Posts Tagged ‘ Adam Spreadbury-Maher ’

A Butcher of Distinction, Cock Tavern Theatre: review

Since I saw this play The Cock Tavern have had to suspend all their shows because of a dispute with the council over their entertainment license. See their website for the latest.

By Rob HayesCock Tavern Theatre Rob Hayes
Directed by Ned Bennett

The Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn is getting a bit of a reputation for gore. Barely a moment went by during the recent Edward Bond season without someone being murdered on stage. And there is a touch of the Edward Bond to this new play by Rob Hayes.

The scenario as the lights go up is: two recently orphaned boys sort through their father’s things. Their estranged papa has just killed their mother before killing himself. He has also sold off everything that belonged to this once aristocratic family, “including the art collection”. The twin boys are left with nothing and have come down to London, where their father spent most of his time, to salvage what they can. One is a goatherd and one is the butcher of the title. They have cut-glass accents and say things like “old boy” and wear tweed.

Ned Bennett’s production doesn’t apologise for the absurdist strain in Hayes’ script: in fact Bennett adds pauses to highlight the black humour in lines like “Don’t move Hugo. Stay still and let the man stroke your face.”

“The man” is Teddy, played by a sinister Michael Gould, a gigolo – a fact that becomes clear to the audience long before the boys realise (although they probably don’t know the word).

Sam Swann as the younger of the twins (by 10 minutes) could not be wetter behind the ears. His wide, dark eyes seem to take up half of his face and his snub nose is straight out of Enid Blyton. Ciarán Owens is the older, taller, stronger, more dominating brother, Hartley. He runs his fingers through his greasy hair and is constantly on edge. Swann and Owens both give finely tuned performances and their exchanges capture the contradiction always present in sibling relationships – constant bickering tempered by deep-seated affection.

Both characters appear to have stepped straight out of a Nancy Mitford novel, however, and are entirely unbelievable. No one refers to parties as “hootenannies” anymore or refers to Indian people as “dusky”. But the problem wasn’t that these characters were too absurd but that the rest of the play wasn’t absurd enough.

By far the most captivating scene of the play is the last one, in which Hayes evokes Renaissance writers like Middleton and Ford in the more gruesome touches. And there is more than a whiff of Sweeney Todd. The utterly bizarre but compelling last 10 minutes involve a sheep costume, a walking stick, a meat cleaver and a straw boater. And it is brilliant. Obviously Hayes couldn’t have pitched the whole play at this level and the structure of the work does drive towards the dénouement. But Hugo and Hartley seem to have strolled in to the play from a different universe and the piece would perhaps have had more force if the setting (a London flat), the other characters mentioned and even Teddy, were a touch more ridiculous.

This review originally appeared on The Public Reviews

Madam Butterfly (Bangkok Butterfly) – review

King’s Head Theatre, Islington
Dir: Adam Spreadbury-Maher

Puccini’s Madam Butterfly is the latest to get OperaUpClose’s pub treatment and it by and large survives it.

In Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production the action is transported to modern Bangkok, from Puccini’s original Japan, and the geisha Madam Butterfly becomes a Thai ladyboy. Butterfly is introduced to an American officer, Pinkerton, who is fascinated by the young ladyboy (she is supposed to be 15): ‘She is a stunner, exotic and wondrous…Heart of a boy but the soul of a woman.’ During a party someone sarcastically suggests marriage and there is a jokey ceremony. Butterfly- naïve and desperate to escape – takes Pinkerton’s vows of love at face value and waits loyally for him when he goes back to America. For Pinkerton, however, the affair is just a bit of fun.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production undoubtedly has its moments: Margaret Cooper has the right mix of coquettishness and innocence for Butterfly. As she tidies the flat ready for Pinkerton’s return she is excited and poignantly childlike. Alison Dunne, as the maid Suzuki, has a beautifully rich mezzo-soprano voice: it is a pity her character doesn’t have more to sing. Mario Sofroniou is fairly detestable as Pinkerton – as he should be – and while his voice fills the small space it doesn’t overwhelm the audience. The trio between Suzuki, Pinkerton and Sharpless (brought vividly to life by Oliver Gibbs) towards the end of the opera is simply staged and is one of the highlights of the evening, as are the tender scenes between Butterfly and her maid, Suzuki.

