Monday, September 26, 2011

Curiouser and curiouser... - review of Robert Bone

Robert Bone: Demonstrator of Extra-Sensory Curiosities, at New Greenham Arts, Newbury, on Wednesday, September 7

MAGIC, feats of memory, achievements of mind over matter and hypnotic suggestion: Robert Bone, a professional magician and mindreader from Brimpton, crammed it all in to his 90 minute show and pulled it off with aplomb as he expanded his close-up magic and mind reading skills for a wider, and far larger audience at New Greenham Arts.

More used to performing his trickery while mingling with guests at social events, it was impressive that this was Bone’s first performance of his full-length show. He demonstrated well-filled arsenal of skills and techniques allowed him to bombard the audience with prestiges that virtually all hit their intended targets.

Particularly striking was his ability to sense objects while blindfolded with gaffer tape, slowing his pulse dramatically - verified by a midwife in the house - and demonstrating a memory feat by remembering specific words from three different books held by members of the audience.

Participants were selected at random to take part in various on-stage activities, including having their body language read to select the liar amongst truth-tellers, and selecting certain cards and letters, and having their hands glued together through hypnotic suggestion.

Of course it is impossible to write about this type of act without referencing master mentalist Derren Brown, a mention that Bone is unlikely to mind, as he quotes him on his poster. Similarly to Brown’s stage shows, Bone’s performance followed an arc, with all the set pieces being tied up nicely in the finale.

Dressed in a dapper three-piece suit, Bone had a delightfully affable air that appeared to make his participants feel relaxed, and an easy charm. It was a lovely, warm show, and while Bone may not yet have all the sparkle of a polished Vegas performer, he has a quirky persona that deserves to be seen by a larger audience than wedding guests. Saying that, his success as a wedding performer paid off on the night, as the audience included couples who had come to support him in his new venture.

Bone’s transition from magician-for-hire to stage performer deserves to be a success, and it can be hoped that his debut show, which was filmed for a showreel, leads on to exciting opportunities. And no - he didn’t hypnotise me to make sure I wrote nice things about him. At least, I don’t think he did...

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dishing up a laugh - review of Dinnerladies

Dinnerladies at The Corn Exchange, Newbury, from Thursday, June 9 to Saturday, June 11

ADAPTED from Victoria Wood’s much-loved late-90s sitcom, the Dinnerladies stage show saw the factory canteen and its employees transposed lock, stock and toaster into the theatre. With Wood and most of the main television cast members a little bit busy with other projects, it was mainly up to a cast as fresh as the canteen’s daily-delivered bread to bring the well-known characters back to life, and they did so with performances that verged on spot-on impressions.

The exception was Andrew Dunn, reprising his role as steadfast canteen manager Tony, whose presence in the production is a useful lynchpin as a link back to the source material. Also joining the cast for this tour was Sue Devaney, “Jane from the planning department” in the television series - who, after a brief appearance onstage in that character, drew gasps of surprise and delight when she reappeared as Petula, the geriatric mother from hell. It was an excellent performance considering she was paying tribute in it to the near-irreplacable Julie Walters; a task possibly even more challenging than that faced by Laura Sheppard, taking on Wood’s central role of Bren, the outwardly dappy but inwardly complex canteen worker.

Adapted from Wood’s television scripts rather than an original storyline, the story (at least in the second act) mainly followed events of the final series, with Bren attempting to win money on a quiz show to fulfil her and Tony’s dream in the face of imminent redundancy. It resulted in quite a bit of plot being crammed into two acts. but still retained the gentle pace of the on-screen version, partly because it could be safely assumed that most audience members would remember the series well, and therefore not need too much background information.

Its reliance on the source material meant that the show had Wood’s dry and often hilarious wit and focus on health, aging and bodily functions stamped all over it, although those who knew the series very well were likely to have found the jokes a little less lustrous for being well-remembered. However, as a revisiting of a sitcom thought of by many with much fondness, it was a heart-warming celebration presented and received with a great deal of goodwill.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Dickens of a show - review of Gerald Dickens, An Audience With Charles Dickens

An Audience With Charles Dickens, at Arlington Arts Centre, Snelsmore, on Friday, January 21

THE actor great great grandson of one of Britain’s most celebrated authors, Gerald Dickens was surely destined in some way to bring his ancestor’s work to the stage. As it happens, although his books are now well known through their many transitions to stage and screen, as well as enduring in print, Dickens himself became famed for public readings from his pages, and so recreating such performances has become Gerald Dickens’ calling.

