Romeo and Juliet

Verona is anything but fair in this dark and challenging reimagining of the tale of two young lovers.

The star-crossed pair are there but little else remains in a version of Romeo and Juliet which is very much Matthew Bourne’s and not at all Shakespeare’s.

At a compact 90 minutes (plus slightly jarring interval) much of the Bard’s story has been jettisoned with the warring families, love rival Paris, the Prince, Mantua, and the Apothecary all excised from the action.

Instead we find ourselves confined in some form of mental health institution for the young, where Juliet is already ensconced and Romeo is soon cast away by his uncaring parents.

Romeo and Juliet
Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite) and Tybalt (Dan Wright)

Their romance blossoms in this unlikely setting – aided by their Cuckoo’s Nest inspired fellow inmates – through a series of wonderful duets from principals Cordelia Braithwaite and Paris Fitzpatrick.

Bourne has always been skilled at seductive shapes and selecting performers who act as much as dance. There are none of the rictus smiles and fixed stares of classic ballet here: these two lovers have eyes (and lips) only for each other. They sensuously combine, with one delicious passage seeing them inverted on the floor but mouths locked and rolling across the stage. When they finally break and stand panting, gazing longingly at each other, it feels intensely real.

The corps have plenty of chance to get physical too, with the ball scene starting as a formal party but descending into a frenzied orgy when the guards aren’t looking; there are skirts hitched up and no lack of writhing. Mercutio (Danny Collins) has a same-gender hook up that becomes the spark for his dispute with Tybalt (Dan Wright), triggering the inevitable descent from simmering unease to bloody tragedy.

As that darkness descended I swear there was a hiss and movement straight from Bourne’s muscular Swan Lake as the inmates formed a brutal mob, with the rapidly following conclusion just as bloody and shocking as that now iconic production’s.

The plot is distinct and different from the traditional play, but it has a power of its own. There is a question of how far you can travel from the original and honestly claim the name – Bourne’s reworking makes West Side Story look like a by-the-book RSC production – but in its own right this is an immensely creative and affecting tale.

Romeo and Juliet

Lez Brotherston’s set is centred on a curved tiled wall, with twin prison grills on either side for boys and girls, and a raised walkway around the top that allows for a balcony scene of sorts. Beds wheel in and out and there is a brief bit of Baz Luhrmann sparkle when a glitter ball descends, but the emphasis is on stark simplicity.

Prokofiev’s score is rejigged with an emphasis on and reprises of Dance of the Knights, through a new orchestration by Terry Davies reduced down to 15 parts and performed live under Dan Jackson’s direction.

Each of the runs of Romeo and Juliet includes temporary corps members drawn from local dancers aged 16 to 19 (Joe Barbrook, Chandi Brading, Freya Brown, Isis Clunie, Amonik Melaco, Jack Richardson), and perhaps the greatest compliment is that you could only identify them on the curtain call – for the rest of the show they slotted seamlessly into the cast.

Romeo and Juliet is at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday, September 7. Cinema screenings take place across the country from October 22.

Bells and Spells

All is not what it seems in this glamorous and enchanting show, that offers a gentle and lulling mix of humour and beauty.

Aurélia Thierrée is the light-fingered lead, gliding through a series of surreal vignettes and compulsively stealing items as she goes: jewels, clothes, table lamps, loofahs – anything she can get her hands on.

She achieves these feats through dexterous sleight of hand and optical illusions: disappearing into thin air to escape a pursuit through a revolving door, repurposing a bejewelled lamp shade to become a tiara, using a closed umbrella as an impromptu net for her bounty.

Thierrée makes instant costume changes before your eyes, slips in and out of tapestries, and transforms a room full of hatstands into a skeletal chimera that she rides off into the flats.

In one scene she becomes part of a painting and her head becomes decapitated, bouncing up and down above her body before that too becomes disconnected from the background, allowing for body swaps with a man and a pug. It is silly, simple, but infectiously fun to watch.

This is deliciously light fare in the main, reminiscent of old school music hall magic that is heavy on clever lighting, physical placements, and limbersome bodies and pleasingly bereft of bombast.

