Seasoned Professionals / White Girls

This double-bill of new shows from Norwich-based theatre company Laughing Mirror could not have been more contrasting.

Two-hander White Girls is a punchy and engaging piece that deftly explores our attitudes to migration and charity, framed through the experiences of two naïve young women who volunteer to help at the infamous Calais Jungle back in 2016.

Told with minimal props and staging, Frankie Bloor and Valerie Smith play both the main protagonists and the string of secondary characters in writer and director Madelaine Accalia’s challenging tale. Smith’s expressive face conveys both the giddy joy and tortured lows of their adventure, with Bloor strong on accents and physicality.

White Girls
White Girls

The piece carefully balances comedy with a serious message, keeping you rapt throughout the one hour run.

Seasoned Professionals is the best type of mindless fluff, an enjoyably silly tale about the panicked reaction of the Department of Seasonal Mascots when austerity bites and an inspector is sent in to chop a festival from the calendar – cue daft jokes, slapstick adventure, and a sprinkling of comic songs.

Harrison Cole is deliciously over the top as a drunken Santa and flamboyant Guy Fawkes; Jessica Cuthbert provides the backbone as both the inspector and a divorcing Mrs Claus; and Harry Benjamin delivers several flawless falls as the ever-fainting Easter bunny.

Daniel Hemsley, Katy McEntee, and Ashden Woodrow show their range across a multitude of roles, and Pete Rapp’s vocals and ukulele ensure the musical numbers go off without a hitch.

The script – by James Darby, Chad Porter, and Holly Richards – has a mix of groan-inducing puns and smart theatre in-jokes. A few judicious cuts could help (for example, a plot line involving an intern isn’t worth the payoff) but overall it bounds along at a jaunty pace with plenty of laughs.

Both plays are transferring to the Edinburgh Fringe. White Girls will be at Gilded Balloon Teviot from July 31 to August 26. Seasoned Professionals will be at Surgeon’s Hall from August 2 to 17.

Rough Crossing

Funnier things happen at sea in this frothy and fast comedy from one of our best-regarded living playwrights.

A mid-career Tom Stoppard play it follows the ups and downs of two writers, their composer, and leading couple, as they cruise across the Atlantic to New York for the opening night of their next big show.

The play, though, is in a mess – as are the intertwined love lives of stage darling Natasha (Issy van Randwyck), her fiancé musician Adam (Rob Ostlere) and her old-flame and stage partner Ivor (Simon Dutton).

It’s left to writers Turai (John Partridge) and Gal (Matthew Cottle) to fix the action on and off stage, occasionally helped by ship’s steward Dvornichek (Charlie Stemp).

The script is stamped all over with Stoppard’s trademark wordplay, structural jokes, and physical puns, with the opening scene of deliciously mis-timed responses and misunderstandings setting the tone for the show.

Stemp commands much attention as the amiable crew member, at sea with ship’s practice having faked his CV but more than happy to enjoy a drink or two, but Partridge is the real star. His conniving, charming, and charismatic portrayal of a frustrated playwright hits the mark, and together with Rachel Kavanaugh’s direction he keeps the piece moving at a steady rate of knots.

Cottle is a genial foil to the exploits, with Randwyck, Ostlere and Dutton all turning in solid ensemble performances.

Ben Cracknell’s lighting of Colin Richmond’s compact ship-shape set is subtle and clever, particularly when the vessel hits some choppy waters.

The play’s musical numbers, written with Andre Previn, don’t find themselves in the best berths: the cast’s voices seem a little weak, although Stemp and Partridge partially redeem themselves with an energetic burst of dance towards the end.

This is about the comedy though, and that never falters. Light of foot, quick of mind, and full of laughs, two hours just cruises by. You won’t be needing a life jacket.

The 39 Steps

This stupendously silly spy thriller is a delight from start to finish.

Based on the story – but not the style – of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1939 film, itself a loose adaptation of John Buchan’s book, this comic romp turns theatre convention on its head.

Just four actors represent dozens of characters, making frequent in-jokes and playfully messing with what it means to be on stage: we see fake cars with breadstick window wipers, beds constructed out of people, and some very odd escapes through windows.

Everything is played for laughs, particularly by Molly-Rose Treves and Ben Prudence who take on most of the heavy lifting playing policemen, hotel owners, crofters, music hall stars, and even an airplane. Their comic asides to the audience are perfectly timed.

The strikingly tall Harry Benjamin stands out throughout as unwitting hero Richard Hannay, the unassuming chap caught up in a spy ring and having to fight to clear his name of murder. He has the debonair twinkle and sonorous voice of the classic matinee idol; you can’t help rooting for him.

Elea Hepper is a triple love interest, playing a glamorous spy, an innocent Highlander, and a no-nonsense woman of means. She is spot on throughout, but particularly shines as unlucky in love crofter Margaret; her pining tears both comic and strangely moving.

