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Posts Tagged ‘Akiya Henry’

I’m not sure why I initially decided not to see this. Much of the hype revolved around Stranger Things actor David Harbour, and I’ve never seen that show. Bill Pullman had impressed me in All My Sons at the Old Vic, but that didn’t clinch it, neither did the positive reviews. Then I had a change of heart in its penultimate week with free evenings to fill, and I’m lucky I did. Late to the party, but I got there before it ended.

It’s a very dark comedy about madness and death. 70-year-old Daniel has emphysema. His son Michael has been looking after him since his own discharge from an ‘asylum’ after his mother had died of cancer. Struggling to cope, hospice nurse Lillian is appointed. She has to put up with cantankerous Daniel and needy Michael, but does so with skill and empathy. Then successful brother Nedward arrives to try and sort out Daniel’s financial affairs, closely followed by obnoxious sister Pam, determined to get more than her fair share, even if it means shafting Michael. Neither sibling have been near until now, so Michael is very much the put upon brother.

Lots of family history is revealed, and plenty of skeletons come out of cupboards. Michael’s ongoing mental health is questioned. He learns some of what happened whilst he was in hospital. Litigious Pam turns against Lillian as well as Michael. Nedward tries to keep the peace. Daniel stirs things up, for his own entertainment it seems. When Daniel dies, Michael leaves, at last, liberated, leaving what’s left of his dysfunctional family behind.

Theresa Rebeck’s piece is well written and well structured, new facts continuously emerging to illuminate the family history, with excellent characterisation. Bill Pullman is sensationally good as Daniel, with a wicked glint in his eye virtually the whole time. Michael is a real emotional roller-coaster of a role and David Harbour is passionate bringing this larger-than-life character alive. Lillian is the only truly likeable character and Akiya Henry conveys her caring nature, investing her with bucketloads of empathy. Pam is a monster who you hate from the moment she arrives, a tribute to Sinead Matthews. It’s a while since I saw Stephen Wight on stage and it’s good to be reminded of his talent for understated charm. Here, he develops warmth as his sympathy with his brother grows.

The Ambassadors Theatre is a small enough venue to give the play the intimacy it requires. Frankie Bradshaw’s uber-realistic set surprises us by moving outside as the story unfolds. Director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel’s staging brings this all together to deliver the drama and humour in equal measure.

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Six days in and we already have the first treat of 2012, back at the Vaudeville where Potted Panto, the last treat of 2011, was. This Bristol Old Vic production by Tom Morris is about as far as you can get from the big show values of Shrek & Matilda and the traditionality that is panto. The Walker children go off on their own by boat to an island in the lake to play. Here they fight the pirates of the Blackett sisters, who they eventually become real chums with. Even the adults, Walker mother and Blackett uncle are caught up in this imaginary world of play.

Arthur Ransom’s early 20th century story is adapted well by Helen Edmundson and given a somewhat appropriate homespun production on a simple stage where the props are assembled from everyday objects (the parrot is a tri-colour feather duster and pliers!) and the sound effects created live on stage. There’s a charming score from Neil Hannon (aka The Divine Comedy) played by on-stage musicians doubling up as actors in what has now become a familiar style. The children are played by adults.

It takes a while for your imagination to engage and your inner child to emerge, but by the end you really wish you could go back to that den in the bushes with your bestest friend and play. For it is imagination that is the essence of this show, and it completely captures what happens (well, used to happen) when children occupy themselves for hours on end in worlds they create in their heads. 32-year old actor Stewart Wright really is youngest brother Roger, those ribbons waving are a lake and the feather duster and pliers that talk really is a parrot. There is a beautiful sequence at the end where the audience join in with the ‘play’ to assist the boats on their journey.

Richard Holt, Katie Moore, Akita Henry and Stewart Walker are terrific as the Walker children, with great chemistry between them. Celia Adams and Sophie Walker are lovely as the Blackett sisters. Seven other actors play all other roles, every instrument, sing and create the sound effects. They look like they’re having as much fun as you are and it’s all very infectious.

It was the quietest family audience I’ve been in for some time, which might have something to do with their ages and backgrounds, but in my opinion has more to do with the fact that they, like me, were lost in this imaginary world, oblivious to all around them. I remember the moment when 1100 people gasped in the Olivier Theatre as a puppet horse was about to be shot, and you get the same feeling here – theatre really is magic.

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