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The Stage Critic Search 2016: Finalist’s reviews

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Below you’ll find the reviews written by all 12 of the regional finalists in The Stage Critic Search 2016, our competition to find the nation’s best undiscovered theatre critics.

Each of the 12 shortlisted reviewers has, over the last couple of weeks, received mentoring from a leading theatre critic. This year’s mentors included Maddy Costa (Dialogue), Thom Dibdin (The Stage), Roger Foss (The Stage), Lyn Gardner (The Guardian), Sarah Hemming (Financial Times), Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out), Sam Marlowe (The Times), Neil Norman (Daily Express and The Stage) and Alice Saville (Exeunt).

Entrants to The Stage Critic Search were asked to submit a review of a production at a venue in their region.

The Critic Search judges will now select three grand finalists, each of whom will then write a 450-word review of the same show. The 2016 judging panel, along with myself, includes Mark Shenton (associate editor, The Stage), Alistair Smith (print editor, The Stage), Rachel O’Riordan (artistic director, Sherman Cymru), Madani Younis (artistic director, Bush Theatre) and playwright Jon Brittain, whose play Rotterdam opens at Trafalgar Studios 2, London, on July 28.

The overall winner of Critic Search 2016 will receives £1,000 prize money and the chance to review regularly for The Stage. This is the second year The Stage has run the competition. Last year’s winner Dave Fargnoli now writes regularly for the paper. Talking about the experience, he said: “As cliched as it might sound, winning that competition has been life-changing for me, in some obvious, and some less obvious, ways.”

Fargnoli, who is also a playwright, added: “Along with ‘strange’, the word I use most often to describe my experiences with Critic Search is ‘overwhelming’, but I mean them both in the most positive way.”

The other two grand finalists in last year’s competition, Lee Anderson and Jafar Iqbal, also continue to contribute to the paper on a regular basis.

With arts coverage shrinking, and the way we consume it changing, The Stage is committed to discovering and developing new critical voices from across the UK. This is a vital part of maintaining a healthy critical culture, which benefits the industry as a whole.

The range of work this year’s entrants have chosen to cover is appealing diverse – everything from Trevor Nunn’s latest production to Dead Centre’s cult show, from a popular touring musical to an intimate, site-specific piece, from new writing to work aimed at family audiences. This reflects both their interests and the work in their respective regions. The reviews also range from two to five stars. No one submitted a one-star review.

Let round two commence.

Sally-JackEast Midlands: Sally Jack

The Rocky Horror Show, Curve, Leicester

Frank ’n’ Furter, the transvestite transexual from Transylvania, is back, rocking a new pair of fishnets, Marigolds and a pearl necklace. This perky touring production of Richard O’Brien’s cult classic demonstrates its appeal hasn’t waned, with Curve’s main house almost full for a tricky 5.30pm curtain-up.

Blinding light beams and Hugh Durrant’s hi-tech, schlock-horror set show this B-movie pastiche has come a long way since Rocky et al burst into life in 1973 at the intimate Royal Court Theatre Upstairs.

With a jump to left-field from his more widely known work at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Christopher Luscombe directs a cast including a smattering of pop and reality show stars: Liam Tamne (The Voice) is a manly Frank ’n’ Furter – more bump, less grind but a luscious voice. S Club 7’s Paul Cattermole doubles as Eddie and Dr Scott, and a strong performance from actor Richard Meek brings emotional poignancy to otherwise bumptious Brad, particularly in Once in a While.

Norman Pace (Narrator) keeps boisterous heckling in check, including some topical “in, out, shake it all about” EU referendum ad libs. Pockets of hardcore devotees add their own scripted (and unscripted) contributions with enthusiasm, leaving the auditorium strewn with feathers, glitter and confetti.

What was avant-garde in 1973 is now mainstream, with society more accepting of the sexuality that’s thrust centre-stage. This frenetic production, proficient rather than dazzling, is an enjoyably charming and escapist piece. And that’s why we’re all still doing the Time Warp again.

Kitsch and charismatic revival of a cult musical that still entertains ★★★★   

Fergus-MorganEast of England: Fergus Morgan

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, New Wolsey, Ipswich

“There is not one word apt, one player fitted.” So Theseus’ party planner Philostrate warns him about the Rude Mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisbe. It’s a useful summary of Trevor Nunn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre as well. For Nunn, who has directed all 36 of Shakespeare’s other plays, completes the canon with a resounding dud, a passionless triumph of concept over content.

