Electrolyte

This show did not have an auspicious start – six performers milling around the stage, sharing in-jokes and nattering away – but appearances can be deceptive.

Led by Olivia Sweeney as narrator Jessie, this mixed troupe of musicians and actors combine fluidly to tell a rambunctious story of love, life, and loss, at blistering pace and with fierce emotion.

Sweeney dominates, striding lankily around the stage all mouthy and boisterous – at least on the surface. Her aggressive Leeds tones are met by the sublime voice of Robyn Sinclair as rising artist Allie; given her exceptional vocals, it’s a role that doesn’t need much acting.

Writer James Meteyard plays a vital and redemptive bit part, alongside Megan Ashley, Ben Simon, and Chris Georgiou, who predominantly work the audio side of the piece with occasional small speaking parts.

It’s a style that has been termed gig theatre, but to label it is to cheapen it: what Electrolyte is, is exceptional storytelling. While sharper audience members may guess the key twists ahead of time, the delight is in Meteyard’s script: an extended poem that despite its dominant rhymes feels entirely unforced in its delivery.

This isn’t tricksy, affected performance poetry, it is skilled and pleasurable writing in a theatrical tradition that goes back to the iambic pentameter and the rhyming couplet. This is a story of youth, pharmaceutical excess, a search for family, and switched perceptions: hardly alien concepts to Shakespeare, who also threw in the odd song – and no one calls him gig theatre.

Donnacadh O’Briain’s direction is disarmingly smart. While there is undoubted tension and drama, in between scenes and at the edges of the action the cast remain extraordinarily warm and informal, playful as genuine friends. We are lulled into the theatrical deceit, making the emotionally wrenching events played out all the more impactful.

This isn’t a show to see for its format or construction though. It’s a show to see because it is exceptionally well written and performed and because like the best theatre, it takes you places you didn’t expect to go.

Macbeth

With Storm Gareth raging outside, there wasn’t much need for simulated wind and rain to open this oppressive and claustrophobic version of Macbeth, but still it came.

The Paper Cinema presented the Scottish play without words and without live actors – instead the abridged story was shown through Nicholas Rawling’s drawings, live animated by a quarter of puppeteers and backed by a live score.

As well as providing a full musical accompaniment – think Macbeth by Massive Attack, with the occasional Highland jig or prog rock outburst – Chris Reed and Francesca Simmons added sound effects the BBC Radiophonic would have been proud of: footsteps, creaking doors, even the slightly gruesome mopping up of the dead king’s blood.

The artistry and attention to detail here, from Rawling and fellow animators Teele Uustani and Catherine Rock, was breathtaking: handling hundreds of card backdrops and figures, combined and overlaid through multiple cameras, and projected on to a large screen.

Shakespeare’s poetry was missing, as was some of the plot to achieve a 70 minute run, but we still got cackling witches, ambitious Macbeth, the wronged Banquo, and the tragic Lady Macbeth. In short, enough story and definitely enough spectacle to stand independently of the Bard.

Some scenes seemed crowbarred in for the sake of a sound effect (a squeaky crown here, and a running messenger there) and Macbeth’s 60s-style hallucination jarred with the tone of the rest of the production, but given the meticulous craft of this show the creators were entitled to a little fun.

When Macbeth runs through the castle to slay Duncan, the portrayal is as dramatic as gripping as any production I’ve seen; the puppeteers as good as any actors at bringing the page to life.

Orlando

This stunning 90-minute monologue rescues Virginia Woolf’s tale from the stale confines of gender studies and treats it for what it is: a bloody good yarn.

While the 1928 book – with its possibly immortal gender-fluid title character – can undoubtedly be seen as a treatise on sexuality, or doggedly deconstructed through the prism of Woolf’s own biography, to do so narrows it into a cynical cypher in a way seldom contemplated with work by male authors.

Thankfully this touring show, opening at Norwich Playhouse, instead opens up the rich and very funny surrealist narrative and revels in its power to entertain.

And Rebecca Vaughan’s solo stage presence is desperately entertaining and engaging. She machine-guns out writer and director Elton Townend Jones’ adapted script with verve and emotion, and save for a few cutesy theatrical devices and sound effects, with barely a pause to catch her breath.

It envelopes and entrances you, so you barely notice the minimal set is just a box, chair, and mirror draped with sheets. She makes it so much more. You have to work to watch it and keep up, but Vaughan makes you want to.

We live her encounters with Elizabeth I, promiscuous Russian princesses, dulled 18th century wits, and duller Victorian crinoline outfits, with romps that take in city and country, the English capital and Constantinople. We love, lust, and lose.

We bound decades in a few sentences, both in snatches of Woolf’s prose and in Jones’ additions: 20th century conflicts are miserably despatched with a rattle of gunfire and Orlando appearing to have “mislaid a war, or two”. Such is the brutal contrast between a moment lived and the totality of history.

Vaughan and Jones are fantastic storytellers, and so was Woolf. It’s great to be reminded of that.

