A Theatre Cynic Watches: "Oliver" St. Albans
God Dickens, why did you have to be so Dickensian? I'm not trying to deliberately slander one of the three pillars of British Literature here (the other two being Shakespeare and Katy Price) but his work is so dreary. My overriding memory of Dickens is the sound of a collective groan being let out by my English class when we were told we would be reading Great Expectations.
Fortunately, like everything else in life, you can make things better by packing them full of music, singing and dancing. And that's exactly what Lionel Bart did 50 odd years ago when he first produced Oliver for the West End.
Since then it's been reproduced multiple times and developed a much more diverse following than the novel could have ever hoped to achieve by itself. This time round it's the good people at the 's turn and, as usual, they didn't disappoint.
I came into this production with a clear mind because I've never seen the 1968 film adaptation, although I am familiar with the songs thanks to Saturday night programming on BBC One and any number of weirdly cheery NHS Anti-Smoking campaign adverts. The first thing that struck me was the Work House set; it was colossal, and formed the bones of most of the scene changes from that moment on.
I'd wondered how the set design team would cope with having to recreate the interiors and exteriors of Victorian London, but the approach was very simple; large sets with lots of layers. Very fitting when you consider the grandiose architectural projects the Victorians loved. The lighting was kept quite simple, there were occasional flourishes of colour (like when Oliver wakes up in his Grandfather's house or when he dreams of a better life in the Work House) but in general the schemes were kept uncomplicated.
The orchestra were as solid and consistent as ever, I keep waiting for someone to sneeze into a Tuba but they deny me every time the crafty devils. The choreography (Joyce Smith) was very well executed. I sometimes think it's harder to co-ordinate people in a large street scene than it is to get a handful of performers to dance perfectly in time, especially if you have a stage packed with children, street vendors and the occasional dog. The highest compliment I can pay the choreography in this show is that it felt totally natural and kept me immersed in the show.
The performances of the main characters were all very strong, the casting in particular deserves special praise as they got the best possible people for each role. Emma Stratton as Nancy was everything I could have hoped for; confident and bright to begin with but massively conflicted by the end of her sad journey. Lewis Elliot's Artful Dodger was incredibly charismatic (he actually had the audience in the palm of his hand at one point) and his joyful yet slightly edgy voice was the perfect counter-balance to Oliver's crisp, clean vocals.
Speaking of Oliver, Thomas Wilkins pitched the part just right. While other characters were bellowing and bouncing around him he kept it subtle, which was just what the part needed. His biggest achievement however was his singing, he hit every single note throughout the entire show. Every. Single. Note. Take a second and think about how hard that is. Just amazing.
Howard Salinger was a really interesting Fagin. Looking almost unrecognisable in his makeup he tempered his performance so much that my paranoid mind soon began to wonder, "...what is he hiding?" Instead of going incredibly large with his movements and behaviour he went close to but not quite over that edge. This mysterious teasing of motives continued throughout the show and really made me focus on every single thing he did. It's a very effective technique that I wish I saw more often.
The biggest impact of the night was reserved for Jamie Ross as Bill Sykes. The audience had been happily singing along with the show and applauding after each number but by the time Ross had finished intimidating the inebriated patrons of the Three Cripples the audience froze. You could have heard a pin drop. I've only experienced that once before in person and that was at the end of the terrifying David Fincher film Se7en!
Ross was entirely believable as the physically imposing Sykes, so much so that some audience members were reluctant to boo at the curtain call for fear of angering him (they needn't have worried, he's a very nice man)!
The other performers were all faultless, enhancing those around them while keeping the audience giggling. The one performer that really caught my eye was Charlie Harden as Mr. Sowerberry. Looking like Johnny Depp in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (and moving like a combination of the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) Harden's performace is proof that somebody needs to build a show around his talents as a great character actor.
Once again I've had the privilege of watching a fantastic show performed to the highest level by a company that excel every time they put on a production. I strongly urge you to attend while Oliver is still running, you will not regret it.
A Theatre Cynic Watches: "Grease" St. Albans
Grease. It's the word apparently. For me it's not just a word though, it's a part of my life that has reappeared whenever I've dated or hung out with a woman between the ages of 25 - 45. There is an entire generation of women who've grown up with either Grease or Dirty Dancing as their favourite film (and an intense fear of clowns thanks to Steven King's "It").
It became such an common part of life that almost every night club I went to in the 90's would end the night with the Grease medley, killing any chance I had of going home with a girl because I would immediately groan when it hit the speakers.
