Only the Brave- Wales Millennium Centre

Note: I saw this performance on the first preview, so there may be changes before the opening night, and this review keeps in mind that the first preview is not always the ‘finished product’. 

Only the Brave is a landmark production for Wales Millennium Centre. For the past 10 years it has been a leading touring venue, as well as providing a home for smaller local companies to create work in it’s smaller spaces. However it has yet to originate new work on the main stage…until now. In this co-production with the Soho Theatre, Daniel Sparrow Productions and Birdsonng Productions, Only the Brave is a brand new British musical theatre production.

Only the Brave tells the true story of the Airborne division, who in 1943 were recruited, trained and eventually led a crucial part of the D-Day operations. While, as authors Rachel Wagstaff, Steve Marimon and Matthew Brind, note some events have been abridged somewhat, the musical seeks to tell their story. The men we meet are, as they were in reality, a group of mainly working class men who volunteered for an elite division of the air force. As a powerful closing speech shows, after the war they went back to working-class jobs and ordinary lives as window cleaners or bus drivers.

The mission undertaken by the air force men in the story is a landing behind enemy lines in occupied France. A company is needed, ahead of the planned D-Day invasion to capture Benouville Bridge in Northern France and keep it in tact so that British forces can use it once they invade. Meanwhile French resistance forces in the occupied small town are risking their lives feeding information to British intelligence and the wives of the men involved are working in telegram offices, relaying information about the war. It’s a lot to take in over the course of a musical, and some of the finer points of plot do become a little lost-particularly if you aren’t quite as nerdy about WW2 history as perhaps I am (I used to teach History in Secondary Schools…it’s about 50% of the curriculum)

However, for a particular nerd such as myself this level of attention to detail in a musical adaptation is outstanding. I would love to see it again just to pick out more of the detail and referencing in the musical numbers that I’m sure I missed. It’s rare that a writing team gives such care and attention to historical detail in this medium, and the writers of Only the Brave have set the bar high in this respect. It’s worth noting again that the characters they write about are real people, and true care and attention has been taken to represent their memories while also carving out a strong piece of drama.

Make no mistake that it is that, although the historical elements remain front and centre this is a brilliantly crafted piece of musical theatre writing. The human element of the story takes centre throughout, and because we care so much about the people involved then the story of this one incident in the war becomes all the more emotional. This aspect is brought home by a moment in which one of the soldiers reflects on the tank he’s about to fire on, thinking not of the abstract enemy but the man within-is he a good man? a bad man? does it matter? what matters is he’s a man. This is what Only the Brave does so well-bring faces to the men of the war, the men behind the stories. And of course the women. Because while we follow the men, literally into battle, the narrative never loses the women back at home. And while here the story focuses only on the two wives of the platoon members, we still get a strong sense of the role women played and the difficulties for them.

Such intricate writing is not saved for the book, but also reflected in the music. From soaring company numbers to delicate ballads, the emotion of the piece is found in the music. And while there is a period feel to the music (I particularly enjoyed the Andrews Sisters inspired number) the musical writing feels fresh and new.

All of the above has been brought together expertly by Steve Marmion’s direction. Making use of some clever projections-from a tank looming over the stage, to the stark outline of the bridge the narrative focuses on. One really struck me, which was the tree at which a resistance fighter was killed, looked in fact so much like the aerial shots of the trenches and battlefield in France during the war that it can’t have been coincidence. Some simple staging with interlocking steps and platforms was all the staging needed to bring to life everything from a nightclub to the battlefields.

Having seen only the first preview I’ve deliberately focused here on the writing and staging of the piece. However all the performances did more than justice to the piece- David Thaxton as Captain John Howard showed once again what a powerhouse of a voice he has and that he is capable of emotional, nuanced performance. Caroline Sheen  was equally brilliant vocally, as well Neil McDermott and Nikki Mae-who was utterly heartbreaking as resistance fighter Isabelle. The company worked tirelessly, and even this early on worked as a wonderfully in sync group-particular mention to the ‘Platoon’ who have the most physically and vocally challenging combinations. This is a company who no doubt will take this production far-I only hope to revisit it to see how they do.