The show is directed by Thierrée’s mother Victoria Thierrée Chaplin and co-stars Jaime Martinez as an occasional love interest stroke mark. His dance and tap provide occasional interludes to the confounding dramatic scenes.

The planning and preparation to pull off such a show – with so many props, so many switches and changes – is a mammoth task. Armando Santin’s choreography is spot on, and Nasser Abdel Hammandi’s lighting is a masterclass in keeping the right things visible and the mechanics just out of sight.

The original French production of the show was called Vols De Nuits – or Night Flights. That is perhaps a more fitting name: it rests on the edge of memory like one of those delightful but half-forgotten dreams, something you can’t quite believe you really saw. A true Festival highlight.

Boy Blue: Blak Whyte Gray

From the first tentative move of the opening piece to the concluding strut of the third and final dance, it is clear Boy Blue are an exceptionally talented company.

This reprise of their 2017 triptych for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival features eight dancers at the top of their art.

Whyte is a disturbing dystopian vision: two figures branded with a projected barcode, wearing tops resembling straitjackets, and twitching through jerky, awkward movements like possessed action toys or short-circuiting robots. The totality of the performance is entrancing, and that is with one dancer down from the original production’s three marionettes.

Second piece Gray is more energetic, evoking guerrilla warfare. The starkly literal miming of rifle loading and grenade throwing play sits awkwardly with the more lyrical and suggestive choreography of the rest of the piece but the company dazzle with a complex and audacious portrayal of kinship and rivalry.

Blak is the final piece of this triple bill. It is strongest in its earlier movement; the silent interval as a vulnerable central figure struggles to stay upright, shorn of the violent and aggressive soundtrack that successfully punctuates the rest of the evening is perhaps the most startling.

There’s a surfeit of ideas here – red drapes, hanging masks, and dayglo make up feel unnecessary against the purity and strength of the dance – but the technical supremacy and astounding energy of the performers ensures the audience is left in awe, and on its feet.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Burying Your Brother In The Pavement

This sparky, surprising, and brilliant exposition on grief, love, and family, bounds along thanks to a superbly talented young cast and pinpoint direction.

Written by Jack Thorne (Skins, This is England) it focuses on Tom (Matthew Doswell) as he grieves for his brother Luke (Jack Fisher), and his idiosyncratic plan to bury him under the pavement where he died.

In the process he comes across a rapid succession of unlikely characters, drawn with piercing accuracy by a flexible ensemble that nail the darkly comic tone.

Doswell leads superbly, evoking the confused surreal world of a grieving teen, barely absent from the stage during the hour-long run. Heather Kelly is brusquely sympathetic as his sister, and Ali Hunt a captivating modern street urchin.

This is a striking and heart-wrenching production with a very limited run; don’t miss it.

The Red Shoes

Based loosely on the Powell and Pressburger classic film, this reimagining of the reimagined Hans Christian Andersen fairytale is a typically stylish Matthew Bourne affair.

A swirling and becurtained proscenium arch dominates the show, a metaphorical and physical divide between life and art and itself a key player in the two hours of dance.

The establishing scenes are technically adept, with great corp work and some playful touches – including a Gautier-alike version of Monte Carlo, complete with beach balls and longing for cutesy sailor hats. The early scenes lack a little of the passion and flamboyance you expect from Bourne, but we’re not denied for long, and in retrospect it is a valuable contrast.

The ballet within the ballet is a shocking, enrapturing Gallic monochrome nightmare, with Ashley Shaw’s Victoria Page becoming more and more bedraggled and bedevelled. As the evil eponymous shoes drive her on, she becomes physically and emotionally overwrought – and we join with her as the footwear fatally pushes her on, barely drawing breath as the seasons pass on.

This central piece is really the climax, although the reprise and other later scenes have their own surprising charms.

There are several strong supporting performances, noticeably Sam Archer (ballet chief Lermontov), Dominic North (composer and lover Craster), and Michela Meazza (rival leading lady Irina). The uncredited Egyptian sand dancers (yes, really) also make a unexpected and successful contribution.

