Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Iliffe’

Remember the name of playwright Sophie Swithinbank. Based on this fine new play, you’ll be hearing a lot more of her. While you’re at it, remember Corey Montague-Sholay and William Robinson too. These two young actors give mesmerising performances bringing Sophie’s words to life in Matthew Iliffe’s stunning production. This was a superb night at the theatre.

Fifteen-year-old schoolboys Mark & Darren seem polar opposites but they have some things in common. Both are lonely, Mark because he’s new to the school, and Darren because of his behaviour. They both have single parents – Darren’s mum has died and Mark’s mum is divorced – but Darren is in an abusive home and Mark a loving one. Their unlikely friendship is also based on attraction, which draws the hitherto very conservative Mark into Darren’s devil-may-care world.

With just a bench (doubling as a seesaw) in the playing area, they fizz with teenage energy and angst as they move around and on it. Darren plays power games and Mark tries to resist being dragged down by Darren’s reckless, anarchic, rebellious attitude, but the chemistry means neither is in control of their feelings. Occasionally, we jump forward to see how this has played out into adulthood.

It’s only 75 minutes long, but it has the depth of plays twice as long. These are fully drawn characters and their spiky dialogue and animated exchanges have great authenticity. Director Matthew Iliffe has brought the story to vivid life in a finely detailed, tense production where every expression and every movement is as important as the words these two speak. In the intimacy of this small theatre it’s enthralling.

The Finborough Theatre blazing a trail for new writing again. I’m told there may be a TV adaptation, hopefully with the same actors, so look out for that, but I’m so glad I saw such an extraordinary piece live.

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This show came just two years after Lionel Bart’s mega-hit Oliver. Based on a folk ballad about a Liverpool prostitute, featuring unions, dock strikes and political boycotts of cargos of arms destined for misuse in Africa, I’m not sure it had ‘hit’ written all over it. The great British public had other ideas, though, and it ran for 1.5 years, though this is the first professional revival 55 years later. I did see an NYT production 27 years ago, though, in which this theatre’s AD apparently appeared! The Finborough certainly gets my gold star for reviving it at last.

Maggie’s childhood sweetheart Casey decided not to follow in his dad’s unionist footsteps and goes off to be a seaman. When he returns, she’s a professional woman, an empathetic character, and they struggle to rekindle their relationship, as Casey struggles to re-establish himself in the docks. It’s a very working class story, anchored in Liverpool, with a book by local boy Alun Owen. Designer Verity Johnson works wonders conjuring up a dockside setting with some pulleys, steps and crates and I thought it had an authenticity of both location and period, and decent accents.

The story is a bit of a cocktail of ingredients, as is the musical style. If you’re being generous, you might say eclectic; a less positive take would be a bit of a rag-bag, including ballads and knees-ups with snatches of the Mersey sound of the period.  It’s played gamely on solo piano, occasionally breathlessly, by MD Harry Brennan. After a shaky start, Matthew Iliffe’s production gets into its stride with some fine choreography from Sam Spencer-Lane and an enthusiastic ensemble led by Kara Lily Hayworth as Maggie and James Darch as Casey.

It’s amazing the things you find out when you’re reading around a show, on this occasion that Judy Garland, a friend of Bart’s, recorded an EP of four songs from it!

Great to see it staged professionally after all these years. Unmissable for historians and lovers of musical theatre.

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Well, that was fun! I was underwhelmed by the 2003 West End production with Amanda Holden and Maureen Lipman; it was all a bit too slick, going through the motions. That is the last thing you could say about this lovely fringe revival – it sparkles and fizzes and lifts you up as you smile your way through two hours. I loved it.

It’s another screen-to-stage story. This one took 35 years to get from film to Broadway, only another year to cross the Atlantic, but 12 years for this first revival. I never thought it was particularly good material for a musical, but this small-scale production has changed my mind. Millie arrives in New York City in the roaring 20’s intent on bagging a rich husband. Reality bites and she finds herself in Mrs Meers ‘hotel’ with a lot of other young hopefuls. Mrs Meers provides more than mere (sorry!) accommodation as she’s involved in the white slave trade, shipping girls East with the help of her Chinese collaborators. Millie has her sights on her boss Trevor but her heart belongs to salesman Jimmy. Her newly arrived room-mate Dorothy gets the attentions of both Trevor and Jimmy, much to the consternation of Millie, but it all ends happily. Obviously.

Andrew Riley’s simple set leaves plenty of room (well, just about enough) for Sam Spencer Lane’s terrific choreography and his costumes are a treat. For a newcomer to musical theatre, Matthew Iliffe’s direction is masterly. Chris Guard’s 5-piece band (a bit odd, looking away from the stage and audience) played with gusto but never drowned out the unamplified vocals. Francesca Lara Gordon handled the triple demands of acting, dancing and singing Millie brilliantly, with particularly fine vocals. Both of her leading men – Ben Stacey as Jimmy and Samuel Harris as Trevor – and co-lead Sarah-Marie Maxwell as Dorothy shone in their roles. Steph Parry was an absolute hoot as Mrs Meers, getting many more laughs than her lines contained with her Chinese accent, facial expressions and postures. Alex Codd and Anthony Starr pulled off the task of speaking in Chinese (with surtitles!) superbly and there’s a lovely cameo from Christina Meehan as Trevor’s battleaxe secretary Peg. Charlie Johnson and Chipo Kureya were great in all of their roles. George Hinson and Thomas Inge made up this small but faultless young ensemble.

Whatever you think of the show, and some have questioned whether its worthy of revival, you will love this fresh, energetic, tongue-in-cheek, witty production by a new breed of musical theatre professionals, as promising as any I’ve ever seen. The spontaneous standing ovation said it all.

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