Review: Slava’s Snowshow

Written for Exeunt

In a festive landscape dominated by pantomime mostly delivered in a very British manner, Slava’s Snowshow is something of a treat. Calling his own style of eccentric pantomime ‘Expressive Idiotism’, Slava Polunin and his band of not so merry men, lead the way into a strange world full of beauty and buffoonery. Children and adults seem equally perplexed as to what precisely is going on, making it not uncommon to hear the question: “What’s that man doing mummy?” answered with, “your guess is as good as mine dear.” But incomprehensibility doesn’t seem to bother the audience overly much; the key here is not to reason why.

Slava’s Snowshow is an incredibly well produced ride, incorporating three points in particular that will blow people away (at one point quite literally). But in an impressively crafted piece the simplest things can also make you feel like a six year old child. Jokes based around hats with wide brims or clowns that inexplicably seem to grow half a foot delight both young and old. Other moments feel oddly moving; a creature flying out of the wings leaving a trail of silver glitter in its wake or angels that shuffle around the stage and look out at you for one sad second. Polunin’s blend of surreal imagery and delicate physical clowning is peculiarly effecting.

This snow-globe world bleeds out into the auditorium with white paper snowflakes practically covering the first three rows in a thick layer. Grannies throw bunches at their squealing grandchildren, whilst even teenagers can’t resist a little flutter. The stage itself is awash with glowing orbs, and cloudy seas; Slava’s Snowshow takes place in a dream world and as such is full of its own, albeit nutty, rules and hierarchies with which this troupe of clowns mischievously play. There’s rhyme and reason here, but not as we know it.

In a show which is mostly mimed, the eclectic soundtrack becomes a powerful tool. Moving from haunting folk melodies to hip swivelling samba, from witty brass ensembles to well known crooners, the rich score gives us a recognisable framework from which we can take tentative steps onto these strange Russian shores.

There are snowstorms, giant cobwebs and huge balls which invade the audience – almost stealing the show; at times it could be accused of creating spectacle for the sake of it. But the production also includes the wealth of a great performer’s knowledge and the chance to see the subtle but astonishing craft that he has worked on over decades. By wedding improvised play and crafted ritual together and lacing palpable fantasies into each spectacle, Polunin shows himself to be a theatrical magician of the first order. Slava’s Snowshow is an awe-inspiring and fun-filled experience, but it is also the crowning work of a performer who has dominated Russian clowning over the end of the last century.

Runs until 8th January

Exeunt Critics’ Picks of 2011

LOTS of fabulous picks here by some people who really know their stuff including some expected and not so expected pieces. Wish I could have mentioned London Road, wish I could have seen Mission Drift…

Originally published on Exeunt

Of course we are wary of the arbitrary nature of these things, the artificiality of seasons, the ordering of experiences into peaks, the hierarchal maps they reproduce, the dangers of placing Fabulous ones next to Those who have just broken a vase.  However at some point you have to be practical.  Our critics have valiantly seen a metric stage-tonne of theatre this year, so what better to relive with sufficient context their most notable moments? And from here it looks like they have produced a list unrivalled for its scope, depth and surprises.  So without further ado-ing, and in no particular order…

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Review: The Importance of Being Earnest (A Musical)

Written for Time Out

‘A handbag? A handbag?’ Gyles Brandreth titters before breaking into song. Is this Oscar Wilde or Noël Coward doing a party piece impression of him? ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is given new voice in Douglas Livingstone’s musical.

‘A musical?!’, Dame Edith Evans might have exclaimed. But this diluted interpretation does suit an audience already used to giving Wilde’s witticisms and aphorisms a life of their own.

Livingstone’s book and Adam McGuinness and Zia Moranne’s score are classy and character-led. Flora Spencer-Longhurst sparkles in Cecily’s joyful Charleston number ‘Wicked!’ and Miss Prism (Susie Blake) and Dr Chasuble (Edward Petherbridge) cause much hilarity with their reverent courting in ‘It all Began in a Garden’.

Samal Blak’s design, in which gardens grow out of suitcases, is imaginative and stylish and Brandreth makes a regal Lady Bracknell. It’s not exactly ‘My Fair Lady’. But even Wilde would have admired the new-found silliness
in this light-hearted musical.

Runs until 31st December 

Review: Around the World in Eighty Days

Written for The Stage

In a world full of flying carpets and ugly sisters, Around the World in Eighty Days is a welcome change in our panto-infused festive landscape. Kate Bannister’s cheeky ride reminds you why the Victorians were great and whisks you away at a pace that even Phileas Fogg would envy.