Dickens Junior explained how his great great grandfather’s love of the theatre helped bring his characters to life, not just in the readings he performed towards the end of his life, but also in their creation, as he was observed by his daughter pulling faces and trying out voices in the mirror during his writing process.

After a dabble in amateur theatricals that brought him to the attention of Queen Victoria, Dickens fulfilled his longing to tread the boards for the last two decades of his life through the public readings of his work that were to bring him even more fame, a goodly fortune and, some consider, to an early grave.

It is possible that Dickens’ health was hit hard, not only by the trials of touring both Britain and the USA, but also by the intensity of these live performances. Far from staid readings, Dickens threw his all into every performance, in particular a specially-written three-act reading of the murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist - judged for its success each night by how many ladies in the audience fainted.

And so Gerald Dickens now brings to life some of the colourful characters of Dickens’ work, from a Gollum-like Uriah Heap to the schadenfreude of Mr and Mrs Micawber, on a stage laid out how Dickens himself would have had it on his tours, draped in red velvet and with a raised block on which to rest his arm as he read.

The second part of the evening was a one man performance of Nicholas Nickleby, with Dickens demonstrating his talent and passion for his ancestors characters as he took on such roles as the deeply unpleasant schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, ailing pupil Smike, and the demure Fanny Nickleby and her various unwanted suitors.

After such an enlightening and enjoyable first half, which would have stood alone in its own right as a perfectly acceptable evening’s entertainment the idea of an hour-long performance seemed something of an obligation come the interval, and others in the audience may have felt this quite strongly as there were a few empty seats on returning to the auditorium.

However, Gerald Dickens held the attention well as he presented his abridged version of the story, which first inspired his intense interest in his ancestor’s life and works when he saw it performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s. That production was eight hours’ long, which was probably harder going than Dickens’ lively and energetic 60-minute dash. It may have made the evening slightly longer than required for an amusing Friday night’s entertainment, but Dickens’ fascinating performance certainly lived up to any great expectations.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Gogolplex - review of Newbury Youth Theatre, Gogol's The Portrait

Newbury Youth Theatre present Gogol’s The Portrait, at The Corn Exchange, Newbury, on Saturday, July 30, and The Quaker Meeting House, Edinburgh, from Monday, August 8 to Saturday, August 13

HAVING built up a reputation at the Edinburgh Fringe over the past 15 years as a force to be reckoned through their powerful ensemble productions, Newbury Youth Theatre will be returning to Scotland on Monday with another vibrant performance, this time based on a short story by 19th century Russian author Nikolai Gogol.

Adapted and directed by Amy and Tony Trigwell-Jones and devised by the company, this was a story fizzing with thrills, shocks and humour, as a crowd gathered at an auction house to observe the sale of an infamous portrait, said to bring doom to its owners “as the devil changes hands”. Using the bric-a-brac surrounding them, the crowd told the history of the portrait, and its subject, a mysterious moneylender whose loans similarly led to disaster for those obliged to borrow from him.

With the ensemble cast of 17 made up with ghostly faces in varying shades of pale, this was a spooky tale, but one shot through with a strong sense of humour and a big dose of jollity, as portraits came to life, ghosts wafted into dreams and ghastly deaths were recreated through physical theatre, slapstick, clowning, shadowplay and puppetry.

An ingeniously designed set filled with picture frames, atmospheric music played on broken instruments (and beautifully-tuned water-filled jam jars) and folk-style songs and costumes reflecting the Russian setting added further strength to an impactful and, most importantly, fabulously entertaining performance.  In the telling of a morality tale warning of the dangers of creating art for gain and glory rather than for its own sake, the wholehearted investment of the entire Newbury Youth Theatre company into the production was clear.

The result was a devilish delight of dark pleasures, which deserves to wow once again in Edinburgh.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, August 4, 2011

Out on his Moloney - review of John Moloney

Newbury Comedy Festival: John Moloney at New Greenham Arts, Newbury, on Saturday, July 23

NEWBURY Comedy Festival has been a most civilised affair this year. Spread comfortably over 20 days, it has included big names (Mark Watson and Rory Bremner),  delightful treats (Running On Air, performed to an audience of five in a campervan), the welcome return of old favourites (Clare Plested) and slightly baffling performance poetry (You Look Like Ants). There was even a pleasing last-minute addition in the form of Dave Gorman, previewing his Edinburgh Fringe Powerpoint Presentation at New Greenham Arts on Thursday (I did see it, but he doesn’t want reviews - I think it’s alright to say that it was rather excellent, though).

