Measure for Measure by Shakespeare in the Park – Review

Measure for Measure Review – Maple Hayes Hall

Shakespeare in the Park

Opening Night, Tuesday 20 June 2018

After my first visit to Shakespeare in the Park in 2017 to see As You Like It I was really thrilled to make my second ‘appearance’ for their 2018 production of Measure for Measure.
The plays are performed in the woods of the Italian Gardens that surround Maple Hayes Hall, a stunning Georgian listed building, built in 1794 and now home to Maple Hayes School for Dyslexia.
The first Shakespeare in the Park (or SitP for short!) production was in 1986 and they performed The Taming of the Shrew. In 2005 Measure for Measure took its first bow at Maple Hayes and it now returns for 2018.

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s darker comedic plays and is certainly much darker than last year’s pastoral comedy As You Like It. Set in the city of Vienna, it does have many of the usual Shakespearean elements to it though: criss-crossed plot-lines; misunderstandings, characters masquerading as other characters; double entendres; drunks; ne’er-do-wells; jocular oafs and winsome wenches! But along with the comedy there is also a very dark moralistic plot that is undercut by violence, verbal and sexual abuse and even a (off screen luckily!) beheading.

The plot is quite convoluted and complicated and it is fairly difficult to keep up with so I’m going to attempt to provide a brief(ish) summary:

Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, is worried about the welfare of his city so sets up a ‘sting’ to find out what would happen if he left it to its own devices for a time and who would step into the power vacuum and try to fill it. So he announces he is leaving Vienna for a period but actually stays in the city to observe what unfolds, dressing himself in disguise as a monk. His deputy is Lord Angelo who sets out almost immediately to rid Vienna of all the ‘undesirables’ such as brothel keepers and people with loose sexual morals. His first victim is Claudio a young gentleman who has committed the cardinal sin of having sex pre-marriage with his girlfriend, Juliet. Claudio is sentenced to death to teach the rest of Vienna a lesson. His sister, Isabella, approaches Angelo to beg for mercy but Angelo will only agree to this in exchange for sexual ‘favours’ which appals Isabella and she refuses to cooperate. Duke Vincentio (aka the monk) intervenes, telling Isabella that evil Angelo was promised to marry an old lover, Mariana, but jilted her when she lost of all her dowry. Duke / Monk tells Isabella to meet with Angelo on the pretext of marrying him but will send Mariana in her place – Angelo will be hoist by his own petard as he will be forced to follow Viennese law and will have to agree to marry Mariana while at the same tine be blackmailed into pardoning death-row Claudio. However dirty tricks Angelo refuses to pardon the condemned man, fearing revenge and, after the beheading of a unfortunate pirate in a misguided attempt to fool the substitute city leader that it was the head of Claudio, the cross dressing Duke is forced to disrobe to reveal his true identity and attempt to resolve the whole sad, sorry mess. Will there be a happy ending – as almost always with a Will Shakespeare comedic play (even a dark one), you can probably guess the outcome!

Still with me? I would not blame you if you weren’t…

Although the play is quite difficult to keep up with it is definitely worth it as the script is very funny, very sharp and quite modern considering it was written (in all probability) in 1604! There is plenty of wordy witty sword play between the protagonists and there are the usual lovely bumbling, tumbling, meandering characters with comedy names that come straight out of The Two Ronnies Sketchbook –  Elbow, Mr Froth, Pompey and the wonderfully titled Mistress Overdone.

The flipside of the comedy interludes are some dramatic, caustic, violent and aggressive scenes where characters clash, men to men but also men to women. The scenes are very realistic and convincing, it certainly drew the attention of the audience last night where you could hear a pin (or a pine cone from one of the trees) drop at the critical, most physical, moments.

The SitP cast are all every experienced, either at previous Maple Hayes performances or other performances in and around Lichfield and I recognised several cast members from the Lichfield Players and the Lichfield Operatic Society and who have performed regularly at the Lichfield Garrick – we are in very safe hands here.

David Stonehouse had a twin role both on and off set, he was excellent playing the double-hander of the Duke Vincentio / Mysterious Monk and was also responsible for directing the show. The direction of this part comedy, part tragedy, part shock horror play must be handled very delicately as it would be easy to overbalance in one direction or the other but David achieves this in a very accomplished manner and it is quite easy for the audience to switch from being highly amused to highly shocked within a couple of scenes.