The cast are almost without exception conservatoire graduates so inevitably the standard of singing is high – although in the role of Butterfly, Cooper’s vibrato is too wide for my taste. Musical director Elspeth Wilkes had just two other players to work with – a violinist/violist and a clarinettist – and with such limited resources Puccini’s heroic music does lose some of its force.

But I remain unconvinced about the justification for changing the setting so dramatically – not least because making Butterfly a ladyboy causes an obvious biological problem when it comes to the baby she’s supposed to have had. I’m still not sure exactly how they explained the sudden appearance of the child. While ladyboys and geishas have certain parallels, the concept felt ill-thought-out: for example, in Puccini’s original, Butterfly and all her family believe she is marrying Pinkerton for good and it is only Pinkerton who regards it as a sham. In Spreadbury-Maher’s production, the whole marriage idea is a joke: the “ceremony” is conducted by one of the other Amercian officers at the party. Everyone realises it is a sort of playground marriage – except Butterfly.

This version of the tale is not less poignant but it becomes a different tragedy: a tragedy not of betrayal but of delusion. Butterfly is so desperate to get away from her life standing ‘on bars in Patpong road’ that she puts her faith in a ghost of a marriage. What is more, Puccini’s music – written to evoke the highly stylised and constricted life of the Japanese geishas – doesn’t fit with the tacky clothes and miserable life of these lady boys. Nevertheless, the story is moving and the music beautiful, but as a fellow audience member said during the interval ‘the music would be poignant if they’d set it in a chicken factory.’

This review originally appeared on The Public Reviews

Pins and Needles, Cock Tavern Theatre: review

Not often do you see Boris Johnson, Hitler and the Biblical king of Babylon on stage in one evening, but this is precisely what’s on offer in the Cock Tavern’s Pins and Needles.

Pins and Needles CockTavernTheatre

The show is a 1930s-style musical revue made up of comic sketches, satirical songs and plenty of dancing. It was originally created in 1937 in New York by the International Ladies Garment Workers Unions. But don’t let this put you off – in this new version by Joseph Finlay and Rachel Grunwald the tunes are brilliantly hum-able, the satire biting and the performances sizzling.

Unsurprisingly, given that the musical was created by a trade union, the show’s political leaning is decidedly left-wing. Lines such as “We’re going to rob the rich of their mystery” and song titles like “Sitting on Your Status Quo” set the tone and although the piece was written 70 years ago, director Grunwald and musical director Finlay have done a good job of making it current. A certain notorious London politician with bright blonde hair and a passion for bicycles makes an appearance, for example, and Cameron’s “big society” gets short shrift. Goldman Sachs, Swiss banks and Vodafone similarly come under fire.

Each member of the cast is impressive but Elain Lloyd’s powerful, velvety voice stands out, especially in the finale, which takes aim at capitalist greed. Dictators are the butt of the joke in “Four Little Angels of Peace”, in which Chamberlain, Mussolini, Hitler and Hirohito (played hilariously by David Barnes, Laura-Kate Gordon, Adam Walker and Matthew Rutherford) wear tinsel halos and toy wings while singing about their “peaceful” policies. Josephine Kiernan is a sassy school teacher in a toe-tapping number tightly choreographed by Nicola Martin and four devils torment a distressed Elizabeth Pruett in “The Song of the Ads” by telling her her hair is too drab, her shoes are wrong, she uses the wrong de-oderant and she won’t be happy unless she uses this product. Pianist David Preston does a great job providing the live music for all this, joined by a cool Matthew Rutherford on the double bass.

If there is a criticism, then it’s that the piece’s political edge feels blunter in pieces about 1930s America – for example, about Roosevelt’s “New Deal”. But overall this is a highly enjoyable evening which will not only have you singing the songs for days afterwards but give you plenty to think about.


The Emperor’s New Clothes

What do Equus, The Romans in Britain, recent productions of King Lear and Edward Bond’s The Fool have in common?

Daniel Radcliffe naked in Equus

They all featured people in the altogether, their birthday suit: nude. But is it necessary? What does nudity achieve on stage and is there an argument that asking actors to appear naked is, at best, objectifying them, at worst, exploitation?

