Tag Archives: The Rep

Birdsong @ The Birmingham Rep

birdsong

In honour of the First World War centenary, The Rep recently staged Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of the best-selling novel Birdsong. As a fan of both the book and the BBC adaptation I was curious yet cynical about whether the tale could be successfully transferred to the stage. I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Birdsong follows young Englishman Stephen Wraysford (George Banks), intertwining his experience of fighting in the war with flashbacks of his time in France beforehand- including his passionate love affair with his employer’s wife, Isabelle Azaire (Carolin Stoltz).

An impressive set was waiting in the gloom when the audience first filed in; a filthy trench with ladders stretching up to the implicit threat of No Man’s Land. Even now we are still shocked by the conditions they fought in, from the soldiers’ grimy uniform to the nurse’s blood stained apron. The neglected setting of the war scenes contrasted well with the elegant furniture used in the effortless flashbacks to pre-war France.

The play also tells the tale of the lesser known tunnellers, who laid mines under No Man’s land. I was doubtful of how these underground episodes could be conveyed on stage but the imaginative solution was to plunge the stage into darkness and pull forward a few short, propped-up wooden beams with dimly glowing lamps dangling from them. When the men came crawling through them on their hands and knees the illusion was complete and the claustrophobic atmosphere created on stage was stifling. 

George Banks impressed me greatly as the lead, especially given the demanding nature of his role. Wraysford was required to be almost constantly on stage and to switch between the present and past continuously. This contrasted his carefree optimism and passion before the war with his disgust and detachment during the war, showing great depth of character.

However the best performance by far was that of Peter Duncan as the working class tunneller Jack Firebrace. Despite his poorer background he is the most noble of all the men, always in good spirits and cheering the others up- despite receiving the news that his little boy has died back in England. Duncan played him with a brilliant mixture of bravado and vulnerability that made him the most likeable character and the most tragic. Jack Firebrace is the decent man that gets written out of history and the play makes you feel guilty for that.

The play’s depiction of the experience of war was extremely vivid, with the sudden shell explosions making the audience jump in their seats and the aeroplanes being made to sound as if they were directly overhead. The horror of the Battle of the Somme was also alluded to without having to attempt to re-enact it. Before they go ‘over the top’, Captain Gray quietly tells Wraysford that their bombing failed to destroy the German wire. When Wraysford asks him what to tell his men, declaring they will be slaughtered, Gray tells him not to tell them and simply hands him a pair of wire cutters. The audience already knows the catastrophic consequences of the Somme and we do not need to see it to picture it.

Despite Birdsong evoking the experience of the First World War so well, it ends with Wraysford telling the audience that we can never understand what they went through- as all the other characters join him in silence, and listen to the faint sounds of birds singing. Thus despite our current commemorations of the First World War, a century after it started, Birdsong suggests that the true horror of the war remains concealed- leaving an even more poignant impression in the modern mind.

By Ellicia Pendle
@elliciapendle

The Threepenny Opera @ The Birmingham REP

PB_1747

Before the performance began, the audience were greeted with a motley crew of cast members chanting “no ifs, no buts, no disability cuts!” in front of an, assumedly, once glamorous now tattered red show curtain thinly veiling an ensemble of musical instruments and actors milling around, preparing to perform the opera for the poor. Around the auditorium were banners spray painted with powerful messages such as ‘Keep your filthy tax out of my bedroom’ and ‘Old people are worth more than the pennies we give them!’ The rawness and unabashed nature of this introduction set the audience up to confront some uncomfortable and challenging world views, perfectly aligned with the original intentions of Brecht.

As the Musical Review aptly put it, the play was “no-holds barred”. From the adapted and highly satirised lyrics tarring ‘Tories and their minions’, paedophilic priests and Jimmy Saville with the same brush for their ‘sexual imperatives’, to the highly ironic song performed in a prison cell by Macheath (Milton Lopes) ‘Live Life in Luxury – That’s What it’s For’, the audience were presented with a vivacious performance that served its purpose in reinventing Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera.

Almost every taboo imaginable was confronted in the performance, to the extent that some audience members were unsure whether to applaud or wince at the audacity of their presentation. For me, this only served to make it more enjoyable. The messages of the play were confrontationally presented by an awe inspiring cast, the majority of whom were disadvantaged – either in terms of their sight, mobility, hearing or their height. The casting was a stroke of genius; as the performance did not aim to make you feel sorry for the cast members, or empathise with them for their disadvantages; it aimed (and succeeded) to challenge and question the way our society works. It also demonstrated how extremely versatile the cast were, as the majority were not only actors and singers but also talented musicians.

