Posts Tagged ‘Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester’

I’ve waited 33 years for a revival of this show, which I first saw at The Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester in 1982, with Tom Courtney no less in the title role. It transferred speedily to The Aldwych in London, though it lost something in the new space, but hasn’t been seen since. After seeing it as part of the Finborough’s occasional Celebrating British Music Theatre series, I’m baffled as to why. It’s charming and funny (though more than a touch politically incorrect for today’s audience) and has some terrific tunes. It’s crying out for a bigger production and a longer run.

There aren’t that many shows based on a comic strip and this may be the only British one. Reg Smythe’s iconic character started in the northern edition of the Daily Mirror but eventually swept the world, featuring in 1700 newspapers in 14 different languages. With a book and lyrics by actor Trevor Peacock, who went on to create some classic TV characters, and music and lyrics by former Animal Alan Price, it’s very true to its source, capturing the world of work-shy Andy and his put-upon wife Flo, but revolving around the marriage of friend Elvis Horsepole to Raquel Scrmmett. Some of the sexist and misogynistic sentiments caused gasps from the audience, but they are what they were. There are lots of great tunes, most notably the ensemble pieces We’re Waiting, Good Evening and It’s Better To Be In Simple Harmony, which I recognised instantly and was singing all the way home (alone in the car, thankfully).

It’s a tough call to stage this on another play’s set in a tiny theatre, and it sometimes seems a bit cramped and crowded on stage, but Jake Smith pulls it off and the shows wins you over with it’s nostalgic charm, cheeky humour and above all uplifting music. They’ve assembled an excellent ensemble for just eleven performances. David Muscat is excellent as singing-narrator Geordie, as Price was in the original production. Roger Alborough and Lynn Robertson Hay are great as Andy and Flo. Paddy Navin brings the house down as Mrs Scrimmett, as does Terence Frisch as her husband, when he transforms from hen-pecked and mute to the man-in-charge during his daughter’s wedding.

I had a hunch it was a little gem waiting to be rediscovered and the Finborough has proven this conclusively.


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I saw this play about the treatment of gay people in Uganda at the end of a week when the Anglican church was again pandering to the homophobia of African Anglicans; beat that for good timing. I was very impressed by playwright Chris Urch’s first play Land of My Fathers. This second play more than fulfils that promise; it’s stunning.

The relationship between young doctor Sam and student Dembe is the heart of the play. The problem is they are in Uganda where homosexuality is illegal and vigilantes out those they think are gay and subsequently persecute, even kill, them and ostracise and torment their families. Dembe is from a religious family, close to his twin sister Wummie and elder brother Joe. Their father has recently died and Joe has become pastor of their church. Family friend Mama is like a surrogate mother who has always thought her daughter Naome and Dembe were intended for one another. Sam is from Northern Ireland but has a Ugandan mother, hence his move to Uganda to practice medicine in her homeland.

The outing and persecution of gays begins and this tests relationships and challenges loyalties to family, friends and religion. A family friend is outed and killed and Joe refuses to officiate at his funeral for fear of reprisals. It’s hard to differentiate between attitudes and actions determined by fear and those determined by genuine beliefs and it becomes a complex web of responses to the horrific circumstances these people find themselves in.

Simply staged by Ellen McDougall in the round, the intimacy brings extraordinary audience engagement; you often feel part of the debate, having to resist the temptation to respond yourself. This is largely due to six brilliantly passionate performances. When Sule Rimi as Joe is preaching, you are the congregation and its riveting. In Julian Moore-Cook’s Sam and Fiston Barek’s Dembe’s more intimate moments, the relationship is so believable you feel uncomfortably voyeuristic. Faith Omole has real sibling chemistry with her stage brothers, Faith Alabi is brilliantly convincing as largely mute Naome and Jo Martin has great presence and charisma as Mama. Three of the cast are new since its run in Manchester last April, but on their second performance you’d have thought they’d all been together for a long time. Wonderful performances.

A well written play on an important subject, impeccably staged and superbly performed. What else can you ask for? GO!


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This stage adaptation by poet Simon Armitage takes (Greek) Homer and (Roman) Virgil’s poems, written 600 years apart, as its sources. It reduces the characters to a handful of Greeks, a handful of Trojans and four gods and concentrates on the personal stories of the opposing sides and it works very well indeed.

A seller of nick-nacks who poses as the god Zeus for the tourists at the archaeological site that was once Troy acts as narrator; this is a clever idea which adds much humour to proceedings. The war has been going on for ten years and the frustration of both sides at the stalemate is obvious as we move between encampments. Odysseus sends Achilles friend Patroclus into combat, posing as Achilles, and his death sends Achilles into a rage with his own people and intent on revenge against Troy’s Hector, who killed him, and it’s these two brilliantly staged fights which form the tragic core of the play.

I’m not sure why he cut Achilles death and wrote out Helen’s Greek husband Menelaus altogether, but I’m not sure it detracted. An excellent cast, with Richard Bremmer shining as Zeus and Jake Fairbrother a welcome newcomer (to me), deliver Armitage’s sparkling dialogue well, but it’s a bit unfair on them to give star billing to a model’s stage debut (and she has a song but can’t sing). Nick Bagnall’s staging is fine, very much at home in the Globe, but it’s the play itself that shines. Everything else is subservient to the writing. It’s great storytelling.

The Globe audience is becoming ever more challenging to regular theatregoers and my welcoming of theatrical virgins & novices and visitors was stretched to its limit by the amount of talking, eating and other distractions. I left wishing I’d seen it at the Royal Exchange in Manchester before its transfer.

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This play isn’t set in that Somalian town; in fact, it’s set in a London secondary school and has nothing to do with Mogadishu or Somalia at all. What it is, though, is very well written, very topical, very thought(and debate)provoking and very entertaining. The fact it is the playwright’s first play makes this all the more astonishing.

A white female teacher initially refuses to report the violent act of a black pupil with whom she empathises because she doesn’t want to get him into trouble. The Head persuades her to do so, and this unleashes a counter-story of racist abuse spun by the boy with the collaboration of his friends. By the interval, my companion had taken sides and we had a heated debate about the unfairness of the teacher’s treatment. In the second half, the play achieves an extraordinary balance by revealing the back stories and refuses to take sides. The consequences of the event itself develop a life of their own in the hands of people and organisation who know neither the teacher nor the boy.

It may be some time before we see writing as good as this again. The situation, characterisation and dialogue ooze authenticity, no doubt because writer Vivienne Franzmann has been a secondary school teacher for 12 years. Actor-turned-Director Matthew Dunster has staged it brilliantly with just a few props inside movable wire fencing surrounding the school playground. There is a uniformly fine ensemble of 12 actors, from which I would single out Malachi Kirby’s assured and passionate Jason and Hammed Animashaun as his crucial (comic) sidekick Jordan.

A triumph for original producers the Royal Exchange Manchester and the Lyric Hammersmith. Don’t miss it.

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