Macbeth

Macbeth was one of the first plays I saw as a child, and apparently so enticed me that I nearly climbed inside the witches’ cauldron.

No such risk with this National Theatre production of the Scottish play, and not because I’ve become more decorous with age – but because there is no big tub of bubbling brew.

Instead, the weird sisters shimmy up poles to deliver their pronouncements and Rae Smith’s set gives us an abstract sweep of decking around which to unpack our imaginations, swinging about the stage to suggest hills and ramparts.

There’s always the risk that in seeking to reinvent such a well-known story that the affectations overtake the plot, but this bold production stays on just the right side of invention.

Rufus Norris’ direction keeps the play at the centre, even when surrounded by an inordinate amount of plastic sheeting.

Michael Nardone’s Macbeth is more entrancing as the latterly paranoid monarch than hardened fighter claiming the spoils.

Lady Macbeth is an equally split character, though Kirsty Besterman doesn’t quite inhabit either.

Joseph Brown jars as Malcolm; pitching him as a camp, sliver of a prince is successful on its own terms, but deeply at odds with the muscular tone of the rest of the production.

Ross Walton’s Macduff gives the fullest performance in his limited stage time, and Deka Walmsley impresses in a series of supporting roles, but particularly the porter – pretty much the only brief candle of respite in this dark and bloody play.

There are moments of delight in the movement – Lady Macbeth’s entrance down the sweeping ramp and through a rotating doorway is beautifully conceived – but also some howlers.

The fight scenes generally lack mettle, and Banquo’s despatch is almost comically delicate set next to the visceral goriness of the vividly enacted beheadings elsewhere.

Macbeth is a deceptively difficult play: its central characters are both brutally ruthless and innately insecure.

This product has elements of that too and like the witches’ words the difference between truth and lie can be difficult to discern.

Singin’ In The Rain

The best theatre is about magic: making the impossible happen. Sound Idea’s production of Singin’ In The Rain does just that and if you’re in the front two rows you’re likely to get quite wet too.

The iconic rain dance made famous by Gene Kelly comes gloriously to life on the Playhouse stage, with a downpour that covers the deck and splashes out into the auditorium.

Even on its own that’s enough to make you smile, but there are some quality performances here too.

Supposedly a supporting role, Nic Gordon’s Cosmo stands out thanks to his confidence, stage craft and sheer, obvious, delight at performing.

His slapstick in Make ‘Em Laugh and Moses Supposes is first rate, and just needs the ensemble to keep up.

Meg Artherton’s is deliciously despicable as the whining, screechy-voiced Lina Lamont, stomping and shrieking like a perfect diva, and her screen co-star Don Lockwood is lent an affable air by Chris Davidson.

He throws himself in to the tap, dance, and song with equal enthusiasm and talent. He can’t quite match Gene Kelly with an umbrella, but there’s no shame there.

The main quartet is rounded off by the wholesome wannabee actress Kathy Selden; Katrice Copland has a pure tone to her voice, slips effortlessly into the complicated choreography, and has good synchronicity with Davidson and Gordon.

There are some great cameo roles: Tom Davies excels as the excitable studio boss, Joseph Betts adds some sparkling ad-libs as film director Roscoe Dexter, and Martin Smith’s tap-dancing vocal coach is an absolute triumph.

The ensemble felt a little uncertain on opening night with too much hesitation and a lack of fluidity in some of the dance numbers, but nothing not fixable as the run matures. The same goes for a few technical hitches with misplaced set dressing and uncooperative sliding doors.

The important thing is that this young Norfolk company have aimed high, and Dan Smith’s artistic vision has created a show shot through with a sense of fun and enjoyment.

Easily worth getting a little wet for.

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.

5×15: Bodies

This Writers’ Centre Norwich event brought together five speakers for a diverse set of 15 minute talks on our often frustrating and surprising bodies.

Suzanne O’Sullivan spoke about treating broad manifestations of epilepsy: not just commonly-known seizures, but symptoms like uncontrolled running. Research has moved on from hitting parts of the brain with spatulas to targeted surgery to prevent incidents.

Jack Hartnell protested that medieval medics get a bad wrap; while their ideas might not have lasted, some themes and concepts are paralleled in today’s approaches.

Rachel Clarke opened with the shocking statement that “dying is my day job”, going on to speak movingly on palliative care and the power of storytelling in an area of the NHS not easily captured in numbers and targets.

Aarathi Prasad gave a fascinating and challenging insight into how little we know about reproduction, from the ancient non-human retro virus that makes pregnancy possible, to the chimera-like individuals whose DNA defies convention.

GP Gavin Francis rounded off the talks looking at how we change throughout our lives, from puberty grow spurts to mental changes, and down to a microbial level how our blood shapeshifts to carry oxygen.