Musically, the levels were sometimes a little unstable, and a few hiccups were had with the subtitles projected onto the walls, but these minor hindrances didn’t affect the overall experience to any substantial extent. 

The success of this performance was enhanced for me by the extremely talented signers, with a special mention for actress and signer Jude Mahon. During the songs, she delivered as compelling a performance as the actors singing, and was remarkable in her ability to bring several different characters’ personalities to life through sign language; undoubtedly she captured the essence of the songs for deaf audience members. Other notable performances were given by Mrs Peachum (Victoria Oruwari), Polly Peachum (CiCi Howells) and Tiger Brown (Will Kenning), a chief of police who served in the army with the notorious but oh-so-charming murderer and rapist, ‘Mack The Knife’.

All in all, if you are looking for a theatrical performance that will challenge your views and beliefs, and prompt your thoughts towards questioning the structure and hierarchy of our society as it is today once you leave the theatre, this is the play for you. Utterly fascinating.

by Hayley Yates

A Christmas Carol @ The Rep

rep christmas carol

Having been a fan of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol for as long as I can remember, I absolutely jumped at the chance to see the Tessa Walker production taking place over Christmas at The Rep Theatre in Birmingham. Having seen many prior adaptations of this Christmas favourite, my expectations for The Rep’s production were admittedly quite high, and the cast, crew, orchestra and set certainly did not disappoint.

The play opened in a way I hadn’t seen before, with a collection of rather ominous figures that we soon came to recognise as ghosts, discussing the unfortunate case of Ebenezer Scrooge – the story’s incredibly grouchy, miserable protagonist.  The ghosts introduced the story of Scrooge and his misery by setting him challenges from the beyond, from which we see the original events of the story, like him refusing to donate to charity despite the pleas of the impassioned collectors. This way of introducing the audience to the character of Scrooge was excellent, and rather haunting, while also introducing the concept of the ghosts we see later on in the production. The expected Scrooge actor, Matthew Ashforde, was unfortunately absent, and so was played by his understudy, Jo Servi. However, this by no means detracted from the quality of the show, Servi delivering a spectacular and lively performance as Scrooge, no mean feat for an understudy perhaps not expecting to perform.

The beginning of the play contained the darker, more ominous songs of the ghosts condemning Scrooge, interspersed with the more jovial, cheery songs of the humans around Scrooge, excitedly anticipating the coming of Christmas. This was a great way of retaining the menacing presence of the ghosts, whilst still keeping the audience aware of Scrooge’s human world. This also excellently demonstrated the clear contrast between Scrooge’s wretched mood, and that of the excitable attitude of his peers, in particular his nephew Fred, whose naturally good-humoured attitude actor Roddy Peters captured perfectly.

The cast consisted of only eleven actors, and so many were required to perform multiple roles. This in no way whatsoever distracted from the content of the play, and in fact, could almost have gone completely unnoticed had you not been aware of the fact before the play began. This even made for some comic moments in the play, one male actor portraying the role of a rather large, absent-minded aunt hilariously. The child actors in this production can also not go uncredited, excellently playing the roles of young family members and carol singers. The young actress playing the sickly Tiny Tim character also adorably captured the character’s innocence and inherent good-nature, so much so that the audience cannot help but feel genuine sympathy and affection for the Cratchits’ youngest child.

Despite the jubilant feeling of Christmas, the point of the book, and of the play, is that Scrooge is to learn his lesson on the repercussions of his selfishness and cold nature before he is able to fully appreciate the joys of the Christmas atmosphere and those around him. The appearance of the silent ghost of Christmas yet to come was a haunting yet incredibly effective device in doing this. The production brought onto the stage a huge structure of a skeletal, bird-like figure who stayed eerily quiet, despite Scrooge’s constant questions. This was really effective in adding a menacing feel to the play, and was done so well that you almost felt the fear of Scrooge yourself, in the audience.

However, the play, of course, ended on the expected and welcome note of joviality, Scrooge having finally discovered his true Christmas spirit, and endeavouring to give back to all those he had previously  wronged, like the Cratchit family, and his nephew Fred’s own family. The play ended with a suitably upbeat, happy Christmas song that left the audience well and truly revelling in their own genuine Christmas spirit. If you get a chance to head to The Rep to see this production over the festive period, I highly recommend you do so.

By Amy Hunt