Lez Brotherston’s sets and costumes triumphantly contrast the lush physical opulence of the ballet house with harsh, geometric, and dreamlike projections during the Red Shoes proper and are laden with thoughtful details; the gradual shredding of Page’s dress during the main sequence is just one.

Bourne’s changes to the story do remove a little of the emotional resonance of the film’s story: Page and Craster’s courtship is heavily curtailed, and Lermontov discarding Irina for breaking an ankle instead of announcing an engagement shifts his character too.

What he retains is the dazzling visuals that made the film – and Great Yarmouth-born cinematographer Jack Cardiff – famous, with an inventive and involving production. This run opened with the 100th performance of The Red Shoes; those feet are going to keep on dancing for a long time yet.

The James Plays trilogy

There are certain things that people claim to be indivisible: countries, marriages, artists and their work.

The National Theatre of Scotland’s James Plays question all of those, and more. Three plays touching the lives of King James I, II, and III of Scotland, they are performed as a whole but are far from the trinity they might appear to be.

The first is a relatively traditional history play, with courtly machinations, shifting alliances, and bloody battles and revenge. The language is modern and expletive-ridden, but the mode is classic.

By the second play we have shifted to psychological drama, and a fractured narrative employing flashback, repetition, and bold visual cues for an unrelenting focus on the inner troubles of a boy king.

The final play is a very different beast, presenting an exuberant aesthete of a monarch pitched against the rationality of his Danish bride, rendered like some illegitimate and fantastical offspring of Ibsen and Eurovision.

What brings them together – aside from playwright Rona Munro – is the production and the cast, and both are immaculate in all respects.

Despite the focus on three kings, there are strong and brilliant parts for three women: Rosemary Boyle is exceptional in her professional stage debut as Queen Joan; Blythe Duff carries an internal ferocity as Isabella Stewart; and Malin Crepin has steely poise as Queen Margaret.

The Jameses (Steven Miller, Andrew Rothney, and Matthew Pidgeon) are masterful: each inhabiting without any doubt their royal characters as well as taking quite contrasting supporting roles in the other plays.

Jon Bausor’s bold set design runs through all three pieces: a giant sword plunged in to the ground and on-stage seating for some of the audience dominates throughout, with the remainder of the backing shifting slightly for each play.

Seeing all three plays in a single day is certainly arresting, but perhaps deceiving. Munro’s storytelling in the first two pieces is taut and convincing, but the third takes considerably more licence and is an odd adjunct. Despite its many parliamentary scenes it feels less of a piece about Scotland, or kings, and more about families; and its conclusion has more of a tone of condescension than the corralling that I suspect was intended.

As a theatre experience this trio of plays, performed by such a strong cast and crew, is breath-taking: the sheer audacity of running seven and half hours of drama together and doing so with such verve commands respect.

As individual plays, and in the hands of lesser performers, things might be a little more shaky – but for now at least those are not things that can be put asunder.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Who would have thought Shakespeare could work so well in a broad Norfolk accent?

This Royal Shakespeare Company production of one of the Bard’s most performed comedies shakes things up a little by introducing local companies into each step of its touring production, and in Norwich’s case that means actors from The Common Lot and children from Sprowston High School.

It’s The Common Lot’s Owen Evans – well-known as part of the Nimmo Twins – that dominates the show as Bottom, transforming Elizabethan verse into chitter-running squit with an unabashed Norfolk accent.

He is matched in method, if not stage time, by Dan Fridd as Flute.

The Sprowston-staffed fairy train accompany the action perfectly across dialogue, music, and dance.

Compared to them, most of the RSC take a back seat, with Tom Piper’s stylish production design and Sam Kenyon’s music making more of an impact than the professional cast – with the exception of Lucy Ellinson as a classically exuberant Puck.

This is a brave concept and a sensory triumph, and thanks to the verve of the ‘amateur’ participants it zings through the complex webs of love and lust that make up the frenzied plot.