Only the Brave is at Wales Millennium Centre from 28th March until 2nd April
 Tickets

Tom the Tom Jones Musical

I may be a disgrace to my people, I know nothing about Tom Jones. Despite having worked in Pontypridd for a year and living two doors down from a Tom Jones impersonator, what I know about Tom Jones is well, limited. In that sense it was great to hear some of the ‘real’ story behind the man, the trousers and the hair.

The show itself is also as Welsh as, well the man himself. I really enjoyed the expertly written dialogue that could have been a verbatim piece from any South Wales valleys town. Getting the right pitch between authentic regional dialogue and sounding like a parody is a difficult thing. But the tone was perfect, I knew these people, I knew the way they talked. Mike James certainly knows both his setting and his subject matter, and that aspect of the book is crafted perfectly.

Unfortunately I felt something lacking in the narrative overall. I think that there just wasn’t enough drama in Tom’s story to engage with. By the end I wanted more, I wanted to know what happened now he had the fame, how that would affect his relationships, his life…and to see some of the impact in that. Prior to this the rags to riches rise to success story just hadn’t had the dramatic push to really engage. Hints at darker elements were glossed over-Tom possibly cheating on Linda in the early days was alluded to but not really explored and then let drop, the financial struggle Linda had at home again was talked about but never really explored. The lack of peripheral character development also didn’t help this-Tom and Linda are strong characters, but they aren’t enough to sustain the whole piece. Despite early prominence of their parents these fade into the background quickly, and Tom’s band never really evolve into fully fleshed individuals. If these supporting characters had been given a bit more rein in the narrative the whole thing would have felt much more fleshed out.

The music is of course at centre stage, and brilliant (providing you are a Tom Jones fan, might be worth avoiding if you aren’t) and Kit Orton’s performance brilliantly straddles ‘tribute’ and his own personal stamp. Easier in the early scenes while Tom himself is still finding his ‘sound’ Orton uses all his musical theatre expertise to bring to life Tom’s music. In the encore/megamix section however he’s able to really finally let loose and perform as Tom and it is really fantastic. Clearly Orton is the centre of this show, and as an experienced musical performer he carries the show brilliantly. By his side is the utterly brilliant Elin Phillips, whose only drawback is that she doesn’t get more to do as Tom’s wife. Her depiction of Linda, supporting her husband unfailingly and trying to do the best by her family is heart-warming and sincere. I also personally love some excellent drunk acting on stage and Phillips nails this perfectly in a brilliantly comic scene. Phillips is also the only cast member who sings other than Tom, and her beautiful mini-duet at the close of the show is a lovely moment that made me wish she had more chance to sing. This pair are at the heart of the show and really had me engaged with the characters through their brilliant performances.

Overall Tom the musical is a good night out. It doesn’t quite stack up against what has become a really strong field of jukebox/biographical musicals of recent years. And with the proliferation of such stories the field gets tougher. There’s nothing really wrong with this offering, it just doesn’t sit head and shoulders above the stiff competition.  But, perhaps that’s not the most important thing here. What is important is that the audiences enjoys themselves, and certainly last night’s audience ticked that box. If you like Tom Jones, if you like a fun musical outing, then Tom the musical is a great night out. And I’m proud to see a Welsh musical off on tour around the UK, of course it’s not unusual to see Welsh talent on stage (sorry, I couldn’t do a whole Tom Jones piece without an awful pun) so why not say, why why Delilah and come home and tell your pussy-cat what’s new? (ok I’ll stop now). You may even find yourself a sex-bomb in the process.

Review: St Nicholas (The Other Room, Cardiff)

There is something to be said for some good old fashioned storytelling in theatre. The kind that sits an audience and does simply that; tells a story. While I love theatre that plays with form, stylistic theatre and sometimes even big flashy theatre, I think we sometimes forget that what we’re after is a story. And Conor McPherson’s St Nicholas gives us exactly that, in a deceptively simple manner.

On the surface the pitch about theatre critics and vampires might have seemed a bit out there from McPherson in 2007, when he was riding the wave of success from The Weir. However it’s a great thing that someone decided there was probably something in that combination. What is in it is a great tale of questioning life choices, and veering towards a darker side of things.

