Young Critics Reviews

I thought it practical to round up all my reviews (so far) for the Young Critics scheme into one place. They can also be found, along with the brilliant reviews of other aspiring critics, on the original blog:

The Inspector Calls review was also published on the Daily Post‘s theatre page:

The Woman in Black – Venue Cymru

Susan Hill’s novel, The Woman in Black, is written in the first person; the protagonist, Arthur Kipps, tells us his story. Yet in this successful adaptation for stage, by the late Stephen Mallatratt, we meet the novel’s narrator. This is not Arthur Kipps the character from the novel – it is Arthur Kipps the writer of the novel. The character becomes a meta-narrator, like Briony Tallis in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement.

Yet it is not only the ingeniousness of characterising the novel’s narrator that makes the play so chilling. In this performance at Venue Cymru, Kipps was portrayed superbly by Malcolm James as a nervous man who wants to tell his story in the form of a play. As the play-within-a-play begins, we realise that the stage will never become more than exactly that; a stage.

We are told about the lighting that is to be used, the pre-recordings of London streets, and all of the other “special effects”. It is a minimalist set. So it is a verification of the talent within everybody involved in this production that we forget where we are so often. Using only lighting, sounds, and the space of the theatre (not just the stage, mind), we are taken to a lawyer’s office, for a ride in a horse and cart, and a tour around a cursed mansion. We rarely remember that we are watching a play (itself within a play), and when we do, it is this that unsettles us.

Annie – Venue Cymru

The character of Annie can be traced back to an 1885 poem by James Whitcomb Riley, which went on to inspire a comic strip, itself the inspiration for the Broadway musical. In the poem, Annie is a hard-working orphan who warns the other children to be good to their teachers and parents, or else they’ll be snatched away by “Gobble-uns”. This strong-willed moral girl was portrayed perfectly by Sophie Pettit, who stood out from the rest of the cast.

Ranging from the streets of New York to Daddy Warbucks’ palace of luxury, the set captured depression-era America soundly. The variety of costumes and accents made the wealth-gap obvious, and the presence of Roosevelt’s New Deal resonated with Annie’s moral compass.

The inclusion of Craig Revel Horwood in the production had the potential to add pantomime elements, but he didn’t play a panto-dame – he played Miss Hannigan. The gin-swigging, unstable manager of the orphanage (who I always saw as more of a victim than a villain), was a major comic element to the show, yes, but Horwood didn’t over-do it. In fact, I often forgot that I was watching the Strictly judge in drag. That being said, and despite Horwood existing as the “celebrity” appearance, it was still Pettit who stole the show. Her voice was outstanding for a girl of her age, and her acting – the interaction with other actors, the wide range of emotion – ensures that the future of musical theatre is bright.

An Inspector Calls – Venue Cymru

As if to reassure doubters of Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policies, An Inspector Calls – one of the most famous socialist-leaning plays in the English language – has not only been adapted for film by the BBC, but is once again on tour in the UK. The adaptation on tour is Stephen Daldry’s expressionistic take on the play, originally written by J. B. Priestley in 1945.

The set places the household of the Birlings – an upper-middle-class Edwardian family – in centre-stage, raised above the stage-floor (which appears to be a bleak and poverty-stricken world). As the play opens the Birling family are celebrating their daughter’s engagement in their brightly-lit home, oblivious to the rain-drenched orphans running around on the stage-floor. While perhaps predictable from curtain-up, it is the way in which the Birling family are brought crashing to reality by the mysterious Inspector Goole – acted with fiery passion by Liam Brennan – that has the power to shock. I heard gasps in the audience as the family’s home, their protective-bubble from the nasty outside world, is, quite literally, destroyed in front of us. Priestley himself may or may not have intended the Second World War to be Inspector Goole’s moment of “fire and anguish”, in which the upper-classes learn social responsibility. However, the scene in which the Birling’s home collapses is very reminiscent of the blitz. And, as history will tell us, in 1945 the welfare state was born.

Dirty Dancing – Venue Cymru

Walking into Venue Cymru’s foyer, on the opening night of the ever popular Dirty Dancing stage show, we are showered in pink lighting. A miniature cinema screen shows us clips from the show, as do the posters, and that famous lift silhouette is on a faceless board – allowing us to stick our faces through and become the protagonists. A theatre lobby is rarely this wild; there’s laughter, white and rosé wine guzzling in every direction and even the husbands and boyfriends (who one would think were dragged along) seem to be engaging in the spirit of things.

The story is nothing unique; a girl from a “good” family falls for a rough-around-the-edges boy with minimal career prospects outside dancing; the post-Lawrence love story that we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. Troubles occur, but all ends well. Patrick Swayze’s character is acted, and danced, very well – as are the rest of the cast, who pay tribute to the film rather than try to emulate it.

The live band was integrated into the set, which gave a nice touch the dance-hall scenes, and the singers were spot-on. The dancing was also perfectly choreographed, and would have fared well on Strictly. Although perhaps the title should be Dangerous Dancing, due to the impressive lifts, or even Daring Dancing. Because living, as we do, in the world of Miley Cyrus and the “twerk”, dirty dancing is a bold statement to live up to.

Sweeney Todd – Venue Cymru

Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been a favourite among musical-theatre-goers since opening on Broadway more than three decades ago. It received a surge in popularity when Tim Burton adapted it to film, casting Johnny Depp as the titular role, in 2007, and has had numerous re-imaginings over the years. The Welsh National Opera’s interpretation, which came to Venue Cymru last Thursday, is undoubtedly one of the most impressive.

Set in Victorian London, poverty is a central theme to the story: “times is hard”, Mrs Lovett sings – businessmen try to scam the bald with fake scalp-miracle-growth lotions and corruption is on every corner. Yet the WNO have updated the set into a destitute modern London; reminding us of the “winter of discontent” and the following Thatcher years. This modernisation turned what I once saw as a fun and escapist story into something more real, and consequently unsettling. Many of Shakespeare’s modern re-imaginings also have this effect.

The show stealer was Janis Kelly’s portrayal of the delusional and tragic Mrs Lovett; her majestic singing voice was used comically, which complemented the quirkiness of the character. That being said, there wasn’t a weak link in the chain; every character actor, the chorus, the orchestra, and, of course, the backstage crew made this slick and stylish melodrama as powerful as it’s ever been. It’s been going for more than thirty years, but I can’t see Sweeney retiring any time soon.

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