Grand Finale

From the very start of Hofesh Shechter’s return to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, with a blatant nod to the monolith and apes of 2001 Space Odyssey, we a bombarded with a dense series of cultural references.

We are thrown hints of Titanic with a life-jacket wearing musical sextet, prolonged hakas, zombies and marionettes. We get a taste of Lord of the Flies, and an impromptu rave. We get Cossacks, even a dab or two.

There is so much here, and yet also so little. The eleven dancers pulse and shake, ritually slaughter, and lifelessly drag each other around the stage – you hope the smears left behind are from the unexplained downfall of bubbles that accompany one vignette rather than sweat, but the latter seems more likely. If the first half wasn’t so studiously monochromatic it could even be blood.

The choreography is dense and flawless, and the sparse set – a series of giant masquerading pillars that circle around like a possessed Stonehenge, creating barriers and shelters – literally looms over the action with every inch a deliberate menace.

But, ironically, like late Kubrick despite all the obvious talent in front of your eyes there is little to connect the dots in your brain, instead a kind of frenetic nihilism pervades that gives us multitudes of movement but such little progress. Even the costume change in the second part only degrades us further: half the company are in tracksuits.

With so many bodies on stage, there is precious little connection between them. One couple joins together for a split second in the first half; we get a smidgen of slow dancing in the second. Just one kiss. So much humanity, and yet so little joy.

Perhaps somewhere, in there, is the point.

David McAlmont

Skulking on stage in his skinny jeans, white t-shirt, and fulsome beard, David McAlmont cuts an unprepossessing figure.

At one point he seems to hide behind the piano. The lights are set in a soulless white wash.

But he has more music in his little figure than most people experience in a lifetime, and a voice that transcends any diminutive visuals.

Performing from Billie Holiday’s Carnegie Hall set list, songs like What A Little Moonlight, Don’t Explain, Nobody’s Business and Loverman come alive afresh. McAlmont doesn’t feel the need to insert gimmicks to reinvent these standards, but still makes them distinctly his own.

His five piece band don’t quite match up (though pianist Alex Webb has bursts of flair) but a missed cue aside, that doesn’t overly distract from the main event: McAlmont’s superlative voice.

He closed his encore with Body & Soul, and his voice was charged throughout the gig with an abundance of both. A great start to this year’s festival.

The Nature of Forgetting

A man’s struggle with dementia was the canvas for this astounding play without (many) words: a rich, adventurous, and deeply impressive production where every movement was deliberate and delicious.

The immensely talented central quartet (Guillaume Pigé , Louise Wilcox, Eygló Belafonte and Matthew Austin) brought clashing and conflicting memories to life, blended with a mixture of live and recorded sound composed by Alex Judd. Music played forwards and backwards and radio frequencies cut in and out as the lead fought to recapture his remembrances of his wife and of his daughter.

The 75-minute straight run packed in more choreography than most ballets, with exceptional use of mime, a sparse set, and incisive lighting recreating school rooms, wedding receptions, and a particularly delightful cycle ride. Visually breathtaking, not a gesture was wasted; this is a company of expert story tellers at the top of their game.

Theatre Re’s piece explores dementia but it celebrates life and love; it grabs at your heart, and makes you fall in love with love over and over again.

Top Hat

Mistaken identity, love, and mad dashes across Europe – Top Hat is a frothy, fun journey that features some of Irving Berlin’s finest tunes and sharpest lyrics.

Norfolk & Norwich Operatic Society’s production of this film adaptation has a mass of talent on stage. Alex Green as leading man is going to be left with very sore feet by the end of the run: he taps, dances, and sings his way through the show with unbounded energy.

Female lead Kathryn White is in great voice and holds a perfect line throughout, flexing between wit and vulnerability as her character’s fortunes shift. Together the two are captivatingly cinematic as they glide through Cheek to Cheek and Let’s Face The Music.

Adrian Wright is a comic star as valet Bates, with great support too from Ian Chisholm, Linda Campbell, and Christopher Penn. The ensemble lack discipline in some early sequences, but deliver a barnstorming all-tap version of Top Hat, White Tie and Tails that could pass muster in the West End.

Some minor technical trips on the first night were not enough to detract from the triumph of such a big show; I take my hat off to them.

Travels in Light

This premiere of several pieces spanned three churches in the centre of Norwich, in the type of promenade performance that has become synonymous with the Voice Project choir.

The demeanour was studied and slightly dour, all funeral dress and blank expressions.

The vocals in St George’s and St Peter Hungate were superb from both the soloists (Lisa Cassidy, Sianed Jones, Sian Croose, Jeremy Avis and Jonathan Baker) and the 100-plus choir, but there wasn’t much joy to lift a cold winter’s night.

A move to the United Reform Church saw a shift in tone with the ecclesiastical tradition giving way to hints of jazz and musical theatre, and a more upbeat edge with renewed capacity to surprise.

Previous shows have made better use of their unique surroundings.