Robin Lewitt plays the haughty, double-standard loving, out for all he can get Angelo with brooding menace and Hannah Wyss is fabulous as Isabella, the concerned loving novice nun sister of the unfortunate Claudio who is torn between saving the life of her sibling against losing her virginity to an unrequited suitor. The angry and upsetting violent scenes between Isabella and Angelo are amazing, it generates real sparking chemistry and the violence and anger that Angelo unleashes on Isabella when he realises she will not surrender to his clutches is very realistic and very moving.

Sarah Stanley, who directed 2017’s As You Like It, plays Vincentio’s wife Escala with calm assurance, Stevie Morgan plays Juliet while also performing double duties as the Stage Manager, Sam Chesses is the let off the hook Claudio and Ellie Galvin, Hannah Davies and Ryan Gault all show versatility with a number of roles.

The comedic roles are all wonderfully played by Adrian Venables as Lucio, Fiona Willimott and Gemma Irving as Bad Girls Mistress Overdone and Pompey and Brian Todd as Constable Elbow and Friar Peter.

The closing scene of the play is a joyful, cast ensemble River of the Dance-esque routine choreographed with typical skill and dexterity by Charlotte Middleton – and after the tribulations of the somewhat traumatic plotlines sends everyone home happy with broad smiles and a drum beat in their feet!

The other star of the performance is, of course, the wonderful Maple Hayes Woods, the colours of which change with the setting sun and with each closing scene, and provides a wonderful, natural, calming and atmospheric ambience to the whole of the performance, it is truly magical.

I had never read Measure for Measure before, did not know the plot or the main characters but, despite the at times pitch-black script and challenging plot-lines, I really enjoyed it, I am definitely going to draw the book from Lichfield Library and read it through, if only to confirm my understanding of the plot!

I said earlier that we were in safe hands with the cast and crew of SitP – they just will not let you down, and Measure for Measure is another glorious triumph in a glorious setting – they certainly have the measure of William Shakespeare.

Measure for Measure by Shakespeare in the Park is on at Maple Hayes Hall grounds from Thursday 21 June to Saturday 23 June at 7.45pm, with a Saturday matinee at 2pm. Tickets priced £15.00 are available from the Lichfield Garrick box office on Castle Dyke, ring 01543 412121 or book online (for Friday and Saturday) direct at:

www.lichfieldgarrick.com/whats-on/drama/shakespeare-in-the-park-measure-for-measure/2190#

 

Ain’t No Angels – Musical Review – 5 June 2018

Ain’t No Angels

Sutton Coldfield Town Hall

Dress Rehearsal Review – 4 June 2018

Al Jolson and Frank Sinatra are two of the most famous singers of the 20th century and their stories are combined in this brilliant production in the impressive grandeur of Sutton Coldfield Town Hall. This musical was performed last year at the Lichfield Garrick and received rave reviews and it is easy to see why based on the dress rehearsal I went to last night.

The idea for Ain’t No Angels came from musical director Ken Wragg, it tells the story of the animosity between the veteran singer and performer Al Jolson and the legendary crooner Frank Sinatra. Rivals in life they are reunited in death when they are brought back together in a virtual waiting room, somewhere between heaven and hell, as they await their calling to one direction or the other. As they wait they bicker and argue about which of them was the greatest singer and who had more hits, while a heavenly mediator, Mr Wellbeloved, tries to keep the peace and shows them the error of their ways in their mortal lives.

As both men relive their past they provide the soundtrack of their lives through their songs, initially like a verbal ‘duelling banjos’ as they try to outscore each other, but then eventually as more harmonious duets. Woven into this tapestry of classic songs are the events, personalities and partners that they encounter on the way, from their mothers, their (many) partners, lovers, contemporaries and wives, to the ensemble cast of their fellow performers and artistes that they have worked with over the decades.

As both men, initially stubborn, unbending and unrepentant, see their previous lives unfold and see the hurt they have inflicted upon the people who loved and respected them, they start to realise the error of their ways and wish they had been more generous, supportive and forgiving. They also see, through the suffering and torment that their respective rival has gone through, that there is another side to them and both men gradually begin to respect and appreciate the other.

