Much Ado About Nothing

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Guy Rhys and Daneka Etchells as Benedick and Beatrice
Credit: Johan Persson

Written by William Shakespeare

Adapted and Directed by Robert Hastie

A Sheffield Theatres and Ramps on the Moon production

Leeds Playhouse

Since 2016 Ramps on the Moon have been partnering with six major venues including New Wolsey Theatre, Sheffield Theatres and Leeds Playhouse and Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Each year, this collaboration produces a large-scale touring production with one of the theatres to showcase the talent of deaf, neuro diverse, disabled and non disabled performers and creatives. Much Ado About Nothing is the fifth such production but the first to experiment with Shakespeare and the first to use British Sign Language BSL and Audio Description AD Directors to further develop fully integrated access both on stage and for the audience.

This year is the turn of Artistic Director Robert Hastie of Sheffield Theatres to work with the company. The resulting outcome is a joyous affair that ensures this comedy sparkles and feels fresh and innovative. Most significant about this production is that the work of Hastie, the actors and the creatives have resulted in giving real emotional depth and resonance to the piece. It is a witty and fast paced, irreverent production but it also has beautifully crafted performances that give new depth and interest to some of the best loved familiar characters.

This is a highly intelligent and perceptive production which is beautifully staged. The gleaming set designed by Peter McKintosh is sleek and stylish summerhouse and incorporates captioning in the skylight. In the opening sequence the cast gather for dinner inside the summerhouse and we observe them on stage through the sliding glass panels. In a wry twist, the audience can see the animation and the interactions but from a voyeuristic perspective where many of us can see but cannot hear…when  the cast “see” us they burst through introducing their characters and who signs, etc, all using Audio Description. This breaking of the fourth wall sets the scene for a production that feels consistently accessible to all and no strategy used ever feels tokenistic or shoe horned in. The overall feeling is that this theatrical medium actually embraces and enhances the original Shakespeare.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING cast   
Credit: Johan Persson

This is a strong cast who work in a  very collaborative manner. There is music from multi instrumentalist Kit Kenneth as Balthasar and some lively dance sequences as the cast stage a hoedown in old Messina! Dan Parr exudes easy confidence as Don Pedro as he oversees the machinations of the various love affairs. There are some great duos with Claire Wetherall and Taku Mutero as Hero and Claudio and with Laura Goulden as Margaret who speaks most of Hero’s signed dialogue. The relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is of course central to the richest vein of  humour with their rapier sharp exchanges. This is an inspired pairing as Daneka Etchells and Guy Rhys are perfect as Beatrice and Benedick. Both actors bring earthy wit and perfect comic timing, but also real emotional depth that makes their love affair utterly believable and truly potent. When Guy Rhys taps his prostheses as he asks Beatrice which of my bad parts did you first fall in love with, it is such a perfect moment. Etchells’ outrage and raw pain at the unfairness of her cousin’s undoing is hard to watch but incredibly moving.

This is a production with a focus on accessibility, acceptance and raising awareness. It ticks every box and as a bonus enhances this classic comedy. I took my daughter who hates Shakespeare but is learning BSL. We left Leeds Playhouse with a Shakespeare convert… so big thanks to the cast and creatives!!

Leeds Playhouse 27th Sept -1st Oct and on tour til Nov 12th 2022

A Little Night Music

Sandra Piques Eddy and Quirijn de Lang as Desiree and Fredrik.
Photo by Sharron Wallace

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Directed by James Brining

A Leeds Playhouse and Opera North co-production

Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse

This production of A Little Night Music returns to Leeds Playhouse after successfully opening here last summer. The main changes for 2022 are Sandra Piques Eddy as Desiree Armfeldt and Sam Marston as Henrik Egerman, the removal of social distancing measures and the poignant reality that musical theatre genius Stephen Sondheim is no longer with us. This is a confident partnership between Leeds Playhouse and Opera North which looks and sounds absolutely glorious. This really delivers as a special night out at the theatre which in our current rather grim society is a breathe of fresh air and a much needed tonic for the soul.

The cast of A Little Night Music.
Photo by Sharron Wallace

There is real drama and impact in the sheer simplicity of Madeleine Boyd’s set design. The opening act reveals the full orchestra warming up with Conductor Oliver Rundell while The Quintet start to unpack the set pulling away white sheets as they set up the staging. There’s something particularly exciting about seeing what will appear next and what it may reveal about the production…perhaps akin to post pandemic measures seeing the face behind a mask. For Act 2 at Madame Armfeldt’s chateau there is a vast functioning fountain complete with cherub! The elegant polished parquet floor that surrounds it adds to the sense of a bygone age. Tellingly the floor is peeling and damaged at the edges, poignantly suggestive that this golden age of champagne weekends in the country are coming to an end…aging and decaying alongside the elegant chatelaine of the chateau.