Inspector Fix (a sweetly officious Jonathan Clarkson) has got it into his head that Fogg’s international jaunt is more to do with theft than a gentleman’s bet. He takes the next steamer after our adventurer determined to catch his man. Savage sacrifices and elephant rides are just a few of the scrapes that follow, in an international caper that would make the Pink Panther proud.

Chock-full of makeshift steampunk style, this energetic company takes you around the world in under two hours, bringing colour to every new shore with a couple of saris and some affectionately dodgy accents.

David Mildon makes Fogg’s pedantry look gentlemanly and Emily Lockwood as Princess Aouda is a romantic but no-nonsense heroine. Adrian Salmon brings passion to the party with his cheerfully supercilious manservant, Passpartout, and in a sea of rich travel acquaintances, Brigid Lohrey’s Lady Cromarty is a particularly fruity treat.

Runs until January 7

Review: Les Miserables

Written for Time Out

If the second longest running show in the West End was looking a little tired, a rejuvenating orchestral facelift was just what the doctor ordered. Cameron Mackintosh’s ‘little girl’ has shaken off that 1980s synth vibe and finally woken up to the organic noughties. This is a new, richer sound with strong operatic undertones and even the faint echoes of chamber music.

Led by compelling ex-‘Phantom…’ Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean, this dynamic cast blows a whirlwind through the Queen’s Theatre, hurtling along Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s famous melodrama. Aided by a swirling revolve and John Napier’s stunning constructivist set, we follow Jean Valjean’s journey across France as he attempts to escape his criminal past and make amends.

Hadley Fraser as Javert, Valjean’s fated pursuer, matches Karimloo’s booming vocals and moody stares step for step (at one point rather sweetly causing a premature ovation). Craig Mather and Lisa-Anne Wood do very prettily as lovelorn young leads Marius and Cosette. But it is Alexia Khadime’s soaring ‘On My Own’ that storms the barricades; her plucky and faithful Eponine genuinely pulls at the heartstrings.

For all its legions of fans, there are many who would sniff at this revived ‘Les Miserables’, branding it ‘opera lite’. In a sense they would be right: all this histrionic bombast is only really making soap opera respectable. But so what. This updated and improved production is a real rabble-rouser and while it may be tosh, it’s still stirring, beautifully made Cameron Mackintosh.

Mon-Sat 7.30pm, Wed, Sat Mats 2.30pm

Interview: Chris Goode (& me).

Written for Exeunt

Chris Goode has woken up later than planned and is still waiting for the morning to reveal to him what sort of day this will be “There’s a lot of renegotiation that has to happen…” he is explaining to me “so we’ll do that throughout our conversation, it will be an interesting extra dimension.”

I can’t imagine someone I would rather ‘renegotiate’ my day with. Chatting to Goode on the phone and letting him lead me into new places of thought, I realise this is not a dissimilar experience to watching him recount The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirleyat the BAC last week. When talking to Goode or watching him perform, something about his gentle, funny, self effacing demeanour disarms you until you find you are happily swimming in a sea of what often end up being complex questions.

Whilst this seems to be an intrinsic part of who Goode is personally, he believes that forWound Man and Shirley this style was particularly necessary. “I knew that I was going to be wanting to do something quite ticklish in terms of the story I tell, which if you were to apply it to two characters in a less magic realistic context would be a story that would alarm and disturb people…” In the character of Wound Man (“a character plainly not wholly of this world”) Goode was able to access a world of magical realism which softened the blow of a story that the Daily Mail would have had a field day with. “It helps people to get to a place where at the end of the show they are really rooting for essentially a relationship between a 14 year old boy and a 40 something year old man who just wears pants all day, you know there are a lot of gritty TV dramas that could be made out of that relationship.”

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Review: The Enormous Turnip

Written for The Stage

Puppetry, live music and good old-fashioned charm are sprouting up left, right and centre from the stage of Jacksons Lane this Christmas. Children’s theatre veterans Stuff and Nonsense have taken the classic tale The Enormous Turnip and turned it into a jolly two-hander full of wry smiles and bendy legs.

A scene from The Enormous Turnip at Jacksons Lane, London

Dotty and Raymond Chickweed live a seemingly idyllic existence in a shed on an allotment. They sing to their vegetables and their vegetables sing to them. Raymond mischievously longs to travel the world whilst Dotty is happy where she is. But when they plant a turnip seed close to their home they get much more than they bargained for.

Fiona Putnam and Marc Parrett are engaging and likeable storytellers who are adored by the sea of six year olds in front of them. Luckily for the rest of us they more than manage that special trick that only certain Blue Peter presenters do, balancing enough know how and energy to please both parents and ‘seedlings’ alike.