My natural cynicism has been eroded by the SAOS' productions of and . Before I saw their shows I can honestly say the only musical I've ever enjoyed was Avenue Q (who doesn't like swearing Muppets), but their productions have been so well executed that I never worry about suspending my disbelief, tonight was no different.
First I have to point out that if you are a Grease fan or thinking of attending at some point you'd better get a move on as the was packed for the opening night, far more so than any Operatic Society production I've attended.
The show opened with the announcer encouraging people to dance in the aisles and sing along as loudly as they could, something the audience did throughout the show. The level of audience enthusiasm during the performance was refreshing to see, it's the kind of atmosphere you just don't get at many theatrical events and it enhanced the whole evening.
The set was very carefully grafted to bring back an overwhelming sense of nostalgia with neon lighting and Wurlitzer shapes a constant throughout the set changes which featured a fantastically lit sleep over scene and small but very convincing diner set. The lighting deserves particular praise, with some scenes having almost 30 different cues in a 3 minute period, all of which flowed beautifully and helped enhance the performances.
The microphone problems that have sometimes caught my eye in past productions were gone and the consistent levels of all the performers was paramount to the success of the musical numbers, all which were belted out at a fantastic volume accompanied by the ever reliable orchestra.
As far as performances go the T-Birds (Adam Herbert Keene as Kenickie, Adam Feighoney as Sonny, Alan Baker as Doody and Oliver David as the poor sod who has to flash his arse on stage) worked well together, convincing me that they had been friends and reprobates for most of their lives which is no easy task in a show like this. Nerdy Eugene (Charlie Harden) nearly stole a few scenes with his loveable fumbling and constant awkwardness. Oli Martin-Smith cuts a charismatic figure as Danny Zuko, always at ease with the intricate dance numbers and emotional/daft solos he is everything you want from a leading man, even with Simon Cowell's wig.
The ladies are the true stars of the show though. Henrietta Wingate-Martin gets the balance of Patty just right; not entirely villainous and not entirely sane she reminded me of a Lucy Punch character in the way she always seems to be smiling just a little too much.
Abi Bedford worked her socks off in her lengthy dance routine as Cha Cha, any fellow Wolves Uni alumni is always going to get extra points from me.
The Pink Ladies (Stefanie Chadburn as Jan, Andrea Campusano as Frenchy and Aditi Sawjani as Marty) play off each other with perfect fluidity, Aditi Sawjani is particularly impressive; playing Marty with a surprising depth, she never once lowered her character to that of a caricature.
Elise Allanson's Rizzo is brilliant, she really captures the slightly tormented nature of her role. There was a moment during There Are Worse Thing I Could Do where she replaced Stockard Channing in my mind as the perfect Rizzo (yes I've seen the film, stop laughing at me).
The undoubted star of the show is Bethan Rufey as Sandy. It's kind of hard to explain just how powerful this woman's voice is, it sort of takes your breath away that such a fantastic voice and performance - both physically impressive and nuanced at the same time - can come from such a petite frame.
I can't complete my review without mentioning the physical aspect of the show. From start to finish all of the cast put in the kind of performance that would leave endurance athletes gasping for air.
Apart from hitting the gym with a vengeance the timing of the dance sequences was faultless as well, meaning the cast (thanks to Choreographers Claire Stanley and Henry Cox who arranged Greased Lightening) have probably been drilled harder and more frequently than the M25.
Yet again I've been won over by the St. Albans Operatic Society (soon to be St. Albans Musical Theatre Society) and their outstanding production and attention to detail. Seriously, I don't enjoy many things in life, but now I actually look forward to going to the theatre. To see a musical! Wonders will never cease.
On a side note I would especially like to thank Mary Myers who was very accommodating and wonderful company during the interval. That she has been with the society for as long as she has is testament to the fact that this company really feels like a community. It's a lesser known part of life in St. Albans that really deserves more recognition, go and see, I promise you won't be disappointed.
Grease is showing from Tuesday the 4th to Saturday the 8th of November 2014 at 7.45pm with a Saturday Matinee at 2.30pm
Alban Arena Box Office
The 10 Rules To Living In St Albans
So I've been living in the historic city of St Albans, Hertfordshire for just over a year now and, in honour of that anniversary, I've decided to share my observations of the city and it's people in the form of a stupid list.
I hope you enjoy it and use it as a helpful guide to navigating your way through life in this amazing place. Please don't be offended by anything I write, afterall I'm Welsh; we're kind of quietly angry most of the time.
