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Theatre Review – Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Stockport Garrick
Reviewed by John Waterhouse on 16th October 2019

Romeo and Juliet apart from being one of the most well-known of Shakespeare’s plays is also surely one of the most frequently adapted, from Bernstein’s West Side Story, set in 50s New York gang culture to the extraordinary computer-animation Gnomio and Juliet, set in the world of gnomes. Perhaps, this is because the concept of star-crossed lovers continues to resonate to all times and social environments so why not re-set it in present-day Stockport and title it ‘Romeo + Juliet’?
There is a cliché that Shakespeare does not work well with Amateur theatres, even good ones, and unfortunately, there is often some truth to this, particularly with the more challenging works by the Bard (which perhaps explains why Twelfth Night is often the favoured choice for amateur societies, with little pathos and a manageable cast). Remember that in the hit comedy film ‘Hot Fuzz’, the murder of two lovers who had played Romeo and Juliet in an amateur production was explained simply by the fact ‘they had murdered Shakespeare’! So, in deciding to produce this play, the Garrick society was accepting a fairly big challenge!
Stockport Garrick certainly made no attempt to make it easy for themselves, employing a cast of over twenty and using modern dress whilst keeping to the authentic Shakespearian text. The backdrop of multi-level rostra on metal supports was at first glance very simple but actually well thought out, with generous space for crowd scenes downstage and the various levels used to good effect. The use of strip-neon lighting certainly set the scene for the youth-culture club scenes and a wide variety of well-chosen music plus effectively lighting techniques helped convey the many moods and scenes in this complex play.
So, with a basic but functional set, (virtually) no props and no period costumes, it was all down to the actors to deliver and frankly, everyone delivered admirably. This production was, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, a triumph. The quality of acting really did make you care about the characters and even the most emotional and delicate scenes were handled with feeling and authentic emotions. Anyone perhaps used elsewhere to hearing occasional prompts in the likes of an Ayckbourne or a Godber would be pleasantly surprised on hearing all the sixteenth century dialogue delivered clearly and fluidly and this was a production which engaged the audience throughout.
It can have been no easy task to assemble a cast with an age range from teens to sixties where everyone looked right for their character and credit must be given to Director Martin Pritchard for ensuring that full use was made of the large stage area. Of course it was heavily stylised but the positioning of the various groups of actors looked right. The only thing which did not seem to work was a sort stage version of split screen action where you saw face-on a combatant making a forward stabbing motion next to his opponent face-on receiving the wound; this was just a bit of stylisation too far.
Space does not allow a detailed commentary on this large cast but special credit must be given to Joe Mihranian as Romeo and Harriet Maxwell as Juliet. In unskilled hands, their love and death scenes could have seemed farcical (as was the case in Hot Fuzz!) but they simply gelled and were not just convincing as a couple but conveyed all the right highs and angsts of these challenging roles. And finally, Joseph Jacobs deserves a special mention, giving a charming portrayal of Friar Lawrence (in the guise of a Social Worker).
If you want to see all the clichés of amateur actors and Shakespeare turned on their heads, go and see Stockport Garrick’s production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’; you may be very surprised indeed!

Music Review of Abba Forever

Buxton Opera House 05.10.19

The enduring popularity of the Swedish Supergroup just seems to keep on growing, nearly forty years after the band split up, never having since performed together. With a successful sequel made of the hit film ‘Mama Mia’ and the continued success of the stage version, there is a constant demand for the authentic Abba experience, with no shortage of tribute acts happy to oblige. In the case of Abba, there is one tribute band whose fame and success seems as almost enduring as that of Abba itself; Bjorn Again. This means that any serious Abba tribute act will inevitably face comparisons to both the original band and their most illustrious imitators (now in their thirtieth year).

The show got off to a slow start with the curtain rising to reveal the whole band standing silent and motionless before singing a few bars of ‘Dancing Queen’ at a slow pace. This was unfortunate because having given up the element of surprise, some energy was lost when the band suddenly kicked into a spirited rendition of ‘Waterloo’. As a result, it look a little longer than might have needed to fully get the crowd warmed up.

