllari), who doesn’t agree with his son's Anglicised, homosexual behaviour and is passionately embittered about the war in his home country of Kosovo.

The game’s character travels through time from a child to an adult in order to save the world; equally Ben and Besnik are forced to grow up in a world fraught with adult dangers like war and homophobia. Yet the play takes place entirely in the two family’s flats, a safe haven away from the outside world. Video games offer an extra dimension and become an important element not only in forging relationships, but in providing escapism. Where gaming too often hits the news headlines as it's blamed for violence and gun crimes, Corley’s play offers a positive message – here, gaming is the very antithesis of war.

The Kosovan war is little more than a backdrop to Corley’s main focus: the family drama. As such, Besnik and Ylli feel a little underwritten compared to their British counterparts. But it’s the relationship between Ben and Viv that provides the play’s most tender moments. There’s a great dynamic range between the two actors as their frustrations at one another boil over into arguments, before settling into apologetic compassion, reflecting the very tangible difficulties of two people living together in a one bed flat and the push-pull tension of their inter-locking lives. Both Milligan and Potter are excellent in their respective roles: Milligan likeable as the stuttering Ben who’s not as na├»ve as his mother suspects, Potter devastating in the play’s final moments as she’s torn between her own moral views and allowing her son independence.

There’s no fairytale ending here, no magical Triforce to put the world right again. But sometimes, it takes a little fantasy for us to truly find ourselves.

4/5

Watch: World’s End runs at The Kings Head Theatre until 21st September.


Photo: Bettina Adela