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Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Sheader’

Almost twenty years ago, American writer Ken Ludwig (best known for Lend Me A Tenor) and British director Mike Ockrent had the bizarre idea of staging a ‘new’ Gershwin musical. Using Girl Crazy as their starting point they created a new book and added Gershwin songs from elsewhere. Not exactly a ‘jukebox’ musical, but close. They may well have inadvertently given us the best musical the Gershwin’s (n)ever wrote.

Bobby is a banker (there, I’ve said it!) who yearns to be a Broadway boy. To divert him from his attempts to join the Zangler Follies, his haridan of a mother sends him to the Wild West to foreclose on a theatre that has defaulted on its mortgage. Of course, he falls in love with both the theatre and the owner’s daughter and sends for the Follies girls (on their vacation) to stage a show with the local rednecks to rescue the theatre.  Cue lots of east coast  meets wild west culture clash and knowing jokes about how gambling will never catch on in Nevada.

Peter McKintosh has created a terrific set which starts with the neon lights of  Broadway but soon moves to the dusty streets and saloon bars of the old west; a few real horses tied up outside the saloon and you’d think you were there. Timothy Sheader’s staging and Stephen Mear’s choreography sparkle with ingenuity and wit and there’s a fine ensemble of hapless cowboys and pretty chorus girls. It’s packed full of Gershwin tunes, from solo gems like Someone to Watch Over Me, Embraceable You and They Can’t Take that Away From Me to big chorus numbers like the show-stopping I Got Rhythm, which closes the first act leaving you desperate for the second to start. The book is very funny and the drunken scene where the real Zangler and his imposter meet is a comic masterpiece.

Sean Palmer is terrific as Bobby and Clare Foster is delightful in her transition from tomboy to lovestruck girlfriend. David Burt and Harriet Thorpe give us great cameos as Zangler and Bobby’s mum. The band is as big and as brash as it should be when necessary, but plays tunes delicately when needs be.

This season, the OAT has gone from desert island crash site to Hogarthian London to Broadway / the Wild West and all three show have been hits. The new policy of a more varied repertoire is paying off and the space is proving it can just about stage anything. Now all they have to do is replace the caterers! Miss this at your peril.

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The Open Air Theatre’s new artistic director, Timothy Sheader, has always made his intentions to move this lovely venue on from it’s long-standing ‘Three Shakespeare’s and  Musical’ formula very clear. Last year he gave us a chilling ‘The Crucible’ which proved how great drama can work in this space. He also seems to be thinking more about what shows suit the venue and last year’s Into The Woods was a perfect choice. Now we have Lord of the Flies doing both – another drama which works well in a space which is nigh on perfect for the play.

The stage is a beach where the remains of a plane crash are strewn – the fusilage spewing luggage and a wing in the trees. There’s an engine in the bushes bordering the beach and another in the auditorium. Smoke still emanates from the wreckage; this crash has just happened. It’s a stunning design by Jon Bausor (who created the extraordinary Kursk at the Young Vic) which uses the space brilliantly. You’re impressed before a word is spoken.

Nigel Williams’ adaptation is a little flawed, mostly because he rushes the first part, getting to the descent into savagery too quickly. Though it might be a little slow for a young audience, showing how the power struggles unfold and the first reaction of children to a world without grown-ups seems to me to be a crucial part of the explanation of the decline. Otherwise it’s faithful to the book, with a little updating such that we can’t be in the second world war (which I think is what William Golding intended) and the arrival of a helicopter rather than a plane at the end, which made more sense.

There is fine acting from a very young company who look every bit the age of their characters. The movement (co-director Liam Steel and fight director Kate Waters) adds much to the effectiveness of the staging. There’s also music and a soundscape by Nick Powell & Mike Walker which makes a big contribution to creating atmosphere and driving the story forward.

I studied the book for something that used to be called ‘O’ level many centuries ago; if only we could have seen a thrilling interpretation like this, I might have done better than my mediocre Grade 4!

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I was seriously over-excited about this evening. I was convinced that a show and a theatre had never been so well matched. I’d booked for the final performance and as it approached I began to get worried that if it was rained off I’d never see it, so I accepted a free ticket for a matinée on a sunny day last week as an insurance policy – the Open Air Theatre is not a daytime venue, but I was thinking ‘better than nothing’. In the end, there was just the tiniest sprinkle towards the end of Act I which, if I believed in god, I would consider his little joke.

Well, I’m thrilled to report that it exceeded expectations. It’s a wonderful reinterpretation of one of Sondheim’s cleverest shows. In the first half, the tales of Cinderella, Jack & the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel are woven together with the tale of a baker and his wife desperate for a child. It all ends happily at the interval, then the giantess decides to get her own back.

Designer Soutra Gilmour has created a multi-level set of walkways with lots of entrances by stairs and ladders which gives the show a terrific pace (even if your eyes are darting everywhere). Director Timothy Sheader’s idea of making the narrator a child – the baker’s child, in fact – makes so much sense and gives the darker second half so much more emotional impact.

They’ve assembled a great cast. Hannah Waddingham is unrecognisable as the witch – even when she turns back into a woman, because of the jet black hair; she sang Last Midnight like it was the last time ever (maybe it was, but lets hope not). I absolutely loved the way Beverly Rudd turned Little Red Ridinghood into a cheeky tomboy excited by the wolf’s sexual magnetism. As always, Jenna Russell sings beautifully and balances her character’s determination and sadness with ease. I loved the Russel Brand style princes of Michael Xavier and Simon Thomas whose trademark synchronised entrance and exit prances make you smile every time. Mark Hadfield is a weaker singer than the rest of the leads, but he makes up for this with a passionate acting performance as the baker.

When everything comes right (as it so often has here) there is nothing more magical than a musical at The Open Air Theatre and this really was the show that had to be seen here. Now they’ve stopped A Midsummer Night’s Dream as an annual outing, maybe we can have Into The Woods annually for a while. Please!

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When I heard that the Open Air Theatre were going to break with tradition and stage this intense drama, I thought they were very misguided. How wrong was I?!

Arthur Miller’s timeless piece about the late 17th century Salem witch trials with parallels to the 1952 McCarthy witch hunt is a cracking drama, particularly in the second half when the trials are taking place. It’s simply staged on an elevated platform which represents the wall of a house on its side, characters entering upwards through it’s doors & windows. Surrounded by trees which last night were moving eerily in the chill June wind and much of the time by a silent ‘chorus’ of girls who become the hysterical force which convicts many innocents.

They’ve assembled a very impressive cast for this short run. You want to give Christopher Fulford’s Reverend Parris a slap across the face for being so foolish. Oliver Ford Davies has real authority and gravitas as the Deputy-Governor. Emily Taffe is a very creepy Abigail with revealing changes of expression you think only you can see. Susan Engel’s Rebecca starts as a respected matriarch and ends dignified despite her erroneous conviction. You want to cheer Patrick Godfrey’s defiant Giles as he beats the system, even in death. Philip Cumbus’ Hale makes a very believable transition from honest broker to angry champion of justice. Emma Cuniffe and Patrick O’Kane both have shaky starts but come into their own in the second half’s tragedy.

As the sun sets and the air becomes more chilly, the drama becomes much more intense and by the end you’re not sure if you’re shivering because of the weather or the drama or both. This is a triumph for Timothy Sheader and the Open Air Theatre, best known for comedy and musicals, and opens up all sorts of possibilities for the future. I’m thinking Greek Tragedy. Medea please!

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