They now stand before an unseen and all-powerful jury who must decide if they have done enough to repent and move along the up, rather than down, escalator towards heaven rather than towards hell. But have they shown true repentance – or will the jury think that they are just putting on another showman award winning performance to avoid the fiery furnace of Hell? Just who is the rather mysterious Mr Wellbeloved – is he a friend or a foe? And will their much put-upon marital partners ever truly forgive them?

Although the animosity between the two men is exaggerated for dramatic effect, this musical is based upon a true falling out between Sinatra and Jolson. Jolson’s star was waning when Sinatra came on the scene and the bad feeling probably emanated from the fact that Sinatra was the new kind on the block while Frank  saw Jolson as the has-been still trying to steal his limelight. Regardless of the truth behind the rivalry the premise is still a convincing one – both men were known for being ruthless in their work, and home, lives and it would be very probably that two such huge stars of the stage and screen would not get on.

The musical combines a fascinating background story of the early to late 20th century, with key events, occasions and personalities with a pulsating soundtrack of the hits of Jolson and Sinatra providing dozens of singalong classics to the beat of a live, swing band. It is truly a show of hit after hit as Jolson sings Swanee. April Showers, Sonny Boy, I’m Sitting on Top of the World and When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Boppin Along, and Sinatra replies with I’ve Got You under My Skin, Birth of the Blues, Somethin’ Stupid and That’s Why The Lady is a Tramp.

It also includes lots of, perhaps, less well known facts about the lives of the two men including the personal tragedies that affected them both such as the death of Sinatra’s elderly and much loved mother, and the tragic story of one of Jolson’s adopted children. This provides a fascinating insight into both Jolson and Sinatra and perhaps explains some of their actions and personalities – this definitely adds to the production experience and enjoyment.

Paul Lumsden, who also produces and directs the show, and Paul Roberts play Sinatra and Jolson respectively to perfection, bouncing off each other as rivals in life-turned-friends in after life and have a great time singing the classic hits of these two greats with obvious relish and enjoyment. Great together as solo performers as well as on the duets, they are impressive throughout.

Charlotte Middleton and Sian Jones play the (long suffering) partners of the two greats as well as a host of other female personalities of the day – Ava Gardener, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Mia Farrow to name but a few. Both sing, dance and portray this wide range (and diverse age group from 18 year old to 82 year old) of characters with great gusto, aplomb and have a blurring array of costume changes – I really don’t know how they do all this and still remember their lines and song lyrics – amazing!

Chris Wolverson plays Mr Wellbeloved, the MC who links and weaves the story all together but also plays a number of other characters, stage managers, producers and other stars including crooners Dean Martin and Bing Crosby – complete with the obligatory pipe of course!

With a cast of only five it is incredible just how many famous and not-so-famous characters appear on stage in various guises – at the curtain call I kept on looking behind the curtains to see where the other performers were, it seemed almost impossible for a cast of five to play a cast of hundreds! Lots of hard work and behind the scenes clearly went into this, well done to the whole cast and all the backstage crew for achieving this so seamlessly and professionally.

Music is provided by a ‘proper’ swing live band, all ably controlled by the show’s creator and musical director, Ken Wragg, and it all sounds fantastic in the impressive auditorium of the Town Hall. Lively, fun and time-appropriate choreography is provided by Angie Astell.

This is a great production with a song track that most musicals would die for, that has two of the most iconic names of the 20th century, a list of star names as long as your (fully extended) arm, witty one liners, historical accuracy with a musical and social timeline of the 1920s to 1980s, drama, pathos, tears of joy and of sadness and all performed with great heart, dedication and versatility.

Highly recommended, it is only on for two nights so please don’t miss out on this limited opportunity!

Ain’t No Angels is on at the Sutton Coldfield Town Hall, on Tuesday 5 and Wednesday 6 June 2018 starting at 7.30pm. Tickets priced at £16 and £14 for concessions, available from the Town Hall, ring 0121 2969 543 or book online at:
www.townhallsuttoncoldfield.co.uk/

Review from the dress rehearsal on Monday 4 June 2018