The Last Five Years

The Last Five Years is a musical with book, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. It originally premiered in 2001 and is here performed in the Rhoda McGaw Theatre in Woking, in a collaboration between Showdown Theatre Arts and Baltimore School for the Arts. It has been produced by Carli Jones and directed by Donald Hicken, with musical direction by Michael Sheppard, who also plays piano during the show.

The show looks at a relationship over the past five years, with a difference: one character, Jamie, tells the story from the beginning, while the other, Cathy, tells it in reverse. The two meet in the middle, singing a duet at their wedding. This premise is original , but it means that we lose out on the interaction between the pair.

Nevertheless, this is a moving show with strong songs, and the two characters are well-rounded and complex. Lee Thomas plays author Jamie, arrogant at first but more sympathetic and rounded towards the end of the show. Carli Jones plays Cathy, a more immediately likeable character but at times a bit of a pushover. Both actors sing superbly, particularly Jones, whose voice is stunningly powerful.

I don’t know if I’d describe The Last Five Years as a favourite musical. However, it is a well-made show with plenty to recommend it.

Unicorn Theatre: Backstage Tour

Unicorn Theatre

Unicorn Theatre (Photo: Steve Cadman on Flickr)

Okay, so I know the Unicorn Theatre is supposed to be a children’s theatre, but I’ve enjoyed several productions there myself – Othello: The Remix, Mister Holgado, and Cuckoo, to name just three. I also love exploring backstage, so I was happy to sign up for the Unicorn’s backstage tour.

It’s a quiet time for the theatre at the moment, as the new season has only just begun, so there were only three of us on the tour. We were taken around the theatre by technician Matt, who was very informative and friendly.

The tour began in the foyer, where we learned about the history of the theatre. Founded by Caryl Jenner, the Unicorn began as a travelling theatre in the back of a van in 1947. This building at London Bridge was purpose-built during the 2000s, and there is a foyer and cafe as well as two auditoriums. We moved into the Clore auditorium first, which is the smaller of the two spaces within the theatre. The current show, Seesaw, is aimed at very young children, and it was fun to watch the staff arrange the space for the next performance, rearranging the sand on-stage. This is a “black-box” space and as such is very versatile.

The tour took us to the dock, where pieces of scenery are brought in and sometimes built, followed by the dressing rooms and the Green Room. We also got to see the costume department, where many of the more unusual costumes (such as the monster outfit for Not Now, Bernard!) are created. I was intrigued to see that, among the boxes marked “Buttons”, “Socks” and “Ties”, there was a box marked “Dead Animals”!

Going higher up, we entered the larger Weston Auditorium by crossing the stage and taking a seat on the blue benches. We learned about how the space can be used – it can be a traditional proscenium arch theatre, or the front stage-level seats can be removed and the performance can be brought forward as a curved thrust stage. We got to climb up to the Circle – which is only open to audiences during particularly busy performances – and even higher, to the Upper Circle, which is reserved for technicians only. We were shown the workings of the theatre – the lighting and the rigging for scenery.

One of the best parts of the tour was saved until last. We got to go up to the roof garden, which is normally reserved for staff. This small paved area has amazing views over London, and it is also home to two pet rabbits, one of which was actually used in performances of The Velveteen Rabbit.

This concluded our tour. I had a great time and I learned much more about the Unicorn. If you have kids, do take them to this theatre. If you don’t – who cares, go anyway, it’s great!

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View from the Unicorn’s roof

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Rabbit!

Mother Courage and Her Children

Bertolt Brecht’s epic play Mother Courage and Her Children, about one woman and her struggle to survive during wartime, is currently being performed in Woolwich, within the Royal Arsenal area. This newly-regenerated location, crucial in the context of the history of warfare, is the perfect setting for this engrossing and clever production.

The production is the result of a collaboration between adventurous theatre company Teatro Vivo and the Greenwich & Lewisham Young People’s Theatre (GLYPT). The combination of professional cast and community chorus members works extremely well in this production, because of the nature of warfare, which encompasses soldiers and civilians alike.

Mother Courage was written during the 1930s, not long before the start of the Second World War – though Brecht did not know that at the time. He wanted to warn the country about what could happen – but he was too late, and it is doubtful that anyone would have listened anyway. His play stands as one of the most important works dealing with war.

Audience members are required to meet at the Royal Arsenal Gatehouse in Beresford Square, a stone’s throw from Woolwich Arsenal DLR station. The location is clearly signposted with a “Box Office” sign. Sometimes, it can be quite tricky to locate the right place when attending theatre in a non-traditional space, so I really appreciated being able to find the location so easily. We were divided into groups, and were each given an armband to wear. These armbands denoted our “role” during the show – as we were taken to the location of the first scene by the Citizen Journalist (Hazel Bracken) we were asked about our roles. I found this great fun – I was part of the “trade” group, and enjoyed the banter between the audience and the cast members, as the soldiers asked us what we were trading, and if we could get them some supplies! This introductory few minutes really helped us relax and feel part of the piece. The play, when it began, flowed seamlessly on from this casual conversation.

The play took the form of an outdoor promenade performance (luckily the weather was good), which worked very well surrounded by the old buildings and history of the Royal Arsenal. We were usually required to move around after every scene, gradually working our way up to the edge of the river. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Brecht: I wouldn’t describe him as a favourite playwright, but something keeps drawing me back to his work. However, his unique and distinctive style really works in the context of this production – for instance, his habit of announcing new scenes to the audience.

