Monday, July 30, 2012

MASTERS ARE YOU MAD? - The Search For Malvolio

Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Chester   Until 19th August


Following last week’s visit to a fabulous production of Twelfth Night, I was very intrigued to see this specially penned sequel by Glyn Maxwell. Some of the cast reprised their roles from the Shakespeare play while other actors, previously resigned to brave attempts at breathing life into relatively minor characters, were given a real chance to show what they can do with meatier parts. The conclusion of Twelfth Night saw curmudgeonly manservant Malvolio (a splendid Matthew Rixon) swearing revenge on the perpetrators of his ignominious fall from grace at the palace of the Lady Olivia (a regal Lorna Beckett ). The story is picked up twelve years later, and nobody has seen or heard from the man. Could he be the mysterious figure who rules the legendary land of Moai? Duke Orsino certainly thinks so, and sends a rag-tag band of clowns and assassins to ‘terminate’ him.

In one of the worst British summers on record it was, unfortunately, inevitable that the heavens would open up at some point during the evening, and so they did. The rattling of a heavy shower on the overhead canopy protecting our seats managed to drown out precious minutes of dialogue at one point, and it is to the actors’ credit that they soldiered on regardless as many of the audience began chattering and loudly opening their umbrellas. But the inclement weather could not dampen our spirits as director Robin Norton-Hale gave us a sparkling evening of wit, song, and rib-tickling tomfoolery. Haseeb Malik had previously been seen as Twelfth Night’s Sebastian, and excelled here as bumbling, sharp-suited killer-for-hire Adrian. Tom Radford reprising Orsino also seemed to relish a more expanded role, particularly in scenes where he has a whale of a time disguised as a woman. Sarah Lambie is cute as a button whilst scampering about as Coraline, an ‘actress’ who is also Orsino’s ‘boy’ (it’s complicated, so don’t ask!). There is a lot of running around in this production with several characters dashing in and out of the playing area, mingling with the audience and strumming ukeles and mandolins at the drop of a hat. The character of Malvolio is talked about a great deal, but doesn’t really have a lot to do this time around. He is rather like Marlon Brando’s crazed Colonel Kurtz in ‘Apocalypse Now’, in that his presence dominates the proceedings, and the rather long wait to see the man heightens audience anticipation. When we do meet him, he’s a mumbling, shuffling shadow of his former self, and has fallen so far that he now commands our full sympathy. Matthew Rixon is a fine actor, and skilfully plays Malvolio as a broken doll of a man before seemingly recovering his wits late on. A special mention also for Ellen O’Grady who plays the small role of Fabian in Twelfth Night, and here is rather splendid as the enigmatic ‘Songbird’; dressed in a long shimmering silver dress complete with Cleo Laine hairstyle, and charming the birds from the Grosvenor Park trees. Chris Vincent also shines as the comic harbourmaster, a right Northern jobsworth.  Masters Are You Mad is another triumph for Chester Performs in this their third summer season in Grosvenor Park, and is an exciting, imaginative, beautifully staged, and worthy successor to the bard’s original. 
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Sunday, July 29, 2012


Lass O’Gowrie Productions and Fab Cafe July 22nd to 24th at The Fab Cafe, Manchester


There appears to be a quiet revolution happening in the heart of Manchester. A drive to bring classic tv and film productions to life, and engage audiences in a manner that big budget 3D movies can never truly manage. Imagine your favourite tv shows and characters living and breathing before your very eyes. Well thanks to producer Gareth Kavanagh and his team at The Lass O’Gowrie pub, you can. A few months ago I saw their productions of Halo Jones (adapted from the acclaimed comic book series by Alan Moore), and Midnight (from a classic Dr Who story by Russell T Davies), and they blew me away. Now, in association with Manchester’s Fab Cafe, we have Robots Of Death adapted by Alan Stevens from the original 1977 Dr Who story by Chris Boucher. Considered a bona fide classic of the Tom Baker era, Robots mixes the archetypal murder mystery with hardcore sci-fi themes in a superbly satisfying blend.

On a distant alien world, Storm Mine Four (a large industrial mining vessel) makes its way through massive sandstorms with a motley crew assisted by servile humanoid robots. When mineralogist Chub (a nicely underplayed debut from Manchester comedian Chris Tavner) is murdered, the crew begin to suspect each other until two time travelling adventurers arrive and are immediately blamed for the death. As the characters of The Doctor and Leela (who appeared in the original tv story) are owned by the BBC, the two main protagonists in this production are the super cool Kaston Iago ( the sublimely brilliant Marlon Solomon) and his feisty kick ass assistant Elska Blayes ( steely-eyed Kate Millest). Our heroes soon guess that the murderer is a robot, and they must unmask whichever one of the crew is the notorious killer Taren Capel (who is controlling the killer robots from a secret workshop on the ship).

