Brighton Year-Round 2023
You’ll forget the film; you might even forget any staged version of Lee Hall’s in the West End. The mystery’s in the ensemble, the production, its bewitching leads Lewis Todhunter and Melissa Paris. With Claire Lewis’ direction, Michael James’ music, and Graham Brown’s movement direction to the fore, it’s a mighty reckoning in a little room – seamlessly transferred to an ampitheatre.
Directed by Claire Lewis, Musical Director Michael James. Movement Director Graham Brown, Vocal Coach Ciru James, Assistant Director Howard Abbott. Fight Directors Wayne de Strete and Gary Andrews. Dance Captain Frankie Knight. Shakespeare Consultant Jo Gatford.
Stage Manager Paul Charlton, DSM Martyn Coates, ASMs Janet White, Rosalind Caldwell
Set Design Construction and Painting Michael Folkard, Set Construction Richard Harris, Paul Charlton. Set Painting Nancy Gerrard, Rosas Alempour.
Lighting Design Lighting/Sound Operation Beverley Grover, Sound Design Richard Lindfield
Wigs and Make-Up Design Hair Patti Griffiths, Flo Traini-Cobb, Costumes Barbara Campbell, Wardrobe assistants Monica Quinn, Bradley Coffey, Catrin Jones, Chaperone/Properties Janet White, Costumes Bradley Coffey, Myles Locke, Photography Miles Davies
With special thanks to Ann Atkins, Gladrags, Lewes Little Theatre, Henfield Theatre, Olivia Webb and Mollie the Dog, Kit Ellis, Kelly Paterson, Brighton Theatre group, FOH Staff and Volunteers art BOAT.
This is by way of a reprise, as the outstanding BLT production migrated from its home to BOAT for 17-19th August. In addition to what’s written below, all remarks still pertinent to each detail, it’s definitely worth recording how well this production transferred. One director who’d not seen the original said they’d never seen a company make such use of BOAT. When you consider the miniature space of the original production, this involves huge rethinking by director Claire Lewis and her cast.
First, there’s even more interaction with the audience, as in helping them to hide the only copy of Shakespeare’s new tragedy. Use of wider space means actors turn up everywhere, and the Marlowe-prompting Shakespeare scene, out of Cyrano de Bergerac, with Shakespeare a better pupil, takes on a new dimension; as do other scenes with actors peripherally popping up. There’s more opportunity for fun, not least when John Webster’s early-teen Arlo Giles-Buabasah is dragged across the grass by others whilst trying to eavesdrop on the blissful sounds of lovemaking.
The set’s simplicity is even clearer, the three curtained panels and various trunks swept up in a balletic geometry. For instance there’s additional dancing by Lois Regan’s Kate, sashaying between and under swords. It’s just one memorable amplification of space, but also keeping the sightlines and precision as clear as it was in BOAT; with added fun.
It’s a mystery. 22 and a dog transferred from the diminutive BLT stage, precision-choreographed so well the world swirls in and out of three set curtains: Marc Norman’s and Top Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love adapted by Lee Hall and here directed by Claire Lewis blazes in a spectacle that even this theatre can seldom have seen.
You’ll forget the film; you might even forget any staged version of Hall’s in the West End. The mystery’s in the ensemble, the production, its bewitching leads. With Graham Brown’s movement direction to the fore, it’s a mighty reckoning in a little room – seamlessly transferred to an ampitheatre.
London, 1593. Shakespeare (Lewis Todhunter, taking lead parts in Cock, The York Realist and The King’s Speech) is uninspired by his latest effort (still in his head): Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter.
His boss Henslowe (Mike Skinner, winningly fraught with high fluster) is threatened with torture by Fennyman (Richard Fisher, marking an assured late debut) who however softens when he realises what a play is; even more when he’s in one. Meanwhile Burbage (Bill Griffiths, in magnificent Wolfitt mode) has commissioned a play from Shakespeare. Neither rival knows it’s the same play.
Will’s friend Kit Marlowe (Michael Grant, debuting at BLT with a mercurial aplomb and sovereign, silvery voice, first of hopefully many appearances) badgers Will into inspiration, sometimes simply by being around when Will spies a young woman.
This is Viola de Lesseps (Melissa Paris, also in Cock, here developing an even more sizzling chemistry and ease with Todhunter, and in a mesmerising BLT The Revlon Girl last year) who has such a passion for the play she disguises herself and after young John Webster (as we discover, Arlo Giles-Buabasah, debuting, bewitching and fiendishly funny especially when upside down) is continually turned down by Will (but Henslowe sees something in him), young Kent (aka Viola) gets Romeo.