1. Enjoy Visiting Cafes
Everywhere, Cafes bloody everywhere. You can't get away from them, every 15 yards there's a chain one or an independent one or a foreign one or a charity one or a religious one. They multiply like rabbits around here.
A few months ago I attended a house warming party thrown by a family who'd just moved here from a very affluent part of London. Apart from sharing her surprise at being able to find a 5 bedroom house for as little as £750,000 the hostess also shared her concern that she wouldn't be able to find a decent cup of coffee in St Albans. I find it hard to mask my reactions at the best of times, but when I heard that quote I had to fake anaphylactic shock just to cover my laughter.
If you live here you have to enjoy cafes, it's just that simple. If you have a cafe phobia (Chocolatebrownieaphobia) do not move to St Albans, you'll probably have a heart attack and die within 20 minutes.
2. Use Your Car Horn All The Time
Car in front of you not moved two seconds after the lights have turned green? Honk your horn. Traffic shuffling along a little slower than you expected it to? Honk that horn. 5am and you've just seen a cute looking bird in a tree and want to show nature your appreciation? Honk the crap out of that horn.
Nothing bad ever happened to people who honked their horns right? No one ever got into a fight due to road rage started by excessive horn use did they? Of course not! Honk your horn, raise your blood pressure, ruin someone's day/sleep/hearing. It's fun on a sadistic level.
3. Wear North Face Clothing
Now this isn't a St Albans specific problem, most of the UK at some point or other has suffered from The North Face fever. Aberdeen is particularly badly affected at the moment, what with all those oil rich Scots having disposable income now, but St Albans might be the current epicentre. Everyone, from children to dog poo carrying pensioners has a North Face jacket.
Hell I'm no better, I have a North Face jacket and bag. I know it's not the best weather proof equipment you can get and that it's a really bad flash in the pan fashion but I have to fit in dammit, these are my people now.
4. Be Surprisingly Friendly
Being from The North (that bit above Watford Gap) I'd heard horror stories about folk down south. The tales usually revolved around neighbours not talking to each other, people being staggeringly rude to one another and large groups of crazy individuals eating eels covered in jelly. I'm pleased to report that none of those things are true, especially that gross last one.
The majority of people in St Albans and Herts are warm, funny and most of all welcoming. I say the majority, there are the odd few who are so snobbish or bigoted they'll marginalise people without a second thought, but the other 99% are wonderful
Norman southern dandies.
5. Vote Green
When I was a child I thought The Green Party was some sort of joke political party like The Monster Raving Loony Party or UKIP. As I grew up I realised they were a serious party who had a strong desire to change the local environment for the better, it was just the voting public who saw them as jokes.
Thankfully the people who live in the St Peters Ward of St Albans didn't see them as jokes because they voted The Green Party in during the 2012...erm...local election? Yeah, I'll go with local election. That's pretty progressive when you consider lots of places I used to call home voted for people who's main political message was to "Send (insert minority name here) home!".
Well done Albanites, now all we need to do is get rid of the crap in the streets on a Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and we'll actually be living up to the party's name.
6. Love Your Parks
I used to live on top of a mountain in a house next to a woodland that was 1 mile from the beach and I didn't see as much open green spaces as I do on a daily basis in St Albans. There are almost as many parks as there are cafes in this city and they are all packed with people, especially in the summer.
Walking around Verulamium park in the height of summer is pretty special; there are families out having picnics, groups of friends walking around the lake and couples have borderline inappropriate make out sessions in front of bemused swans. It's magical. Almost as magical as the smell coming from the overflowing bins that don't get emptied until Monday.
7. Drive Your Pram Like A Maniac
Don't worry about your child's safety or the integrity of other people's shins, just barge your way through. They won't mind, they're used to it here.
There are a lot of pram drivers in this city and only some of them have the ability to be patient and carefully weave their way through the human masses. Sadly though a decent number of them do their Charge of the Light Brigade impression whenever they can, only they come out of it alive unlike the Light Brigade/other people in their way.
It's become such a hazard that I actively avoid the sides of the market when it's Saturday because my toes have been crushed so many times they're beggining to look like Twiglets.
8. Sell Your House To Private Developers
It's a pretty attractive proposition when someone from London or Yorkshire or Siberia pays your full asking price and offers a quick turn around as well. The only problem is that 4 bedroom house you've lived in for 30 years will now be split into 6 individual "studio apartments" which will each be put up for rent at the ridiculous price of £750 a month.