With a minimal set, it is the fast paced action, top notch acting, and fine direction by Kerry Ely that rivets the attention. In the dimly-lit confines of the Fab Cafe bar with its sci-fi decor, replica starship bridge and a vast array of tv monitors screening selected images from the original tv story, we have the perfect atmosphere. Add to this the unnerving presence of the robots moving with eerie calm amongst the audience, I felt fully immersed in the proceedings. Played with a slight tongue-in-cheek, Robots expertly mixed tension and thrills with belly laughs and good-natured camp. We gleefully relished every murder, and the ensemble cast played their parts to perfection. As the ship’s commander Uvanov, Jessica Hallows is a hard-assed no-nonsense leader, ably supported by the gobby, chav-like Borg (a snarling, scary-eyed Miranda Benjamin), the delicate and aristocratic Zilda (a charming Ellie Judge), and blonde bombshell Dask (sassy and dangerous Clara James). Gerard Thompson gives a full-bloodied and gritty performance as the nervy Poul, while Cliona Donohoe doubles up well as Cass and one of the dastardly robot killers. Daniel Thackeray dies a lovely death, struggling with a robot assassin while Iago and Blayes argue over whether they should interfere. And Jess Lee oozes charm as the vertically-challenged friendly robot D84. But it’s Leni Murphy who steals the show with a beautifully judged comic performance as the happy go lucky Toos. Faced with an ever increasing body count, and the threat of imminent violent death from the out of control sand miner or a selection of robot killers, she effortlessly deals with anything thrown at her in a manner that reminds one of a young Elsie Tanner or more sexy Hilda Ogden. In a radical change from the original tv story, we have a truly Shakespearean finale mixing comedy and tragedy reminiscent of the late Douglas Adams.

The story continues though with the sequel ‘Storm Mine’ at The Lass O’Gowrie pub from 28th July to 30th, featuring more murders and mayhem from the same talented company. Tickets £8 on the door or from

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Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Chester till 19th August

This is a thoroughly enjoyable and infectiously energetic production, that benefits enormously from the glorious open air setting of Chester’s beautiful Grosvenor Park. A three sided playing area with a backdrop of towering trees, gently swaying in the summer breeze, provided the perfect stage for a triumphant piece of Shakespeare at his rib-tickling best. This is the story of shipwrecked siblings Sebastian and Viola, and their romantic entanglements with Duke Orsino and the lady Olivia. But ‘Twelfth Night’ really comes to life with the shenanigans of the drunken and uproarious Sir Toby Belch (Jack Lord channelling the spirit of the great Brian Blessed), his hapless sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek (an excellent physical performance by Scott Arthur), and Olivia’s puritanical sourpuss manservant Malvolio (Matthew Rixon).

Director Alex Clifton mixes the slapstick elements with the more melancholic ones perfectly, and succeeds in creating a wonderfully satisfying, yet bitter sweet, evening of first rate entertainment. Krupa Pattani is a loveably perky Viola, and combines well with Tom Radford’s matinee idol Duke Orsino. Lorna Beckett creates a delightfully aloof Lady Olivia whose long legs turn to jelly when she falls for Viola (who is pretending to be a boy), and later (luckily for her!) easily transfers her feelings to Sebastian (a solid Haseeb Malik). As always in a Shakespeare comedy, it is the Fool who plays a pivotal part in the proceedings, and Chris Vincent camps it up gloriously as Feste the jester in the style of an understated Kenneth Williams. Easily the most enjoyable scenes are those featuring Sir Toby and Olivia’s servants; the permanently exasperated Maria (Victoria Gee), Ellen O’Grady’s Fabian (think Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle), and upper class twit Sir Andrew. Jack Lord is simply hysterical as Sir Toby, and threatens to steal the show with his unrestrained energy and moustache-twirling music hall theatrics. It is Matthew Rixon’s magnificent Malvolio who provides the icing on the cake however, with his towering presence, affected walk (he seems to glide across the ground as if on castors), and fruity delivery. Lord and Rixon are a beautiful double act, and their ongoing feud results in some hilarious face-offs.

As the daylight faded, and the temperature dropped, Grosvenor Park revealed itself to be a vital element of the production. Melancholia was in the air, and Feste’s heartbreaking final song against the rustling of the leaves on the trees was truly affecting. I loved it!
Originally published at