Director Chad Porter and designer James Utting have kept the production tight; it bounces along from gag to gag and the deceptively simple staging strikes the perfect balance between suggestion and functionality. Their planning, and the copious backstage help, is the silent engine that keeps the show running.

Patrick Barlow’s award-winning script is a modern classic, earning it a healthy nine-year West End run. This production by the Maddermarket Players absolutely does it justice.

Sarah Kendall

This was a gig that could have been created just for Norwich: a storytelling comedian who not only delivered a great set, but asked for notes too.

Australian Kendall skilfully weaved a series of stories about Halley’s Comet, autism, doing cartwheels on the beach, and the folly of packing a cat in a backpack into a striking, moving, and rewarding over-arching narrative, repeatedly coming back to the idea that good and bad luck are two sides of the same coin.

Her manner is relaxed and discursive, seemingly just spinning old yarns about her family, but the second half – where she workshopped further stories for an upcoming radio show – revealed the truth of her precisely-honed approach, anguishing over individual words.

The audience in this city of literature lapped it up; the chance to give comic pointers seemingly just as enjoyable as being entertained with the stories themselves.

Sean Hughes

It wasn’t entirely clear why Sean Hughes was on stage for much of his two-hour show at the Norwich Playhouse on Thursday.

It’s not that he wasn’t entertaining, likeable, or funny. But there was very little passion.

He drifted fairly formlessly through a mix of anecdotes from his previously more dizzy showbiz life, his relationship with his family, occasional interactions with the audience, poems, and some questionable dancing.

There wasn’t much wrong with any of it, but there was no overriding theme that drove the show on, nothing that built in to a hard laughing, eye-watering, punchline.

There was a smattering of props, but the jokes would have worked just as well without that. There were some odd bursts of music mid-act, but not sustained or strange enough to be surreally funny.

On the whole the material was politely delivered and politely received. I’m just not really sure I want my comedy to be polite.

Bruce Forsyth

What drives an 87-year-old man to spend two hours on a Norwich stage? For Sir Bruce Forsyth, the answer seems to be a genuine love of entertaining.

Sir Bruce has been performing since he was just 14, with a career that spans singing, dancing, comedy and, perhaps most-famously, game show hosting.

He’s been made a CBE, an OBE and a knight but what he still seems to craves most is an audience’s affection.

Monday night’s show at the Norwich Theatre Royal was a warm up for his return to the London Palladium, his spiritual home, later this month and, despite his long career, was his first visit to Norwich.

Sure the jokes were cheesy, the catchphrases predictable, the singing and piano playing a little hit and miss, the dancing (sat down tap) – er – measured.

But if I’m even alive by 87, let alone commanding a full house to a standing ovation, it’ll be a bloody miracle; and it’s hard to imagine Brucie’s former Strictly Come Dancing co-host Tess Daly ordering a breakfast without the help of an autocue, let alone storming her way through a two-hour set with self-deprecation and a constant, ironic, knowing twinkle.

He was strongest when 
interacting with the audience: getting four men up on stage to act as his backing dancers; one lucky lady to dance with him; and pledging to support the Canaries in a question and answer session.

But from start to finish this living legend had the audience in the palm of his hand.

So, yes, Brucie, it was very nice to see you.

You’re one of a kind.

Katherine Ryan

If only every comedian was as acerbic, smart and downright funny as Katherine Ryan.

The Canadian comic had the first of two sell-out Norwich Playhouse audiences enthralled from start to end of a breathless, energetic and entertaining set that took in celebrity spats, the class system, terrorism and topless modelling without you ever noticing the join.

Many performers struggle to deliver a coherent set, ending up with either a battery of one liners or anecdotes joined by weak segues. Not Ryan. She has a chatty conversation style that reels you in, even if it is occasionally punctured by some riotously shouty swearing – but if you don’t get angry about Justin Bieber, you’re probably missing a pulse.

There is the celebrity froth she’s famous for (the perils of touring the same venues as Peter Andre and Twitter tussles with Tulisa fans) but there are also some surprisingly raw and personal moments. These could be uncomfortable, but it is a measure of Ryan’s skills as a performer that these feel naturally shared secrets.

Elsewhere Prince Phillip is cited as a reassuring still point of reliable casual racism in an ever changing world, and her home country’s uniquely innocent response to terrorism (threat level: beige) is celebrated too.

Ryan is a top notch performer: working her routine or off script, dealing with traditional topics or the taboo. Her show is called Glam Role Model – other comics should definitely be aspiring to her success.

Bridget Christie

So this could be awkward: Bridget Christie is a woman and a feminist. We know this because she tells us, repeatedly. I’m a male journalist – and a target for a reasonable chunk of her material.