We meet The Man, a theatre critic we are quickly told. A large, slightly bombastic man, who is clearly enjoying the spoils his job has offered-wine, fine dining, money and power. This is a man who has a lot of power over at least his small corner of the world. Highly paid among his peers in journalism, feared by those he writes about for the power he holds in making or breaking a show. He’s a man who seems to have a lot, and yet, as the cliche goes, he feels he has nothing. More specifically he feels his writing is empty, devoid of real thoughts and he longs not so secretly to be one of those who creates something rather than observing others creations. Likewise in his personal life, there seems to be much missing, or at least passing him by. This is a man clearly embodying mid life crisis through the lens of theatre criticism.

And then come the vampires. In an ill-advised trip to London to chase unrequited love with an actress whose play he has destroyed, the man instead meets William, a vampire. The beauty of this piece is, being a one man show, we only meet William, or the actress through the eyes of our narrator. We have no other notion of who they are, what they look like. And so, as Christian Patterson weaves his tale for us as the man, we all have our own vision of the beautiful actress, the dangerous vampire. The audience’s imagination is fired up as the tale unfolds, and how we see these two mysterious characters fuels what we take away from the tale.

Director Titas Halder knows the strength of the piece, and his actor, allowing the words and performance to take the lead. His direction seems to take its lead from these two elements, steering but not over powering the story itself. One particularly effective touch, is the the use of lighting. In a set created out of low hanging vintage looking lightbulb, and one bare bulb on stage, the lights respond to elements of the story, and sometimes Patterson’s touch. The pulse or fade of the subtle lighting lifts the story, and the power over light that the words seem to have enforce the supernatural edge to the narrative. Understated and powerful, it’s an effective device  drawing the audience yet further in.

St Nicholas is an utterly engaging piece of theatre. The audience were pulled in by Patterson’s performance from the opening lines. Part thriller, part comedy and a piece that relies on the audience’s ability to imagine, and later to reflect, it takes theatre back to basics; the stories we tell, and what they mean to us.

On at The Other Room until Friday 11th March. As part of the ongoing Insomnia season, that continues with Matthew Bulgo’s Constellation Street next…

Footloose (Tour)

Footloose is the best 80s dance film. Better than Dirty Dancing. There. I’ve said it. I stand by it. I love an 80s dance film in general (except Dirty Dancing, I really hate that film) but Footloose is unashamedly my favourite. Added to that an early 00’s pop favourite in Gareth Gates and Footloose is the making of an excellent, entertaining night out.

David Ellis for Boom Ents

I love Footloose. I love the film and I have seen the stage version more times than I should probably admit. And for someone who is admittedly fairly snobby about film to stage/jukebox musicals that’s saying something. Did I mention I just really love an 80s dance film?

The current touring version (Directed by Racky Plews) is a slightly altered version to the original that toured in 204 (is it that long ago already?) with altered orchestrations-including actor-musicians, and new choreography. And it looks better than ever.

David Ellis for Boom Ents

The story, in case you’ve never encountered it, centres on Ren McCormack (Luke Baker) who moves from Chicago to Bomont West Virginia with his Mom (Maureen Nolan) after his Father runs off. Bomont West Virginia, while also being what I think is technically known as ‘the arse end of nowhere’ also has the unfortunate law that no dancing is allowed within city limits. But of course, all Ren wants to do is dance. The reason for the ban on dancing isn’t just because they are crazy hicks from West Virginia, but also because the Reverend, who seems to have an unusual amount of power over the town, blames music for an accident and the death of his son. It’s not complicated, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but it makes for a pretty good backdrop for a lot of dancing, and some genuinely hilarious moments.

David Ellis for Boom Ents

Firstly, as you’d expect the dancing is brilliantly choreographed and performed. Matthew Cole’s choreography takes enough elements of the original, and influences of 80s dance styles to make look authentic and familiar, but has also mixed it up enough to make it feel innovative. The cast all perform flawlessly and with such an infectious energy it’s hard not to be won over. The actor-musician element also adds a great dimension to the piece. Although some complain this style is overdone, the live music in Footloose really adds a dimension to what could otherwise feel like a flat piece of partly jukebox musical. Instead the music feels like a part of the narrative, in the ways a classic Kenny Loggins track always did in an 80s film.