Here the changing venues proved more distraction than enhancement; a single location might have given a better platform for the undoubted talent of the performers.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Dario Fo’s famous farce leaves a unavoidable impression in this lively production by the Sewell Barn Company.

Karl Hartland and Claire Williamson’s direction really ramps up the ridiculous in the second half, mixing slapstick and physical comedy with the sharp wordplay.

Hattie Scopes leads as the Maniac, with a crazed eye but a little too much self-control, with Vincent Gaine and Emma Kirkham convincing as the duplicitous detectives.

Will Harragan’s constable sounds the surest note, with his background acting a delight all of its own.

Some of the political content lacks nuance and is rattled through in its delivery, but the strength is in the comedy and absurdity of the unfolding action.

There’s nothing accidental about the laughs; this is a rude and spunky production of a modern classic.

Manual for Heartache

Reading from his debut book Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, Max Porter said it was too hot in the bejewelled Spiegeltent surroundings to get in to the really heavy stuff – as if the extracts he delivered with such brave force were easy words.

Alongside Richard Beard (The Day That Went Missing) and Cathy Rentzenbrink (The Last Act of Love), Porter gave honest insights into their experiences of writing about grief, covering both fictional versions and troubling personal memoirs.

Beard spoke of his family’s ‘unblacking’ of the day one of his brothers died, and Rentzenbrink the slow loss of her older brother and the way memories mutate over time, both having wrestled with writing about their experiences for many years.

These were sensitive and dark topics for a summer’s day but also a reminder that human connections and creativity can come from difficult places, if we’re prepared to wallow just a while.

Rear View

This IOU Theatre piece definitively gives a new perspective on life: for most of the show the audience are watching from the back of an open-top bus.

Specially converted for this very unusual type of street theatre, the raked seating makes the city a stage as the vehicle circuits around Bishopgate and Magdalen Street, stopping in a few hidden spaces on the way.

Throughout the journey poet performer Cecilia Knapp narrates the story of a 65-year-old woman, reflecting back on her life, her mistakes, her heartaches, and her moments of joy.

Her voice comes through headphones, her presence is fleeting: sometimes we see her on an improvised stage, sometimes a car following the bus. More often she is just an ethereal, disembodied voice: a memory of a memory.

The poetics are startling and the approach novel, though the connection between the two – and the host city – could be deeper.

Chotto Desh

One of the delights of live theatre is feeling an audience react.

Sometimes it’s a loud, convulsive laugh that echoes through the auditorium, sometimes it’s an almost imperceptible shift as everyone’s attention becomes totally focused on the smallest movement on stage.

Chotto Desh contains dozens of those moments.

Weaving together the story of a boy’s childhood and a Bangladeshi folk story of angered forest gods this astonishing show fuses mime, dance, animation, and shadow puppetry into a playful, witty and uplifting 50 minutes.

Dancer Dennis Alamanos is exceptional: fluid, expressive, and yet exactingly accurate when interacting with massive projected animations and the recorded score and narration.

Director Akram Khan’s choreography, Tim Yip’s visuals, and Guy Hoare’s lighting are all perfectly tuned together.

This is a gem of a show: a lush, imaginative, total delight.

And you can feel every moment.

The Story Machine

Eleven stories scattered across the battered remains of an old factory are yours to explore in this creative and surprising event from the Writers’ Centre Norwich.

Some are told with the aid of dancing, music, or a little spontaneous drama (with mild audience participation) – others are simply read aloud, or heard through headphones.

With just the opening and closing pieces shared by the whole audience, the meat of The Story Machine at the Show Factory Social Club is open to the individual to concoct, picking one of 18 journeys through the pieces.

From the initial segment’s totalitarian theme to Thomas Morris’ Welsh night out and Carys Davies’ tale of old horrors in the New World, many cultures and themes are explored.

It’s a great mental workout, and also a slightly physical one: with two and a half hours of standing, you might want to bring a camping chair.

A Clockwork Orange

A derelict factory seems a fitting venue for this Moco Theatre production of Antony Burgess’ dystopian vision, the audience promenading through a sprawling stylised set.

Made infamous by Stanley Kubrick’s film version, the story sees tearaway teen Alex and his gang of droogs pillaging their way through life. But the authoritarian state catches up, and soon Alex is undergoing a brutal experimental reconditioning programme.

Joe Darbyshire leads an all-male cast of local actors; he is visceral, violent, and nasty – a perfect Alex.

The ensemble cast flex between roles – from droog to victim, intellectual to cleric – but are most impressive in the unhesitatingly physical violent scenes. Promenade can make it difficult for the audience to believe; here the kicks and the spectators’ flinches seemed equally real.

Miche Montague’s production includes the final redemptive scenes omitted from many editions of the book and Kubrick’s film. It’s perhaps the only thing that jars in this startling and successful show.