Seizing on Egeus’ oft-overlooked ‘honour-killing’ threat to dispose of Hermia should she refuse to marry Demetrius, Nunn has transplanted the action from Athens to India and the decadent days of the British Raj. Matt Rawle’s Theseus is a mustachioed Viceroy with a Basil Fawlty smile; Imogen Daines’ Helena a sardonic, gin-soaked debutante, and the Mechanicals a gaggle of raucous, squabbling street vendors.

It is outside the city walls, however, that Nunn’s production falls flat. The Fairies, in garish pantomime garb, sway and pulsate inelegantly throughout. Fiona Hampton’s Titania is more Disney princess than fearsome Fairy Queen and Esh Alladi’s ceaselessly skipping Puck sacrifices feeling for physicality. There is no magic in this forest, just a profligate sprinkling of glitter.

Throw in some inept verse-speaking and remove any consistent comic sense, and Shakespeare’s most enchanting play becomes a sluggish and unfunny torment. Nunn was inspired to pursue a life in the theatre by a production of the Dream he saw as a Suffolk schoolboy. One cannot imagine his version having quite the same effect. How the mighty have fallen.

Trevor Nunn completes the Shakespearean canon with a lethargic caper on the subcontinent ★★   

Ian-ShineLondon: Ian Shine

Fury, Soho Theatre Upstairs, London

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Larkin’s words are true on myriad levels in Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s fiery yet poetic re-imagining of Medea. Set in a Peckham council block, it asks whether the children of drama’s most notorious mother might be better off without her.

Sam (Medea), a 25-year-old “Sun headline” of a single mother, raised in care, is played with as much volcanicity as vulnerability by an astonishing Sarah Ridgeway, while her manipulative, middle-class student neighbour Tom (Alex Austin) morphs from disarming Inbetweeners-style gormlessness to lurking menace after Sam rejects his advances. We gradually realise that his predatory manner also stems from a damaged childhood, which, along with Sam’s neglectful parenting, means the play blurs the line between victimised and victimiser.

A phenomenal three-person chorus ignites the script, narrating actions and thoughts through pop songs and Kate Tempest-esque lines, while Hannah Hauer-King’s intimate in-the-round direction stokes a pressure-cooker atmosphere.

Natasha Chivers’ lighting throbs rainbows of disco ecstasy during a night-club scene, before casting palls of stark-white fear on Sam’s collapsing world, while Anna Reid’s minimalist set lets emotions take centre stage.

Part of Soho Theatre’s Who Runs the World? Girls season, this third play from female company Damsel Productions is a ferocious scream against society’s judgements of the working class. Its almighty dramatic punch lands all the heavier for not ducking the tricky-to-stage ending – unlike Rupert Goold’s 2015 production of Rachel Cusk’s Medea. Instead it reinvents it, and the audience sat knocked out at the curtain call.

Explosive performances light the fuse of an urgent and inventive take on Euripides that makes for theatrical TNT ★★★★

Sarah-ScottNorth East: Sarah Scott

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Theatre Royal, Newcastle

The story of Scottish choirgirls gannin’ radge (‘going wild’), adapted from Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos by Lee Hall, went wild itself when it opened at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year. The rest is sell-out history. This is a rites-of-passage tale told through song and swearing.

Hall returns to some of those dark, comic recesses of Cooking With Elvis via shades of Billy Elliot. Such works reflect the power of creative endeavour to escape grim reality. The characters in Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour offer assistance to each other in hardships, which include cancer and pregnancy, even if the help is at the bottom of a shot glass.

The production is immaculate, a slick machine run by the same team who built it, on and offstage. It’s a God-given opportunity to the six female actors. They radiate a thrilling energy, create a wide array of characters and sing like dirty angels.

The girls take an alcohol-fuelled journey from Oban to a choir competition in Edinburgh. Realism gets smashed in this cabaret-style piece, which is, as Hall says, “more like a gig than a play”.

The score is a fascinating mix of sacred music and pop from the 1970s, predominantly ELO. At times the modern music detracted from the story and didn’t move the piece forward. I wanted to hear more from the girls.