Viola in turn is promised to mercenary Lord Wessex (Oliver Russell’s notably unpleasant, and like Todhunter, Skinner and Griffiths, handy with a blade – shout out to fight directors Wayne de Strete and Gary Andrews in this tiny space) who must marry for money, promised by Viola’s father, social-climbing Sir Robert (Nick Roche, also Tilney the Chancellor, both full of Capulet huffiness, swearing revenge half the time).
The most physically comic and most touching scene is Todhunter’s Will wooing Paris’ Viola by trying to improvise that sonnet (18) already aided by Grant’s Kit who in fact prompts him with new lines and even lifts him to the balcony to woo.
Todhunter and Paris not only kiss by the book. They improve on it with delicate playful eroticism: their vocal love-scene shielded from view, Paris enunciates “There. Is. Something. Better. Than. A. Play.”
Voice coach Ciru James has worked some telling vocal projection here. Even when the superb Ned Alleyn (also Lambert) of Samuel Masters is projecting Mercutio and ‘being’ Alleyn’s there’s never any ‘acting’: the voice is truthful, both stage OTT Mercutio, and natural.
Most reading this will know the dazzling life imitating art imitating life plot, how Will’s life darkens, how Kit’s fate rends him with guilt, how discoveries and blisses pile up and counter one another to pattern the play, as well as throw out sly knowing proleptic signals, winks to Twelfth Night for instance and even the next play that WS actually wrote, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And how Nikki Dunsford’s poised and commandingly voiced Elizabeth I really is the Fairy Queen resolving all, regina ex machina.
There’s not a weak link. The virginal Sam down for Juliet (also playing Fress) Alec Watson puts on the right innocence with his powder, star-struck when he loses his cherry. Olivia Jeffery’s Mistress Quickly is a wardrobe mistress of dispatch and rather more in the tavern scene. Like several here, normally in a lead role, Emmie Spencer’s Nurse is never forced but warm-hearted and sympathetic. Her ‘oppo’ or stage ‘Nurse’ Ralf (Colin Rogers-March) is a stentorian “it’s about this nurse”.
As the virtuosic stuttering Wabash and truculent Boatman “I had that Kit Marlowe in my boat” and aspiring playwright, Andrew Bird brings gravelly presence to both comedic parts. Nol, the Benvolio here is echoed in peace-making gambits by Elliot Dryer-Beers; just as Howard Abbott’s Robin playing nervous Lady Capulet is also assistant director.
Award-winning dramatist and director Sam Chittenden is a warm Molly with a moment of depth in a rare stage appearance (with says much about Lewis’ production). Lois Regan’s Kate enjoys several dances and a few flirty moments (again, Brown’s work). Oh, and Spot the dog really is Mollie, brought on and well-behaved, at least tonight.
For such a compressed set, it’s remarkable how simply Michael Folkard’s transfers to BOAT. But of coruse its simplicity is designed for just such an amplification. Three curtains shimmer as an extended stage curtain, a four-poster bed, in part a balcony frontage, ceremonial partitions and those of a brothel-ale house, are sublimely simple, versatile and with a few boxes all the stage needs.
Beverley Grover’s lighting too was a thing of a parti-coloured precision in the theatre; none of that is seen in the matinee. In the evening though, beyond the lighting colours there’s candle-effects and other elements above.
Richard Lindfield’s sound synchronises with real ensemble singing and synched recorder-playing (Paddy Cuneen’s music) with musical director Michael James leading the company’s mesmerising choral efforts, Elizabethan madrigalian textures and solos with Aaron Coomer, also Peter the actor but a singer who most of all leads the music out to bloom.
Barbara Campbell’s costumes dazzle in depth, with detail and adroit modes of rapid undress and dressing; as do Patti Griffiths’ and Flo Traini-Cobb’s wigs and hair, both coming together in Dunsford’s regal splendour.
All deserve huge credit for such precision, such stillness in the love scenes; though Brown must take the plaudits here, along with Lewis and James’ music direction. How 20 actors peep round a bed, create a tableau, dance a galliard on this stage (led by dance captain Frankie Knight) is something that might daunt the West End, but then this is BLT.
We return though to the stunning performances of the lovers whose chemistry holds us from first to last. Todhunter as an appealingly fleet, warm but shadowed Will, vocally in tune and never once arch, forced or anything but ardent, quick-thinking, occasionally flummoxed, funny, genuinely tragic, or rapturous.
Paris is the most wondrous of all vocally, and her death scene as Juliet and all her Shakespearean speeches not only vocally spellbinding, but in her death-throes so truthful physically – indeed she brings truth to everything – there’s absolute silence as the couple take their last leave as stage lovers, and in truth. No-one seeing this will want the West End substitute. I’m for the Globe tomorrow. It won’t match this. Outstanding.