And so, eventually, the comedy festival drew to an end on Saturday, with two seasoned performers - Joe Pasquale at The Corn Exchange, and John Moloney at New Greenham Arts. Moloney’s performance was a warm-up before returning to Edinburgh Fringe for a short run with his 2010 show Butterflies With Stretchmarks; an opportunity to ensure that he remembered it all (it looked like he did), and to bring it up to date with some relevant topical asides.

Butterflies With Stretchmarks was a lovely, gentle monologue focussing on the small things in life. From the noise his cat made when the vet surprised it with a thermometer (“Maugh”. Moloney spelt it for us.) to minute observations remembered from earlier life experiences out on the pull (hence the title of the show - it refers to tattoos), Moloney wove the mundanity of the everyday into a word painting, and left the audience well alone to relax into the evening without fear of reprisal.

There was nothing earth-shattering about the subject matter of Moloney’s whimsical musings, but his delivery was pure craftsmanship; the creation of a comedian who has spent years honing his work. A former German teacher, Moloney’s love of language and linguistics is central to his performance (and also elicits the trivia gem that the German word for nipples translates as “breast warts"). When the even the scatological and the curmudgeonly is transformed into poetry, you know that you’re in the safe hands of a comedy journeyman who is fully at ease in his work.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News, Thursday, July 28, 2011

Friday, September 16, 2011

Mills & boom - interview with Chris Mills

NEWBURY community venue Ace Space has scored a coup this month by securing the services of cult singer-songwriter Chris Mills for a night of hard-hitting Americana on Friday, September 16. Catriona Reeves spoke to him at the start of his eight-date UK tour, bringing his highly-regarded music over from Chicago 

Catriona Reeves: You started off at school in a speed metal band - when did you discover that folk/alt country was really more to your taste?

Chris Mills: I don’t know that I would say that any genre is actually more to my taste than any other. But as I got into my late teens I started to really appreciate great songwriters – starting off with Dylan, as we all do, and then moving on to people like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and Lou Reed. 

Looking back , I think that was what I was always after; even in my high school metal bands we played things because we liked the songs. There is a big difference between good speed metal and bad speed metal, and we only played the good stuff.

CR: Your current album, Heavy Years: 2000-2010,  is a career restrospective - can you tell me a couple of your favourite songs on there, and why you're so fond of them?

CM: That’s like choosing between your kids! I really like all of the songs on the record, but I think I’ll always look back on the songs from my Wall To Wall Sessions album (Farewell To Arms, You Are My Favorite Song, Escape From New York) with particular fondness. The three days I spent making that record, in one giant room with 16 other people all playing at the same time, is one of my favorite memories of all time.

The closing track, Signal/Noise is also one of my favorites. It was the first high concept track I ever did, the first one where I pushed the production side of beyond anything I’d done up to that point. And I’m really proud of the writing on that one, as well.

CR: Is there anything you enjoy particularly about touring in the UK? How does it compare over here with the Chicago scene where you started out, or US audiences in general?

CM: I’ve always loved playing in the UK. People there have a real appreciation for songwriters, and when they go to see them, they actually take the time to listen and find out what’s really going on. The States is a great place to be from, but I definitely think it’s more difficult as a solo performer to gain traction there. Chicago and New York both have amazing music scenes, but the country as a whole is so big it can make it difficult to reach everyone.

CR: Are there any other European/worldwide countries where you are particularly well received? Anywhere that you wouldn't have necessarily expected?

CM: I’ve actually been spending a lot of time playing in Scandanavia, teaching school kids about American political folk music. The fact that that’s become part of my regular musical life was definitely something I never expected. But it also gives me the opportunity to play my own music in a lot of clubs and at festivals there, and has allowed me to slowly nurture a pretty devoted fan base over the years.

CR: What are your plans for the future? What can we expect from the album 2010-2020? More Heavy Years?

CM: I’m currently recording an EP with some guys in Oslo that may see release sometime next year, and I’m building a library of other new songs that I hope to record sometime in the next few months.

As for the next 10 years: who knows?

* Chris Mills will be supported at Ace Space, St Nicholas Road, Newbury, on Friday, September 16, by Pete Gow and Jim Maving playing as Case Hardin Acoustic, and other acts to be confirmed. Doors open at 7.30pm; tickets cost £6 in advance from Hogan Music in Craven Road and Jacqui’s Shop in  Blenheim Road, or on the door while still available.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, September 8, 2011