The ensemble members prove accomplished multi-taskers in performance. Dawn Sievewright nails Fionnula’s gutsy vulnerability.

This is an uncompromising, hugely entertaining piece of theatre, suffused with a reckless, strong spirit.

Madrigal singing and sexual adventure prove a powerful cocktail in this polished, primal production ★★★★

Steve-TimmsNorth West: Steve Timms

Now Listen to Me Very Carefully, Home, Manchester

Chichester-based Bootworks scored a hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe with this exuberant homage to Terminator 2, a film Andy Roberts has seen 238 times. Created and performed by Roberts and James Baker, Now Listen… is a love letter to a sci-fi blockbuster, an enjoyable but ephemeral experience that non-aficionados may find bewildering.

Roberts’ previous effort was inspired by Predator, another adored Arnold Schwarzenegger film, and Now Listen… uses the same approach, mixing lo-fi imitation with audience participation: two audience members enjoy a race with remote-controlled cars; four others participate in a stage fight, pretending to be psychiatric nurses. One of Terminator 2’s most iconic scenes – Arnie atop an office block, firing a machine gun at a squad of police vehicles – is recreated in giddy slow motion, using toy weapons, strobe lighting and a ticker-tape explosion. Roberts’ parents supply frequent voice-overs; his dad’s hilarious Schwarzenegger impression is a cult podcast waiting to happen.

Baker and Roberts make an amiable duo. Dressed in a silver leotard, the former cuts a striking figure, and looks like a budget version of the T-1000 (the liquid-metal Terminator played by Robert Patrick in the film).

Roberts has enough energy to restart a derelict wind farm but the root of his obsession hovers over the stage like a distracting shadow. In a sketchy epilogue, he confesses to a vague dissatisfaction with life. Some extra emotional detail would have helped Now Listen… feel like a more inclusive experience.

Lively tribute to Terminator 2 film that is strictly for movie obsessives ★★★

Cathy-BrownNorthern Ireland: Cathy Brown

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Lyric Theatre, Belfast

“We are not making a sacrifice. We are the sacrifice.” To watch Frank McGuinness’ play on the day of the release of the Chilcot report is to be forcefully struck afresh by the universality and compassion at the heart of this masterly drama about young men sent to war.

Presented by Headlong to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, it follows eight members of the 36th (Ulster) Division of the British Army in the lead-up to that deadly conflict.

From shipyard labourers to a minister wrestling with his faith, these are working-class men, with the exception of Pyper, the homosexual black sheep of his wealthy family, acutely aware that he is now just one of many lambs to the slaughter. Ostensibly about the futility of war, the play is actually a complex meditation on identity, faith and masculinity.

Such powerful subject matter carries an innate emotional depth, but Jeremy Herrin’s direction proves distancing. These soldiers are searching for themselves, just as they are about to be lost; yet uneven performances and a strident tone diminish their humanity, often reducing them to types. And while the dark humour of the battlefield provides release, a lack of intimacy and of more focused, reflective moments dilutes the horror of the inevitable tragic ending.

Ciaran Bagnall’s sombre set, Paul Keogan’s blood-red lighting and a soundtrack of incessant drums all ramp up the intensity. This is a staging that offers much to admire; ultimately, though, it’s hard to love.

A timely production that resonates, but ultimately misses the emotional mark ★★★

Jan-DicksonScotland: Janice Dickson

Vinyl Idol, Oran Mor, Glasgow

In trying times, nostalgia’s always popular – and dangerous. Cue this final offering from A Play, a Pie and a Pint’s new Mini Musicals season. Dirndl-skirted and lonely, Clara (a winsome Kara Swinney) has her needle firmly stuck in retro. When she finally obtains the LP by her adored crooner dreamboats needed to complete her collection, of course this piece of vinyl history turns out to be a magic record.

Be careful what you wish for, Clara.

There are genuine laughs aplenty as this most romantic of heroines is swept off her increasingly horrified feet by a gay Christian fundamentalist Cliff, an alcoholic Sinatra and an over-eating Elvis – all exuberantly brought to large life by Darren Brownlie and Paul James Corrigan.

Quick-change set design by Annie Gillies keeps things pacy. Original songs by co-writers Debbie Hannan and Andy McGregor – hats off to pianist and musical director Gavin Whitworth – add to the fun, ensuring this journey of potential self-discovery stays lively throughout.