…A key difference to Bjorn Again is that Abba Forever are all about just giving a professional & faithful rendition of the Abba experience whereas Bjorn Again incorporate a lot of comedy into their act. This was even evidenced in the names, with Abba Forever always referring to each other (in convincing Swedish accents) by the proper names of Abba members as opposed to Bjorn Again’s comic variations. This is probably a wise move because whilst many clearly prefer the incorporation of comedy, others will see it as a distraction from simply enjoying authentic Abba sights and sounds. Musically, it is very hard to tell the two bands apart from each other, or from the original Abba for that matter, which is how it should be.

This reviewer has seen at least three other Abba tribute acts down the years and Abba Forever are certainly a class act with a strong following, virtually selling out the mighty Buxton Opera House. Comparisons to Bjorn Again should be taken as a compliment because Abba Forever are certainly a stand-out tribute to Abba in a crowded market. Their crystal-sharp sound and excellent musicianship are as close as you’ll get to hearing Abba songs authentically performed live, with a slick show of over two hours duration covering pretty much every popular Abba song. The singing was remarkable with both ‘Anni-Frid’ and ‘Agnetha’ performing with power, feeling and gusto (and at times hitting higher notes than their real Abba counterparts!). The ‘boys’ gave ample support, sounding indistinguishable from the real Benny and Bjorn.

The show featured at least eight full costume changes (compared to only three in a Bjorn Again show!), all of which were faithful reproductions of actual Abba outfits from throughout the band’s ten years together, starting with the Eurovision Performance costumes from 1974 (minus Agnetha’s cap for some reason).

The two girls in Abba Forever performed with more or less perfect synchronicity, with athletic dance moves and actions, for the most part taken from actual Abba performances and videos.

If it took a little time to warm the audience up, Abba Forever had the entire theatre in the palm of their hand by the end of the show with the noise of the clapping almost equalled by the sound of the cheers and whistles. A nice final touch was to make an appearance in the theatre foyer a short while later and there was no shortage of people, both young and old, wanting to be photographed with the band who had given such a pleasurable performance. Amongst tribute acts, Abba Forever are certainly in the top drawer.

Reviewer – John Waterhouse
on – 5/10/19

Theatre Review of A Fine Bright Day Today

Performed at Altrincham Little Theatre 04.10.19

‘A Fine Bright Day Today’ was an unusual choice by Altrincham Little Theatre in having a cast of only three but in terms of mood and pace, we were in the somewhat familiar territory of a slow moving, sentimental drama (which it has to be said, is very popular with Altrincham audiences), having a similar mood to such productions as ‘Ladies In Lavender’ or ‘Gates Of Gold’, and dealing with the perennial themes of love, death and generational differences.

A second unusual feature was the large amount of scenes in what was almost a one-set play but the transitions were executed smoothly with an excellent choice of cello music perfectly denoting passages of time as well as helping set the atmosphere of an old house by the sea. This was complimented by an excellent set, which had considerable attention to detail, including a stage made to resemble old floorboards, a small kitchen behind a dining area and stairs coming down into the lounge with tall hedges one side and a sea view on the other; a quintessential seaside cottage.

The play itself was principally concerned with Milton, a visiting American, and Margaret, the house owner, both in later middle-age, as lost loves and ideals gave way to re-discovering love and passion. To complicate matters, Margaret’s daughter Rebecca was about to move out whilst still keeping a watchful eye on her mother’s emotional welfare. The developing interpersonal relationships were well written and the pace did slowly pick up with elements of drama, particularly in the second half, interspersed alongside gentle comedy.

One element which did not seem to work too well was writer Philip Goulding’s decision to effectively start the play with a fairly lengthy monologue by Milton, which was not essential to understand the plot. The information in this and further soliloquies, all by Milton, could have easily been incorporated into the dialogue through other devices and slowed down what was already a slow pace. Also, the monologues did not actually break the fourth wall, so failed to create a personal relationship with the audience, but did not contain any real pathos highlighting inner angsts or tensions either. It just seemed to have been a device which was not really needed and not very well used.