As the action of the play takes place outdoors and in public, I was worried in case the noise distracted me from the action, but for the overwhelming majority of the time I was completely engrossed in the production. This had a lot to do with the quality of the acting: Denise Orita made a convincing and determined Mother Courage, with Tomi Ogbaro and Dane Stephens superb as her two sons; Jamie Hind also impressed as her daughter Kattrin, particularly as her role involved no speaking. Mark Stevenson as the Sergeant and Chaplain, James Traherne as the Recruiter and General, and Michael Wagg as the Cook, not to mention Kas Darley as Yvette, completed the talented cast. Chorus members also played various roles and added to the general atmosphere of the play.

This is a powerful play about one woman’s struggle to survive along with her children. It is a testament to the cost of war: at the end of the play, enhanced by the darkened sky, Mother Courage trundles on alone. A memorable end to a superb production.

Innocence and Experience

Innocence and Experience is an intimate piece of theatre which takes ten songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams, written to poems by William Blake, and uses it to tell the story of a couple, the Tenor and the Oboist, who are unable to conceive. Using puppetry, the piece shows how the pair’s imagination creates a child, representing their difficult journey through the adoption process.

The title of the show obviously references Blake’s famous poetry collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience. In the context of the piece, the puppet child can be said to represent innocence, while the struggles of the couple to conceive and then to make it through the adoption process represent experience.

The couple’s plight was beautifully conveyed, with both actors giving honest and heartfelt performances that said so much even though their characters were wordless (except for the lines of Blake poetry sung by the Tenor). The words and music proved an ideal choice for this piece, with one poem, “Infant Joy”, being particularly relevant.

In many ways the star of the piece was the puppet child. Two wonderfully talented puppeteers manipulated this small child, bringing him to life in an entirely convincing way. Seeing the baby’s relationship with his on-stage “parents”, it was easy to forget that he was not made of flesh and blood.

This little gem of a piece was created by Indomitable Productions. Based on the quality of Innocence and Experience, I will certainly be looking out for anything else by this company.

The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd

As a fan of D.H. Lawrence’s novels, I was intrigued to hear that he also wrote a play, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, and that it would be staged in the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. I took advantage of the £10 Under 30 ticket scheme and the new ability to select your own seat – much better than the old method of queuing up from half an hour before the show just to get a decent seat.

The play is set in the mining community of Nottingham, where Mrs Holroyd struggles to cope in the face of her husband’s behaviour: getting drunk, spending money, bringing home not-very-respectable ladies, and being violent. She wishes he were dead, and that she could run away with her younger but more responsible neighbour, who is in love with her. But when she gets what she wants, is she happy?

The play skilfully examines the complexities of love: Lizzie Holroyd wants to leave her husband, yet it is clear that she still loves and cares for him. Similarly, her feelings towards her young neighbour are complex. Ellie Piercy gives a stunning performance: worn down with care, she still experiences emotional turmoil – the expression on her face when her husband returns home drunk tells us everything she is feeling. Gyuri Sarossy manages to make his character, Charlie Holroyd, sympathetic, more than just a drunk and violent miner. Polly Hemingway also gives a powerful performance as Holroyd’s mother, a woman hardened to suffering after losing several sons down the mine.

The small, in-the-round space of the Orange Tree perfectly suits this play. The final scene in particular, when Mrs Holroyd and her mother-in-law wash Holroyd’s body to prepare it for burial, is almost unbearably intimate. Moving and memorable.

Annie Get Your Gun

Annie Get Your Gun is one of those musicals that few people have probably heard of, even though they will almost certainly be able to recognise some of the songs. A new production is currently touring the UK, and I went to see it at the New Wimbledon Theatre.

With music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and a book by Dorothy and Herbert Fields, the original production premiered on Broadway in 1946, followed by a film version in 1950. It is a fictionalised version of the life of Annie Oakley, star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and tells the story of her rise to fame and her love for fellow sharpshooter Frank Butler.

As Annie, Emma Williams is brilliant: hugely likeable with a gauche charm, she has a fantastic singing voice and handles the physical aspects of the role with aplomb. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for her co-star Jason Donovan (Frank Butler). I thought that his voice wasn’t very good, and he lacked the necessary presence and charisma to overcome this. Norman Pace puts in a decent turn as Buffalo Bill, and Lorna Want and Yiftach Mizrahi are also strong in a sub-plot involving two young lovers.

The music is charming, with standouts such as “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)”, “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, and my favourite, “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun”. It is performed with the backing of an on-stage orchestra. The set was clearly built on a budget, consisting of a circus tent with minimal props, and announced scene changes just in case the lack of set left the audience in any doubt as where we were meant to be. However, this didn’t really bother me – the quality of the performances matter much more to me than having a flashy set, and in the majority of cases the performances were top-notch.

It might not be perfect, but this production of Annie Get Your Gun is entertaining and amusing, and well worth spending time on.

Fully Committed

The original production of Fully Committed premiered at the Menier Chocolate Factory ten years ago, and is being revived for the theatre’s ten-year anniversary. The play, written by Becky Mode and directed by Mark Setlock (who performed in the original production), is set in the basement of a hit restaurant in New York. The only character we see on stage is an out-of-work actor, left alone to tend the phones in the face of irate customers, angry waiters, missing colleagues and the demands of friends and family.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this piece at first – I wasn’t expecting there to be only one actor on stage, and that he would be responsible for playing all of the characters. Once I settled down and got into the production, however, I was full of respect for the skill of actor Kevin Bishop. He is incredible in the role, never missing a beat as he switches from one character to another, and has a brilliant array of voices (my favourite was Bryce, Naomi Campbell’s assistant). He is also incredibly likeable, and you sympathise with him as he struggles under pressure and tries to juggle his responsibilities.

After a confusing (at least, for me) start, the play grows into something with surprising depth and more particularly a great deal of comedy. Definitely one to see if you want a good laugh.