A Little Night Music merges a romantic musical with elements of French farce. Written in triple time to create variety, it also neatly links the multiple triangles of complex love relationships that play out around the three generations of Armfeldt women, and theThe musical opened on Broadway in 1973 and has seen many successful productions in the subsequent almost 50 years. Originally set in Sweden in 1900, director James Brining cleverly moves the action to the 1950s where the restless, career-oriented Desiree looks forward to more opportunities for her and her daughter Fredrika, whereas her elegant mother looks wistfully back to her heyday as a beautiful courtesan desired by Princes and Dukes. What remains unchanged and unchanging is the theme of love… Sondheim’s score makes the heart soar while his incisive, perceptive lyrics get to the core of all the highs and lows of love in its many and complex guises.

Opera North already have a great relationship with musical theatre and in 2016 worked with Leeds Playhouse on a highly successful production of Into The Woods. The full orchestra in place for this production is an added delight as on stage with the actors it both adds to the drama of life on tour for Desiree and life in the luxury of a chateau for Madame Armfeldt, while providing a perfect accompaniment to pitch perfect vocals from the cast.

Unsurprisingly the standout performance is Dame Josephine Bardtow as the grand dame Madame Armfeldt. Her crystal perfect diction, regal bearing and acerbic reflections make for the archetypal matriach. She effortlessly moves into tender and beguiling as she reflects on her early life in Liasons. Her facial expressions even when not centre stage are a study in storytelling and her every move is delicately and precisely nuanced.

Dame Josephine Bardtow as Madame Armfeldt Photo by Sharron Wallace

New to this 2022 production is Sandra Piques Eddy who is a real joy as Desiree. She looks gorgeous enough to merit It Would Have Been Wonderful and exudes Desirees’ playful and  impetuous nature. Her Send In The Clowns is spine pricking in the anguish and regret of a woman realising she may have missed her best chance at love. Quirijn de Lang returns as Fredrik and looks like a quintessential Hollywood  leading man from the 1950s. He has a polished but slightly weary elegance and brings both vanity and vulnerability to a middle aged man caught in a love triangle. He also brings great physical humour and timing to his role as the hapless lawyer. He is simply wonderful in all his big numbers such as Now, It Would Have Been Wonderful and Send In The Clowns.

This production seems perfectly cast throughout with Corinne Cowling as Fredriks’ vacuous and naive young wife and Sam Marston as his brittle and intense only son. Christopher Nairne as Count Carl-Marcus and Amy J Payne as Petra are highly entertaining on stage while Lucy Sherman brings a stillness and serenity that perfectly counterbalances some of the other more dramatic performances. Helen Évora as Countess Charlotte is simply wonderful as the brittle, disillusioned wife who still loves her errant buffoon of a husband. Her rendition of Every Day A Little Death is pitch perfect on every level and utterly unforgettable.

This production really is a pleasure to sit back and just relax in the assured direction of James Brining. Everything about it works smoothly yet nothing feels slick or shallow. Complex and flawed as every character undoubtedly is, there is such care and attention to each performance that its impossible to not leave the theatre on a summer night and feel that just as Madame Armfeldt promised…the night really has smiled.

Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse 6th-16th July 2022

FREEDOM PROJECT

Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse

Written by Luke Barnes

Directed by Alexander Ferris

Reflecting on Freedom Project and the issues and conversations it raises I found myself thinking why do we call children seeking a new home here refugees? Why are we not seeing them for who they actually are? They are simply children requiring support, nurture and safeguarding. Why do we have such differing perspectives on refugees than on evacuees? Is it because one is seen as voluntary and the other as forced? Surely both have a commonality in the driving issue being a removal from danger? This country saw around 2 million children evacuated during WW2 in Operation Pied Piper. Children were moved out of the cities to rural Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. I imagine we wanted them to be safe, nurtured, educated and valued. Fast forward 80 years to now and refugee children arriving in Britain are met with uncertain welcomes, interrogations, pupil referral units, police searches and housed in hostels if they don’t “look” like children.  These are just a few of the thoughts that came from watching Freedom Project.