As the theatre critic for a local paper in Willesden and Kilburn, I saw four out of six of the plays which made up the Cock Tavern Theatre’s Edward Bond season. Two of these featured nudity and I began to ask myself why playwrights and directors do it.

To take the Bond example first: Bond’s particular shtick is showing extreme violence on stage in an attempt to shock the audience into recognising the violence in our own society. The nudity is part of this. There is no question that nudity in Bond’s work is to do with exploitation. In The Fool, an old vicar is stripped first of his riches, then his outer clothes, then his under garments (this was set in Victorian times, so we’re talking long johns) and finally his under pants.

Ben Crispin as John Clare in The Cock Tavern's The Fool The character was being abused and exploited. But what about the actor? And remember that this was staged in the tiny Cock Tavern Theatre (let’s just get the pun about this being an apt place to stage plays involving nudity out of the way now). There was nowhere to hide for the actor, the audience were three metres away at most and there was nothing subtle about the lighting of this scene. I wondered whether the actor had known about this scene when he’d auditioned. And how much he was getting paid.

While the nudity here didn’t feel gratuitous, it was excruciating and made the audience’s position feel hugely inappropriate, heartless and voyeuristic. And perhaps this was Bond’s point – but it made me distinctly nervous about going to another play by him. And if I hadn’t been reviewing the season, I probably would have avoided the later shows. This particular scene felt too real – we weren’t watching people pretending to strip an old man naked and then pinch him all over. They were actually doing this.

But nudity needn’t be harrowing. Back in 2006, I saw Sam West’s production of Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain at the Crucible. What seemed like 10 completely naked men cart-wheeled across the stage, frolicked (there is no other word for it) in an enormous swimming pool and, aside from the notorious gay rape scene, generally had a whale of a time. The actors seemed to be liberated and there was no hint of awkwardness. This was a celebration of the human form.

One acting coach is firmly of the view that nudity on stage is exploitative and he makes a good case, but Michael Billington wrote this persuasive piece when Daniel Radcliffe was appearing in Equus some years ago, suggesting that nudity should just be one tool in a director’s kit (!) and nothing to fill newspaper columns about.

Personally, at the moment, I feel that if I ever see another naked, cowering man on stage, it will be too soon. What about you?

There Will Be More, Cock Tavern Theatre: review

This is certainly not one to take the kids to. Edward Bond’s new play, There Will Be More, had its world premiere at the Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn last week, directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher. The play starts with a mother killing her children and closes with incest. And there are precious few laughs in between.

Edward Bond There Will Be More at the Cock Tavern Theatre

Dea, played by Helen Bang, is the mother who silently and chillingly murders her two babies; the rest of the play examines the aftermath of these events, 18 years later. In Bond’s world, violence breeds violence. Dea’s husband, Johnson, played by Stephen Billington, is an up-tight military captain whose violent day job bleeds into his dysfunctional family life. There are everywhere echoes of the Greek tragedies, from Oedipus who sleeps with his mother, to Medea who murders her children (hence the name “Dea”). There Will Be More is Bond’s attempt to write an ancient tragedy for the modern age.

As the “wicked” mother, Helen Bang is initially chilling, silently applying her make-up before smothering her sons. The second Act, however, sees her transformed into an entirely reasonable woman before returning to apparent madness for the third. Bond’s play is all about how we define madness but the point is an age-old one and he adds little to it. Johnson, the militant military husband is played by a staunch Stephen Billington who expresses love through violence and imprisonment. Billington admirably manages to summon up a slither of sympathy from the audience for the repulsive soldier, by blurring the lines between right and wrong, madness and insanity.

Timothy O’Hara (who also played the lead in The Pope’s Wedding as part of the Cock Tavern’s Edward Bond season) plays Dea and Johnson’s son, Oliver. He is vulnerable, innocent but stained by the events in his parents’ past.

This is truly car-crash theatre: the events are horrific but the audience cannot look away. Spreadbury-Maher’s production does not shy away from the raw violence: the set is minimal and the only soundtrack is the audience’s gasps.