Even the climactic, vaudevillian bloodbath in which a now-thoroughly disillusioned Clara slaughters her idols, one zombie apocalypse lounge-singer at a time, remains relentlessly, stubbornly upbeat. And that’s its downfall.

Musical theatre can explore the darkest of hearts. But despite surely the best line so far this year – “Andy Williams, why won’t you die?” – this unchallenging comedy, like its leading lady, refuses to tackle the murky psychological depths at the root of hero-worship and thus ultimately lacks sufficient bite to provide more than a surface scratch at its ambitious themes.

Entertaining but ultimately unsatisfying look at the perils of living in the past ★★

Edward-ClarkeSouth East: Edward Clark

Mobile, The Marlowe, Canterbury

This is a travelling performance that’s going places in more ways than one. Mobile, the latest production from the Paper Birds, uses its unusual setting to brilliantly anchor an immersive, moving play dealing with class, memories and aspirations.

A small audience squeezes into a caravan to hear real interviews voiced through everyday objects. The rich microwave talks about her shoplifting past; the kettle feels alienated from his working-class father.

Between recordings, Cindy (Georgie Coles) chats about her life and dreams. Coles, who alternates the role with Kylie Walsh, bustles about the trailer, her cheery demeanour masking feelings of helplessness and guilt. With a comfortable graduate life unravelling, living in her mum’s caravan is at once regressive and nostalgic. Cindy’s memories, underpinned by Shane Durrant’s mournful soundtrack, wonder at the price of social mobility.

The caravan actually becomes a symbol of immobility – a fixed indicator of class and lifestyle, where reminders of an existence she left behind press in on Cindy and the audience from all sides. To this end, Rajha Shakiry’s set design is superb, with everything in place – from the Scrabble board and silver jubilee tea cosy to the old birthday cards and knackered paperbacks. This is tangible theatre, accessible through verbatim interviews and velour curtains alike.

Impressive interactive elements lend power to the performance and the pertinence of the questions it asks. Jemma McDonnells’ intimate show activates the senses to help audiences search for answers through memory; the caravan truly transports us, without ever moving an inch.

A touching triumph of sensory theatre ★★★★

Kate-WyverSouth West: Kate Wyver

Chekhov’s First Play, Bristol Old Vic

In a chaotic, mesmeric hour of creative vandalism, Irish company Dead Centre takes a wrecking ball to Chekhov’s unfinished and rarely staged drama Platonov. Directors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd create a blazing fog on the stage of the Bristol Old Vic as Miley Cyrus meets 19th-century make-believe.

The play starts with each audience member donning headphones. As if he’s inside our heads, Moukarzel explains that because Platonov is complex, he will contribute a commentary. Initially, a traditional Chekhovian staging unfolds on Andrew Clancy’s beautiful doll’s house set, but gradually our perceptions begin to tilt. The binaural sound in our ears tricks our minds as voices are thrown across the stage. The fragility of this world begins to show and Moukarzel’s commentary develops from measured description to violent breakdown.

Soon, the delicate set is obliterated into ashes on the ground as we are pitched into a heady meta-theatrical rave where reality is indiscernible from fiction. Audience participation prompts further anarchy as a volunteer takes on the role of Platonov. Alone and adrift, he is guided only by his instructions from his headphones and the responses of the cast. They kiss, they cry, they claw and bleed. Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball repeats and repeats as reality hammers insistently against theatre’s fourth wall.

With stunning visual imagery, Dead Centre collides the constructed artifice of theatre with the everyday elements of all of our lives. In its unremitting theatrical surrealism, Chekhov’s First Play shows us how quickly things fall apart when the centre does not hold.

Dead Centre break the barrier between fiction and reality by attacking Chekhov’s unfinished text with spectacular visual imagery ★★★★

Jaclyn martinWales: Jaclyn Martin

Mametz Wood, Reardon Smith Theatre, National Museum, Cardiff

“From up here, they look like toy soldiers in a macabre picture show” – this observation brings to mind Christopher Williams’ painting The Welsh at Mametz Woods, which hangs in the adjacent exhibition in Cardiff National Museum. The painting and the play highlight the personalities that become lost in the overall picture of war.