The most important thing, though, is that Christie is funny. She deservedly gets big laughs from the packed-out Norwich Playhouse as she delivers her two latest shows, A Bic For Her and Ungrateful Woman.

The first focuses on the bizarre decision to design a biro specifically for women, the second largely on the absurdist world of Müller yoghurt commercials. These both give rich pickings, but at times she resembles Stewart Lee at his most testing: minutely dissecting and dissembling on a topic beyond its comic worth.

There are astute routines on the lack of female snooker players, concepts of body image, and Cadbury’s Caramel adverts. Other jokes – like those about Margaret Thatcher and the Spice Girls – are less inspired.

Christie seems desperate to be seen as a firebrand at constant risk of upsetting her audience when, at least to the liberal Playhouse crowd, she is preaching the new orthodoxy.

She has good jokes and a likeable on-stage presence, but she needs some sharper editing and stronger narratives to really hammer home both her humour and her politics.

Jon Richardson

Jon Richardson is clearly a sensitive man: aged disparaging reviews, the curling of microphone wires and the absence of anyone called Geoff in the audience all seem capable of throwing him off beat.

That’s despite clearly being talented and popular enough to pack out the Theatre Royal and keep an audience laughing throughout an impressive two-hour set.

In his own words, he’s not very good at being happy, which means he has something to say. Targets for his attention included America’s disdain for health and safety, the UK’s tendency to conflate sunny weather with hideous drunkenness, and — in a particularly withering section — the tragedy of replacing TV show Blind Date with Take Me Out.

His style is one of a storyteller, creating scenarios as rich in detail as humour and delivered with an impish wink and overtone of knitwear.

You wouldn’t believe it was possible to laugh along as much with a man in a cardigan.

Noises Off

From the moment the curtain goes up on Noises Off there’s barely a quiet moment in the house — and that sound is belly laughs coming from the audience.

This Old Vic touring production of Michael Frayn’s play about putting on a play is pitch perfect, with a fantastic ensemble cast blazing through the farce as things get fishier and fishier.

Neil Pearson’s sardonic, stressed director attempts to keep order, but the constant bedhopping and other peccadillos mean he is doomed from the off. David Bark-Jones has a fantastic physical presence, taking some well-timed — and very funny — tumbles. Sasha Waddell keeps court as the gossiping dame and Chris Larkin is a charm as the hypochondriac luvvie who somehow becomes the target of Maureen Beattie’s ageing actress’s affections.

The (real) director Lindsay Posner keeps everything on track rather more successfully than his on-stage counterpart, helped by Peter McKintosh’s neat back-to-back set.

The spotlight, however, is really on Frayn’s sparkling script.

Comic theatre is one of the trickiest things to pull off, and this production does it with panache.

Mark Thomas: Bravo Figaro

You might go to a Mark Thomas gig expecting to be harangued, to be heckled — but you don’t go expecting to have your heart toyed with. With his latest show Bravo Figaro, you should.

This piece of solo theatre is an emotional and deeply personal exploration of Thomas’ father, a builder with a surprising passion for opera and a sudden decline at the hands of progressive supranuclear palsy.

Through the prism of family tales and snippets of recorded interviews, and softly peppered with jokes, we learn of a bold and difficult man and how disease can rob someone of themselves — and how the power of music can, however briefly, return them to their loved ones.

There are traces of the familiar Mark Thomas, the left-wing activist who plays extravagant and very public tricks on the establishment, but this is Thomas as a supremely-gifted story teller.

Against a simple set scattered with memories, he unfolds himself and his family until they are united in the kind of bizarre yet beautiful scene that only someone with Thomas’ showman audacity could conceive.

Bravo indeed.

Stewart Lee

For a man who professes to dislike the internet so much, Stewart Lee is an ardent fan on one of its trendiest aspects: the meme.

is act is almost entirely based around the recurrence of motifs: building them up in the audience’s mind and returning back to them again and again, hoping that the growing conspiracy of insider knowledge that he creates in the auditorium will repay with bigger laughs with every reoccurence.

The most wicked part of this conceit is that Lee is so naked in its pursuit – actively bragging about the emptiness of his show while taking close to £20 a seat from a near-sell out Theatre Royal crowd – and that the audience loved it.

So he gets away with a show that has Scooby Doo, self-aggrandising shop names, and the acts of other comics as its main themes, and does so with enviable panache, deceitful confidence and a still-growing fan base after more than two decades as a professional comedian.

He can do this because as well as pursuing an almost Platonic study of comedy he is very funny. Alongside the metaphysical dispositions there are very good gags, both of the bold, crude kind, and slow burning jokes that take hold after a few cogs have turned in the listener’s head.

Lee made much of his previous visits to Norwich at the Art Centre and the Playhouse, and was perhaps too close with an observation that his style of comedy works better in smaller venues. It deserves Theatre Royal-sized audiences and their big belly laughs though.