This production was originally scheduled for 2020 but was delayed due to Covid. Perhaps it is even more timely showing now, mere weeks after events in Afghanistan led to the heart-rending scenes at Kabul airport. Written by Luke Barnes in response to dialogue with young people seeking asylum in London and Leeds, this piece gives a vital voice to those whose lived experience is to dream of reaching  safety but discover the reality is often very different. Perhaps one of the most potent memories from this show is the warm and very personal welcome that audience members are greeted with on arrival. The actors in this two-hander welcome us into the space with friendly confidence and yet these two young men who will perform as 15 year old refugees have been refugees themselves. The dialogue could easily be their own truth and therefore their friendliness is all the more potent and meaningful. Leeds Playhouse was the first theatre in Britain to create a Theatre of Sanctuary for Refugees and people seeking asylum in 2014. Actors Mohammadreza Bazarbashi and Hossein Ahmadi have established relationships here and this has been a space to foster supportive relationships and assist budding actors to establish careers and learning opportunities.

The traverse staging works really well creating both an intimacy as the actors can get close up to engage with the audience. Having the audience facing each other accross the stage also serves to remind us of the opposing factions that lead to so many refugeed fleeing their homes. Designer Katie Scott has created a set with the feel of a disused playground or skateboard park. This allows for loads of movement in this energetic piece and allows the young actors to be children as they leapfrog, slide or just hang out chatting. The overhead fluttering  canopy of tent fragments is a stark nod to the tents at Calais and elsewhere.

Both actors exude charm and are extremely engaging. Luke Barnes ensures that the writing tells a hard hitting story but at its heart is warmth and compassion. Their journey of arriving in Britain with nothing but second hand clothing, no identification and little English is terrifying yet it also tells of the hopes they have arriving here…we came to England because it’s the best. It has the best schools, the best jobs, the most money…the best films, football and music. The tragedy enfolds as the smalls acts of human kindness these boys receive is outweighed by the callous nature of bureaucracy that asks children to relive the horrors they have escaped without any adequate safeguarding or support in place.

This is important storytelling. It would be so easy to be comfortably assured that once refugee children arrive that they are supported and placed in secure, welcoming foster homes. Freedom Project is an important reminder that children fleeing may have no documentation and therefore can fall through the cracks ending up in unsuitable hostels and denied appropriate education opportunities. Without the right support these young people can lose their optimism for the future and we therefore lose all their potential too. We risk harnessing bitterness and despair when we could be nurturing hope and positivity. We love England. Despite what it did to our home.

Leeds Playhouse 10th-18th September 2021

Leeds Playhouse Theatre of Sanctuary

Barber Shop Chronicles

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE/CONTACT

Written by Inua Ellams

Directed by Bijan Sheibani

Ropes of light like tresses of a weave overlap and knot into bunches as they encircle the gallery of the Royal Exchange – the result is a kind of messy beauty that intrigues. Untangle it and it might be neat and tidy but somehow less than it was before. Such are the tales from 6 barber shops ranging from Peckham in London to Lagos, Johannesburg and Kampala. Writer Inua Ellams understands the value of the barbers’ chair as a confessional and uses it to chronicle the communality of black male global experiences. In a trip that criss- crosses timezones and cultures Ellams takes a razor sharp look at mental health stigma and the struggle with identity, racism and integration.

Barber Shop Chronicles is a riotous, colourful affair full of life and bristling with energy. There is music, singing, dancing, universally familiar bar room jokes, and there are haircuts to fit births, deaths marriages and job interviews. Every shop has the obligatory chair and mirror in which to relax and contemplate your inner world and your outer appearance. Every shop has men chatting about football and their favourite team, reminiscences about countries left behind or expectations about those to be visited. Politics and politicians are scrutinised and families are spoken of with affection or with hurt and frustration. The brilliance of this beautifully constructed drama is the little stories told and the small kindnesses demonstrated that are always present in every shop in every city.

At the heart of this work is the need for communication and the sharing of experiences. It is a basic human requirement for good mental health. Sadly statistics suggest that in Britain black men are 17 more times likely than their white equivalents to be diagnosed with a serious mental illness and young black men are six times more likely to be sectioned. At one point a young man questions how to appear as a strong black man while acknowledging the absence of his own father since he was six. Emmanuel, his barber quietly reflects on the core of this dilemma as he speaks of men living outside our countries often failed by our fathers and our politicians. In understanding the value of vulnerability when letting someone touch you with a razor Ellams approaches his characters like a barber, from “a place of delicacy, of gentleness, of absolute trust.” The result is a perfectly pitched script that speaks a language as universally valuable as the Nigerian Pidgin that cuts through any need to go through English to understand each other.

Royal Exchange Theatre and CONTACT

Co-produced by Fuel, the National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse

Royal Exchange Theatre 7th – 23rd March 2019

Images by Marc Brenner