With focus on character rather than plot, in a disorientating and dizzying non-linear timeline, writer Lyon Devereux has an impressive understanding of how to capture those individual stories through his richly textured script.

The spotlight is turned seamlessly between a small cast of characters in the Welsh 38th division. An injured soldier reflects on war from a hospital bed created by the bodies of the other actors, a weary nurse justifies euthanasia, a sniper distances himself mentally by approaching war like a systematic game – each tale is a like a unique stroke on a canvas, building up to a complex and detailed picture.

The stage is stark and scattered with few props, but the precision of the available elements incites imagination to fill in what isn’t seen. Well-chosen sound effects, such as high-pitched post-explosion ringing and the swell of the ocean, put us vividly and emotionally there, in the moment.

As the lights fade down to backlight the soldiers on the precipice of war, this striking silhouetted image encapsulates the essence of an engaging and moving performance, memorably marking the centenary of the actual battle at Mametz Wood.

Interlocking stories connect to create a richly textured whole, highlighting the individual experience of war ★★

Will-ThomasWest Midlands: Will Thomas

Pim and Theo, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Pim and Theo is a provocation on freedom of speech that places huge intellectual responsibilities on its intended teenage audience.

Egotistical politician Pim Fortuyn (Simon Vagn Jensen) and clownish filmmaker Theo van Gogh (Henrik Ipsen) were friends. They were both Dutch, right-wing, and brutally murdered. In the Netherlands, they were household names – in the UK, they feel like inventions, as much a fiction as the eerie purgatory of screens, screams and AstroTurf in which we find them. Here in limbo, judgement is deliberately withheld.

Theo directs the audience in a series of re-enactments from Pim’s forgotten life. It’s a teacherly style, but Mei Oulund’s script is never didactic as it scrutinises freedom of speech and the paradox of tolerating intolerance. Far-right rhetoric is presented unfiltered, almost as a test. With a British MP recently murdered and the UK divided over immigration, it’s a level of trust that feels both brave and dangerous.

Pim and Theo is part of the On the Edge festival of theatre for young people, who are noticeably absent from the audience of theatremakers and programmers. This softens the show’s impact; it’s easier to confront Pim’s views when you’re secure in your own, and surrounded by people who likely think similarly.

The video design and exhibition around the space feel superfluous, and we inexplicably entered through a shed. But strip away the gimmicks and Pim and Theo is a sympathetically performed, Beckettian two-hander with an enjoyably stubborn refusal to do the hard work for the audience.

Hidden behind superfluous gimmicks, Pim and Theo is challenging political theatre that treats young people like adults ★★★

Gil-CollinsonYorkshire: Gil Collinson

The Karaoke Theatre Company, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

During a Q&A session last year, Alan Ayckbourn was asked if his actors ever ad-libbed. His eyes widened with horror: he likes precise control. So what induced him to initiate The Karaoke Theatre Company, an interactive comedy with improvisation?

Purporting to be performed by the eponymous touring group, the show combines four short plays (bedroom farce, period drama, Gothic horror and dubbed Nordic-noir whodunnit) with a unifying thread of audience involvement.

The engaging cast works tirelessly, with ingenious multipurpose props introduced and manoeuvred by unobtrusive stagehands. Two willing playgoers end up in full costume, some speak, others percuss instruments and many simply sit chirruping. No one is coerced; all are supportively directed. Enthusiastic youngster Jamie, today’s cellophane-crinkling ‘fire’, seems a guaranteed future Foley artist.

It’s eclectic, unashamedly lighthearted, and a valid attempt to redirect some limelight from stage to auditorium. In our celebrity-obsessed ‘watcher or watched’ culture, Ayckbourn promotes us from passive observer status to a happy relationship of peers.

There’s nothing with which to draw comparisons. Karaoke in name only, it’s more vaudeville than pantomime, but there are no songs. It might be called PEP: participatory egalitarian performance theatre. The audience loved every idiosyncratic minute.

Ayckbourn has long been anxious to capitalise on “liveness” to differentiate theatre from other entertainments. With Karaoke, he achieves that aim. It may have meant relaxing his grip on the reins, but, sitting in the back row chuckling, it looks as though he’s learning to be comfortable with that.

Ayckbourn devises captivating new format, blurring the line between performer and spectator ★★★★


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