Edwina Bridgeman’s design appears pleasingly home made while impressing with its ingenuity and the folksy music makes both mice and children dance.

The Enormous Turnip is as wholesome and warming as Dotty Chickweed’s Christmas vegetable soup and just as yummy.

Runs until 31st December. For more information go here.

Interview with Phil Newby, Head of Marketing at The Roundhouse

A while ago I wrote a few pieces on theatre trailers and a few days ago I received an email from The Wooster Group saying they’d like me to talk to them about it. Which is exciting, if a little belated (watch out for that interview on a DIFFERENT subject coming out soon). BUT why am I wittering on about all this you may very justifiably ask…?!

WELL… it reminded me that I had this gorgeous set of Q&A’s languishing in My Documents which is a crime because Phil’s responses are too interesting for just little old me to have seen them.

So I’ve decided to share them in their entirety…I know it’s quite long but please do read on, he jolly well knows his stuff.

What is the ethos behind theatre trailers for you. What’s their job?

The holy grail of marketing has always been that much-talked-about, but often little-understood phenomenon: word of mouth. Until relatively recently, this might have spread though phone calls, conversations in pubs and so-on, but as we all know, nowadays what we’re really talking about is online sharing through social media. For me, video trailers are the most effective tool to facilitate personal recommendations – people are much more likely to share a video with their friends than a web page with copy explaining what a show is all about, and therefore by offering video content, you’re giving audiences the tools they need to become ambassadors for your production or your venue.

I recently attended a conference where someone quoted an incredible figure: we are now watching 11,000 years of online video every month in the UK alone, with sharing of video content growing exponentially in volume and speed. As arts marketers, we need to tap into the huge potential of this, both to sell tickets for our shows and to engage audiences in new ways.

What type of trailer have you found works most successfully?

As with all marketing, the focus should be about clear communication. A colleague of mine remarked recently that a lot of theatre trailers are now produced to look like film trailers – super-quick edits, a focus on action over depth and so on. But whereas film marketing often takes this overtly opportunistic approach to marketing, as arts organisations we need to build trust and long-term relationships with our audiences, and so this approach can be really damaging for audience development.

For me, the goal with online video marketing creative is to remove the element of risk for the potential booker, to give audiences a clear and full insight into the show they’re thinking about booking. They can also be a chance to give audiences a deeper insight into the artist or the work, or even compliment the work itself. This is absolutely the case with our promo films for PolarBear’s upcoming show.

I think it’s also important when creating film content around a production that collaboration is encouraged between the artist and the filmmaker. This is the key to creating something that sits between a traditional marketing trailer and purely creative output, which is where we feel the PolarBear films sit. We’re also lucky enough to have an in-house production team here at the Roundhouse which allows to to pursue this kind of collaborative approach to content production.

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Review: Aladdin at the Lyric Hammersmith

Written for What’s On Stage

Two worlds collide at the Lyric Hammersmith this Christmas. Aladdin is an X Factor style mash-up of street hip-hop and traditional panto. It’s a rocky union but eventually, just like the Princess, you’ll be won over.

Initially Steve MarmionMorgan Lloyd Malcolm and Joel Horwood let the street vibe take over. Hip-hop stereotypes are thrust into our faces with a ferociousness that is dizzying and at times confusing. Aladdin, instead of appearing as a maverick hero, is presented as a gormless ‘youf’ and the cast push their attitudes uncomfortably hard.

But as this production flies into the second act the story picks up. Songs like “You Can’t Wish That” are panto gold and the magic carpet is a piece of stage trickery which will delight adults and children alike. Incongruities that irritated before (why does the Emperor keep coming on with an array of different stuffed animals?) are forgotten as the narrative unpacks at a pace and the cast settles into the rhythm of this hybrid piece.

The Panto Young Company are a trusty chorus, bounding about Tom Scutt’s swirling bubble-gum set with energy and verve, whilst Philip Gladwell’s florescent, psychedelic lighting almost steals the show.

Vocally the cast are fantastic with Sophia Nomvete particularly impressive as the explosive Ringo, the disgruntled ‘Voice of the Universe’. Steven Webb as Wishy Washy, the monkey that speaks in ‘text message’ (like LOLZ!), treads the thin line between innocence and cynicism charmingly and maybe it’s just that I’ve always gone for the bad guy but Simon Kunz as Abanazer is a thing of evil and a joy forever, more than deserving every ecstatic boo that he gets.

Runs until 31st December