Bond’s writing goes to the darkest places you can imagine and then scuttles into the shadows. This level of violence on stage is hard to justify – the original Oedipus story is no less harrowing for the worst violence taking place off stage. Very little actually happens in this play after the first 20 minutes and the play’s structure is incoherent. Bond is trying too hard to shock and ends up blunting his political pen.

Pub opera: Pint, Peanuts and Puccini

This feature first appeared on The Public Reviews website here

“Opera has died and we need to perform CPR on it.” So declared Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the artistic director of London’s newest (and smallest) opera house last week. The King’s Head pub theatre in Islington – London’s oldest fringe venue – has just announced that it will be switching permanently to musical productions, starting with Rossini’s Barber of Seville on 6 October.

The King’s Head theatre opened in 1970 and countless esteemed thesps have treaded its boards: Kenneth Branagh, Alan Rickman, Rupert Graves, Joanna Lumley. So why, after all this time, has the venue decided to change tack?

Of course, The King’s Head isn’t the first fringe venue to switch actors for altos – nor is Spreadbury-Maher a beginner in the field. As the artistic director of The Cock Tavern Theatre, he recently directed OperaUpClose’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème which has passed the 100 performance benchmark and is now playing at the Soho Theatre. Yet nothing about opera as a form seems to lend itself to the small-scale: gestures are exaggerated, emotions are deliberately overstated and opera singers are trained to project their voices to fill cavernous opera houses. Why, then, has the pub opera phenomenon taken off?

One obvious reason is the ticket prices. Jonathan Miller – whose Cosí fan tutte is currently playing to packed audiences at Covent Garden – is one of the new patrons for The Little Opera House at The King’s Head (along with Mark Ravenhill and Joanna Lumley). Speaking to the Observer recently he said “We are living in a completely unfair society. Many people are very underprivileged in this country, while there are these huge ornamental opera productions being staged. There is something immoral about it.”

Notoriously, opera-goers are white, wealthy, middle-class and middle-aged. And with prices at Covent Garden soaring into the hundreds, it’s hardly surprising that younger people are put off. Tickets for Spreadbury-Maher’s Barber of Seville, on the other hand, are £15 (£13 for concessions): startlingly affordable, as opera goes.

But these productions are not just popular with audiences: pub opera can provide a much needed training ground for young opera singers. While up-and-coming actors have been able to cut their teeth on the fringe scene for years in London, there are limited opportunities for singers – many of whom have studied on opera courses at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama or the Royal Academy of Music.

The King’s Head is not entirely altruistic, of course – pub opera is good business at the moment. Highly trained, enthusiastic, young musicians are willing to perform great music for miniscule fees. And a swathe of new austerity-age audiences are not willing to pay the prices demanded by the big venues.

Upstairs at the Gatehouse is an already established pub opera house and Oliver-John Ruthven will be the musical director for Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the venue from 4 November. For Ruthven, pub opera gives the audience the chance to view opera in a “microscopic way” while the informal setting “allows for a far greater potential for the audience’s world to mix with that of the performers.” Jonathan Miller agrees: the setting is all important. “In doing operas on a very intimate scale, in front of an audience of a hundred at the most, you renovate them.” Miller wants to strip opera of the window-dressing: the gilded venues, the symphony orchestra, the “ridiculous” tradition of dressing up to watch a production.

It’s worth remembering, however, that operas were composed for the gilded venues and symphony orchestras. And while La Bohème’s subject matter chimes with the “everyday” surroundings – above a pub, with a slightly dodgy piano – other works might not fit in so seamlessly. Oliver-John Ruthven warns that this new trend won’t suit all such works: “Not all operas are suited to pub venues because their scale is simply too much to compress into such small spaces.” It remains to be seen how well Mozart’s fantastical The Magic Flute will work in a small venue, or whether the prim and polished characters of Rossini’s Barber of Seville will look impossibly out of place in a room behind the bar.

For now, there can be little doubt that pub opera is in the ascendant. Whether the trend will continue beyond the current “age of austerity” will depend on whether these productions can be more than simply opera in a small space. Pub productions must provide a different experience of opera. It can’t just be a case of Puccini with a pint.

The Barber of Seville previews at The King’s Head, Islington from 5 October; 0844 477 1000. The Magic Flute opens at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate on 4 November; 020 8340 3488.