David Ellis for Boom Ents

The cast work incredibly hard as an ensemble, and it feels unfair to highlight individuals. However, Luke Baker as Ren shows off some incredible dance skills and manages to gesture towards the iconic Kevin Bacon performance, without imitating him. Mention must also be made to Gareth Gates as Willard (who was always my favourite, and the one I’d ask to the dance at the end). Giving one of the most hilarious performances I’ve seen in a while as the slightly dim-witted uncoordinated Willard. The scene in which he learns to dance is utterly ridiculous, his expressions alone are worth the ticket. Mention should also be made (and credit given) to direction/choreography that mean Gates is stripped down to a tiny pair of shorts…it might not be a great artistic decision but it defiantly was a crowd pleaser.  And that sums up Footloose really. It’s a crowd pleasing fun, energetic night out. And sometimes, that’s exactly what you need in the theatre. That, and apparently Gareth Gates in little clothing.

David Ellis for Boom Ents

Footloose is on tour nationwide until October. Tickets and information here: Footloose the Musical

Meet Fred: Review

It was time to Meet Fred last night. The latest offering from Hijinx Theatre, Fred is a puppet, except he doesn’t know that at first. He soon does though, much to his shock. What follows is a clever, touching and at times hilarious look at life and the obstacles it throws at us (literally at times) through the eyes of two foot high puppet Fred.
Meet Fred is the result of a collaboration and intensive workshop training with Blind Summit. A company that coined the term ‘Extreme puppeteering’ to describe what they do, and it’s easy to see why. Based on the Japanese Bunraku (three man puppetry) Blind Summit coined it for the extremes of emotion that it illicit, but a fitting description for the work the puppeteers do. The puppet operated by Dan McGowan at the head (and voice) along with Morgan Thomas and Craig Quat operating legs and arms. Fred himself is a plain white puppet, expressionless which adds to the experience of ‘projecting’ on to him that becomes so integral to the piece. Really quickly Fred becomes very ‘human’ despite the piece centring on his discovery that he’s a puppet (and general dismay at what life throws at Puppets).
Fred’s life touches on aspects that affect us all, and in particular draws out elements that affect people with disabilities. Fred does battle with the Job Centre and later the DWP (Department of Work and Puppets) as well as the endless loop of ‘you get a job you lose your benefits’. This all culminates in Fred losing his support in the very literal form of his puppeteers, meaning that minus one pair of hands, Fred is minus a pair of legs and hits rock bottom.
It’s a cleverly staged piece, using meta-theatrical techniques involving both the audience and the director- Fred’s real director Ben Pettit-Wade, playing what I’m assured is an exaggerated version of himself. In last night’s performance even the BSL interpreter got involved in things (and while we’re at it the wonderful Anthony Evans is an added bonus to any performance). Which really brings the audience into Fred’s world. Of course Fred’s world doesn’t go quite to plan, from first dates where his handsome puppeteer gets more attention than he does, to an ill-advised drinking binge (and the way the company stage this is truly brilliant) to shouting matches with the director. There’s a little bit of Fred’s life in all of us, and particularly the parts that make bad decisions, a little bit of Fred in all of us.  
And it’s not all life lessons and despair (though Fred might disagree). Meet Fred is a really entertaining show, in which Fred really is the star. He may only be two feet tall but there’s a lot of Fred to go around. Whether it’s performing inappropriate dance routines at children’s birthday parties, or his foul-mouthed rant at his director, Fred is a force to be reckoned with.
Although Fred is clearly centre stage, mention should be made to the rest of the cast. From Lindsay Foster, Fred’s date to Richard Newham who gets to enact a revenge we’ve all wanted to at some point, as the obstructive civil servant in the job centre. Finally, Martin Vick, as the Stage Manager who is even more at the mercy of the Director’s rants than Fred, but who gets his revenge (and chance at a dream being Fred’s legs) at the end of the piece. All three are excellent performers who rise to the difficult challenge of performing with a puppet and his three accomplices incredibly well, while also offering brilliant performances in their own right.

I feel I’ve got to know Fred over the past few months, between seeing the scratch performance at The Other Room, and getting to interview the man himself (no, I can no longer consider him a puppet, he’s a person nobody will tell me otherwise). And I’ve grown very attached, do yourselves a favour and go and Meet Fred and see for yourselves.