Whether it deserves the RSC’s subtitle of A Play For The Nation will rest heavily on the strength of other local contributors around the country, but it is a joyous play for Norfolk. 

King Charles III

Imagining the events after the death of the Queen and the ascendancy of the Prince of Wales, together with lengthy lectures on the constitution, is – to use some classic civil service phrasing – a ‘courageous’ move.

King Charles III imagines a brewing conflict between crown and parliament, with political intriguing playing out around the emotional epiphanies of the royal family: people we think know, but we don’t.

As Charles, Robert Powell is certainly impressive. His voice and mannerisms gently hint towards the heir to the throne’s well known tics, but this is no caricature. He pulses with emotion, creating a real man from the sometimes difficult and expositional dialogue.

Jennifer Bryden and Ben Righton are similarly convincing as Kate and William, keeping on the believable side of mimicry.

As Harry, Richard Glaves provides most of the comic light to the piece, paired with Lucy Phelps as Jess, his unlikely lover.

The problem is, that despite the brilliant jewels on stage this piece resembles the hollow crown that dominates the final scene. It looks and sounds impressive, but the plotting is unconvincing: not wild enough to be satire, not realistic enough to be cautionary tale.

The use of Shakespearean metre is an interesting conceit, but it slips too often into archaic language that then jars uncomfortably with the modern parlance that is occasionally thrown in. It’s the only time the phrases “ambulous night” and “Tesco microwave meal for one” are likely to exist in the same universe; that the first is put in William’s mouth and the second Charles’ is even more disconcerting.

This production is a glamorous trinket, but a trinket nonetheless – and when the play’s message is that symbols really should matter, that’s a problem.

Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time

A dog found dead in a garden just after midnight might not sound the most auspicious start to a play, but this is no ordinary adventure.

The National Theatre’s touring production of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel is a remarkable piece of theatre, combining original and deliciously playful staging with an emotional and engaging tale.

Joshua Jenkins is a revelation as Christopher, a 15-year-old autistic boy that discovers the titular dog.

Originally accused of its murder, he pledges to investigate what really happened – triggering a series of events weaved around his father (played with impressive naturalism by Stuart Laing) and mother (a characterful Gina Isaac).

The ensemble cast, led by Geraldine Alexander as Christopher’s teacher and sometime internal still voice, is strong too – both in throwing instant caricatures and enabling the rich physical theatre.

Marianne Elliot’s direction and Bunny Christie’s design seamlessly mesh together to form a visual feast that takes in mime, dance, acrobatics, walking on walls, and a rapidly assembled panoramic train set – but all in ways that seem perfectly fitted to the action. It is technical tsunami, but there is not a gimmick in sight.

Central throughout is Joshua Jenkins’ controlled, masterful portrayal of Christopher. The demands the role places would tax an experienced actor; that he delivers so apparently effortlessly at such a young age is remarkable.

This is that rare piece that challenges all of your preconceptions of what theatre can be and leaves you absolutely delighted – and on your feet applauding.

The Measure of All Things

Life is measured in many ways: money, family, legacies left behind, even Elliot’s coffee spoons. But for film maker Sam Green the main measure is Guinness – or more precisely, the book of records to which the black stuff gave its name.

His live film The Measure of All Things explored some of the entries in the legendary tome, probing beyond the bare facts of the records to the people behind them: the enigmatic suicide of the man most struck by lightning; the bizarre rescue of a dying dolphin by the world’s tallest man; the surprisingly clarity with which you can hear a mechanical heart valve pumping in the world’s quietest place. (His filming of the last, to Green’s obvious pride, led to him appearing in a photo in the latest edition.)

Performed at the Theatre Royal as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, the piece mixes recorded film and stills with Green’s live narration and music from yMusic, a sextet that beautifully accompanies his stories.

Green also touches on the strange world of the McWhirter twins, who first edited the book, and the way their creation has taken on a life of its own, and its particular fascination for children.

This is a charming, funny, and intriguing piece and it deserved a bigger audience.

Those that did make it left with a richer understanding of what life is all about.