Over the next few years a range of hardworking saps will live in these tiny bedsits while the landlord does nothing to modernise the building because the fact that they are in a prime location in one of the most beautiful cities in the UK is all the justification he needs to sit back and become a money grabbing abscentee landlord.
The property market in St Albans is filled with overpriced houses and apartments that have been split up or slightly tarted up for a quick sale/rent. I've seen it before in North Wales when people sold their large houses to developers who turned them into bedsits. That practice nearly killed Colwyn Bay and it will eventually have a very negative effect on the St Albans area unless new developments are built for first time buyers and first time buyers only.
9. Be In A Relationship
This town is not a great place to be if you're single because there are happy couple everywhere. Sure there are a few places to go where you can meet other single types, but this is really a city built for lovers.
It's pretty at night, very temperate and full of places to go for a day out, none of those things appeal as much when you're single and alone and possibly miserable about that combination.
10. Love Life
If you're a resident here chances are life's going well for you. You probably have a decent job, a bit of money and a high standard of living. Hertfordshire also provides you with a plethora of things to do because there's always going to be an event you can go to or some location you haven't visited yet.
If you live or are planning on living in St Albans I recommend that you make the most of it, there aren't too many places in the country that are as unique, beautiful or relaxed.
The Hobbit: Middle Earth Throw Down
So The Hobbit franchise has been massively successful so far hut it has produced more critics than the original Lord of The Rings series did.
For a start people were pissed off that it was being split into 3 films which is a fair comment as it is only one book instead of 3.
The next point of contention was the new fangled 3D frame rate Peter Jackson used which, apparently, reminded some critics of day time soap operas since everything looked so real it made them think of the sets from Acorn Antiques.
Some people even got all pissy about the additions to the storyline which, as a criticism, is right up there with "my coffee has too much caffeine in it, I only wanted a big buzz not a massive buzz you idiot".
While those people will never be happy (and I mean ever) it's time for the rest of us to get excited as the big trailer for the final installment of The Hobbit series is here in wonderful HD! So sit back and enjoy as Martin Freeman and Co get all serious and battle ready in the war torn finale almost everyone has been waiting for.
I'm glad I'm not in San Diego right now because an army of nerds, media outlets and every rich unemployed person on the planet is currently attending Comic Con 2014.
In between bouts of sun stroke they will get the chance to suck up to famous people and watch trailers for shows that have a 75% chance of being cancelled within 3 years...I say that but most of them will be queuing to see those things for the rest of their natural lives.
That's what's on the agenda anyway, but a lot of the time people do pretty crazy shit to make the events and stuff they're promoting memorable, like the time Tom Hiddleston crashed the Marvel panel dressed as Loki and gave a speech so awesome and sexy you could have drowned a puppy in the panties of every woman in the room.
Loki Pokeyness aside this ranks up there as one of the coolest things to happen at Comic Con ever, and that includes the time Summer Glau beat up Arnold Schwarzenegger in a battle of the Terminators...actually that never happened. Sorry to get your hopes up there.
A day after Daniel Radcliffe, the Horns star (and, of course, Harry Potter himself) told an interviewer he had mingled with Comic-Con crowds disguised only by a Spiderman mask, actors from Supernatural, The Following and Twilight followed suit on Saturday night, visiting the long line waiting for entry to Hall H, where major panels take place.
Explaining himself, Radcliffe said: "I did an American accent for the whole time. I even took a rucksack, so I look like I'm just coming to Comic-Con. I had a whole look. But it was great … I took lots of pictures with people who did not know that it was me.
"I always loved that character. I love the comics, actually, as well. I almost got a picture with two girls dressed as Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy, but the moment had passed."
Radcliffe, a comics fan who had not been to Comic-Con before, even used a promotional stand to insert his masked face into a movie poster. "[It] actually looked weirdly good," he said. "It looked like Spider-Man is in Sharknado 2."
This was about to become the funniest thing of the year until he mentioned Sharknado 2. That film has the Subway guy in it. The fucking Subway guy. That's not a motion picture, that's a sign that popular culture is coming to an end, and we should all be sad about that.
The problem with Daniel Radcliffe wandering around dressed as Spidey (other than setting off the internet rumour machine) is that he'll have to come up with increasingly elaborate disguises to go to events like this. By the time he's become so desperate that he's dressing up as Rupert Grint he may have to fake his own death Lord Lucan style just to escape the heat. Although he'll be escaping fandom not possible charges of murdering the help.