Monday, May 15, 2017

The Beggar's Opera at Storyhouse, Chester

When Chester's Gateway Theatre closed its doors for the very last time ten years ago, there was the expectation that it would be replaced by a performing arts centre called the Northgate Development. However, the Northgate plans were put on hold in 2008, and it wasn't until 2012 that Cheshire West and Chester Council revealed an ambitious vision to transform the city centre's derelict Odeon cinema into a replacement theatre and picture house combined. This vision widened still further the following year with the announcement that the old Odeon building would be renovated and extended to become a cultural arts hub for the entire city.

Last week saw Chester's decade in the cultural wilderness finally come to an end with the grand opening of Storyhouse, a £37 million arts centre which incorporates an 800-seat auditorium, a 100-seat cinema, plus the city library, a community performance and rehearsal space, a restaurant, two bars, and a children's storytelling space. To be blunt, Storyhouse is nothing short of magnificent.

The Trials of Oscar Wilde (Pontio, Bangor)

Who would have thought that a spelling mistake could lead to the ignominious and very public downfall of one of the greatest playwrights in British literary history? On February 18th, 1895, the Marquess of Queensberry left a card at the reception of the Albemarle Club for the attention of playwright Oscar Wilde. It simply read: "For Oscar Wilde, posing Somdomite". This card subsequently became Exhibit A in a libel case Wilde brought against Queensberry, but the truth was the Marquess knew exactly what he was doing in goading Wilde, who fell for his "booby trap".

The trial exposed more about Wilde's private life, proclivities and passions than he could ever have bargained for, and ultimately led to a counter-trial where the Crown prosecuted Wilde for gross indecency. The jury in this trial could not reach a verdict, but the retrial jury certainly did, and Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour in prison. The sentence took its toll on Wilde both spiritually and physically, and three-and-a-half year later, he was dead, aged 46.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Importance of Being Earnest (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

The last production I saw of Oscar Wilde's 1895 classic The Importance of Being Earnest lived up to the common conception that the play is a rather fusty, stilted, mildly amusing drawing-room comedy, performed with stiff upper lips and an air of superiority to the audience.

Not so with Richard Fitch's blisteringly energetic new production at Theatr Clwyd, which takes Wilde's magnum opus, holds it up to the light, decides that it's actually perfectly good as it is, but places it back down on the stage with a youthful enthusiasm that its creator would've revelled in.

The hallmarks of the play are all still there: the period setting, the lavish 19th century costumes, the acerbic and witty dialogue, the thematic intent to scratch the veneer of Victorian society to see what lies beneath. Everything that somebody going to see The Importance of Being Earnest would expect to see is there, but Fitch has given the presentation a jolly good shake and as a result, gives the play a fresh lease of life.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

National Dance Company Wales Spring 2017 (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

What I love about Caroline Finn is the eccentricity she brings to her work. Finn, the Artistic Director of NDC Wales and choreographer of The Green House, has an innate ability to tap into the "Britishness" of a situation, and as a result comes up with such quirky, endearing and aesthetically powerful works as The Green House.

This whimsy is also present in past works such as Bernadette, Bloom and Folk, an ability to mine an off-kilter oddness, whether that be the misplaced hubris of baking (Bernadette) or the solemn, melancholic face masks used in Bloom. Indeed, the fundamental atmosphere of Folk, with its pastoral aesthetic, was another manifestation of Finn's skill at shining light on the quirkier corners of our culture.

With The Green House, Finn has arguably crossed the Pond to soak up some of the tropes of American culture, especially those deep-seated in the 1950s - that I Love Lucy '50s housewife vibe, mixed with a Stepford Wives oddness most familiar today through its Desperate Housewives filter, and, as the programme notes point out, the bizarre other-world of David Lynch.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Super Sunday (Pontio, Bangor)

It might have been a Thursday evening, but Race Horse Company gave its audience a truly Super Sunday with its latest circus show at Pontio, combining all the fun of the fair with more serious religious iconography.

That clash of stylistic approaches can jar a little - one of the last places you'd expect to be confronted with a vivid portrayal of the Crucifixion is a circus show - but you've got to admire their chutzpah. The producers do warn people in advance about the religious imagery ("Super Sunday features irreverent humour and Christian religious motifs. We think the show is most suitable for people aged 12 years to adult") but being forewarned still doesn't quite forearm the audience enough for what they see.

It's not that the Crucifixion scene is offensive, distasteful or disrespectful. In fact, there's a degree of reverence in the lit candles and supplication. It's merely the audacity of shackling someone to a giant cross, then wrapping them up tight in clingfilm, which takes you by surprise. It's not offensive as such, just odd, and it doesn't altogether work.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Gabriel (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

The Channel Islands were the only British territory occupied by German forces during World War Two. The UK government did not deem Jersey or Guernsey strategic in its fight against Hitler, and so quietly backed away, allowing the Nazis to settle there in June 1940. The thing was, the islands were of no particular use to Germany either, except for the fact it allowed the Nazis to say they'd captured British soil.

Moira Buffini's Gabriel is set on Guernsey in 1943 in the depths of the German occupation and shows what life was like for the women left to survive there after their men had gone to war, and thousands of other islanders had been evacuated. Guernsey was cut off from the realities of war: the Germans banned any communication with the mainland and clamped down on attempts to distribute a newsletter among the islanders based on information gathered from the secret monitoring of BBC radio broadcasts. As far as the people of Guernsey knew, the war would never end.

Buffini's play tries to say many things - about the roles and strengths of women during the occupation, about hope and fear, about the definition of evil - but the through-lines get muddled up and sometimes lost in Kate McGregor's dry production. You get the feeling the script has more to say than the production is allowing, and that the actors are fighting hard to make their characters reach the point.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Scarlett (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

We've all wanted to just throw in the towel and run away sometimes, haven't we? When the daily humdrummery of life gets too montonous, or repetitive, or just too damn hard, we've had those thoughts about not turning up the next day, and simply disappearing. A new life with new rules. A new you!

This is how Scarlett feels. She rocks up somewhere in rural Wales with the intention of buying a rundown stone chapel, restoring it and living there for the rest of her days, away from the noise and bustle and stress of London life. And when she's asked about her life back home, and what she's left behind, Scarlett initially blanks it off - she has a business she plans to close down, a mother and daughter she denies exist. Scarlett is simply desperate to escape, both her own life and those within it.

Colette Kane - winner of the Royal Literary Fund's JB Priestley Award in 2013 and now a burgeoning playwright for stage and screen - is a remarkable talent. This play is intelligent and thought-provoking, it is vital and funny and revealing, and gives a rattlingly honest portrayal of the nature of the relationship between mothers and daughters of all generations. Kane's script is so arresting and insightful that by the end of the 75-minute piece, you feel a deep connection with the five characters. In short, Kane is a gift to the stage.