The casting brought together three of the most experienced actors at Altrincham Little Theatre and they did work well together. The relationship dynamics were convincing, with the ages just right. Jane Newman as Margaret Harvey went on a visibly emotional journey as dormant passions gradually came to the fore and Malcolm Cooper gave a measured performance as the down-to-earth American. His accent was convincing, when he used it; there were a number of occasions when he lapsed back into his native English but overall the effect of coming from the other side of the pond was maintained. Charlie Welsh really shined as the young woman about to start a new life with her boyfriend and a nice touch was her significant number costume changes, really helping to convey the impression of different time periods.

‘A Fine Bright Day Today’ was a pleasant, sentimental experience, which made no attempt to develop either high-drama or hysterical comedy. The smallness of the cast meant that the particular characters could be explored in greater depth and this was well handled. Certainly not a play intended to push forward the boundaries of the theatrical experience but perhaps that was the intention. The frequent reference to Typhoon aircraft (which regularly flew over the house at low level) helped give the impression of the play being set in the present day and in our increasingly aging society, there was much merit in exploring the theme of finding new love later in life.

Reviewer – John Waterhouse
on – 4/10/19

Music Review of The Britten, Shostakovich Festival Orchestra – The RNCM, Manchester

In times when the media presents an image of ever-worsening Anglo-Russian relations, as if we’re right back in the Cold War, the Britten Shostakovitch Festival Orchestra (BSFO) is a shining ray of hope, bringing together some of the best offerings of both nations, both in terms of their respective great composers and emerging young talent. The seventy or so musicians were split more or less 50/50 by nationality although interestingly on a roughly two thirds majority ratio of females to males (which was apparently determined by auditions rather than positive discrimination, with everyone, save the conductor, being of conservatoire age).

Dmitri Shostakovitch and Benjamin Britten actually met on a number of occasions between 1960 and 1975 (even dying only a year apart from each other), during some of the most difficult years of Anglo-Soviet mistrust and it was in this same spirit of culture being a shared unity transcending international rivalries that the BSFO was formed. The current BSFO tour covers a very wide ranging repertoire but only of music by Russian and British composers and the programme tonight included works by Vaugh-Williams and Rachmaninov as well as the two composers giving the orchestra their name. The pieces chosen seem to have been selected to blend with each other to the extent you could not clearly tell by style which works were Russian or British, with vibrant and powerful emotions invoked from start to finish.

The opening piece ‘Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tullis’ by Vaughan Williams was performed exclusively by string instruments and showed a much more assertive and powerful side to this composer than his better known more dreamy works such as ‘The Lark Ascending.’ With the full orchestra brought in for the next piece ‘Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini’ by Rachmaninov, Ilya Chirskov took centre stage on the grand piano. Founding artistic director Jan Lathan-Koenig conducted this very varied piece (and all the others), starting with what will be familiar to many, the basis for the theme of TV’s South Bank Show and culminating in a romantic movement which has certainly found its way into several movies and TV adverts.

The contribution of Britten’s work to the evening were Four Sea Interludes, taken from his celebrated opera ‘Peter Grimes’. Perhaps these pieces were a little juxtaposed in being performed as a continuous single item but it certainly made for a fitting tribute to the range of Britten, with many of the powerful and dramatic sections contained having an almost distinctly Russian feel, akin to works like Shostakovitch’s Leningrad Symphony. Ironically, the next piece, which was actually written by Shostakovich was a march of the kind more typically played by the likes of the band of the Grenadier Guards, sounding as if it had been written by a Victorian Englishman. For this piece, most of the woodwind players left the stage, being replaced by saxophonists and even an accordion player. The final three pieces were a polka, waltz and another march, each of which had been given the Shostakovitch treatment, giving full vent to the remarkable variety of instruments assembled (the waltz having become famous as the theme for Stanley Kubrick’s last film ‘Eyes Wide Shut’).

The full programme lasted nearly two hours (including the interval); longer than most classical concerts and being of exceptional quality throughout. The BSFO is a wonderful concept, serving many functions including giving an international platform for new professional musicians, providing a forum for the combined works of two great composers together with their compatriots and of course, providing a cultural bridge of friendship between two countries whose relationship down the years has, to say the least, been chequered. A great concept and a great night out.

Reviewer – John Waterhouse
on – 21/9/19