The Life I Lead

In the afterglow of the recent film sequel to Mary Poppins, this new one-hander play is a gloriously British evening of gentle and poignant comedy.

As David Tomlinson – better known to generations as filmic father Mr Banks – Miles Jupp strikes a perfect note as the quintessential gent: kind, self-effacing, and quietly enduring.

The piece, written by Norwich boy James Kettle, deals playfully with theatre conventions: Jupp sometimes directly addresses the audience, sometimes slips to soliloquy. He could just as easily be staring in his own dream, or possibly post-mortem existence, what with the backdrop of drifting clouds and an emblematic set dominated by a door with a Banks sized-hole cut through the middle, complete with bowler hat.

The narrative is fractured, dotting backwards and forwards in time and gradually piecing together some of Tomlinson’s most joyful memories – working with Julie Andrews, or finally connecting with one of his sons – to darker revelations: his father’s hidden life, and the fate of his first wife.

The deft script is littered with precious moments: “I did have a way of words; it was always something of a handicap” is how Jupp retells his first awkward meeting of Walt Disney, in one of the shows softly startling one liners.

Jupp is in his element, holding forth solo for just under two hours. His physical resemblance to Tomlinson helps, but what captivates the audience is that he shares that same mischievous twinkle: a review of the real man described him as portraying the caperings of the professional idiot, but it’s a phrase that just as easily fits much of Jupp’s career.

He is just as accomplished when switching to the embodiment of Tomlinson’s Napoleon and beef obsessed father, or miming one of the actor’s early stage roles creating a one-man crowd through a series of increasingly unlikely hats.

Selina Cadell’s direction keeps things at a gentle but advancing pace, and Lee Newby’s design is simple and suggestive. Matt Eagland’s lighting feels a bit overactive in places, but it’s the slightest of flaws in an overall accomplished piece, that dazzles with the most delicate of touches.

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.

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.

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.

Knightmare Live

A tolling bell, a thumping heartbeat, an empty knapsack. For people of a certain generation that means only one thing: Knightmare.

The children’s adventure game was a teatime television favourite from 1987 to 1994, and filmed in Anglia TV’s then studios on Magdalen Street.

Its cancellation left teenagers frustrated at never having the chance to take on the show’s challenges: until tonight. Sort of.

Paul Flannery took the role of dungeon master Treguard in a live-action loving pastiche with two audience members guiding a volunteer quester – 14-year-old Alan – through the riddles and deadly risks conjured up by a surprisingly camp Lord Fear (Tom Bell).

This was a knowing, affectionate and very entertaining show, packed with in-references and 90s jokes, deservedly lapped up by a Norwich Playhouse audience.

The illusion continues.

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.

Paul Daniels

There is definitely something magical about Paul Daniels – not least his ability to persuade an audience to suspend their disbelief over the passing of the last 20 years.

I suspect every member of the packed-out Norwich Playhouse audience knew exactly what they were getting when they booked their tickets. This was not a modern magic show: there were convoluted set-ups, some groan-inducing jokes, and a cabinet set piece. There was the (still) lovely Debbie McGee.

A ‘pick a card’ trick that would have seen David Blaine throwing a deck through a window was staged with an imaginary toilet. A prediction trick featured a game of musical chairs.

And all that was absolutely fine, because beneath the dated patina of the performance Daniels can take an age-old trick like linking rings and leave the audience in wonder at what they’ve just seen.

He is at ease with his craft and, even at 75 years old, shows no sign of wanting to stop performing.

When you can captivate an audience the way he still manages to, why would you?

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.

Bunny

Bunny deserves something better than this review.

Or rather, Rosie Wyatt – who delivers an astounding one-hour monologue as the heart of Jack Thorne’s play – does.

As Katie she deftly tells the story of an afternoon walk home from school in Luton, an seemingly innocuous adventure that becomes the canvas for a revealing series of events.

A fight, stand-offs, romance – or at least the casual, confused, hurtful teenage kind – and the sometimes tumultuous coallition of cultures that makes up life in modern Britain are woven together with revelations of her formative experiences, all told in a passionate, authentic and evocative voice.

Thorne (who wrote the screenplay for last year’s excellent The Scouting Book For Boys, based in a north Norfolk caravan park) expertly unfolds the story, interspersing the day’s events with memories of birthday parties, shoplifting and sex; the dialogue nestling unsettlingly between street patois and the Guardian-reading vocabulary of Katie’s parents.

Against a subtle and sensitive backdrop of animated illustrations by Ian William Galloway and Jenny Turner, Wyatt crafts this in to an exceptional and captivating performance, blissfully unaware of herself but displaying her character’s fully self-conscious state and gently mimicking the other players in the retelling both verbally and physically.

The performance won last year’s Edinburgh Fringe First Award and it deserves to win many more; it also deserved a bigger audience in Norwich, and the Playhouse more support for bringing drama of this calibre to the city.