Reviews: Christmas theatre 2015, week 1 (Sunday Herald)




Dundee Rep

Until December 31



Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until January 3



Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling

Until December 27


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Nothing evokes Christmas cheer quite like Roald Dahl’s tale of The Witches. What could be more festive than this story of an unnamed English boy, orphaned by a car accident, and his cigar-smoking Norwegian grandmother battling child-hating witches?

The Witches
Emily Winter in The Witches. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Emily Winter in The Witches. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

For those theatres, such as Dundee Rep, that like to stage family theatre as a seasonal alternative to pantomime, Dahl’s work often fits the bill (Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum staged The BFG last Christmas, for example). There is, as Rep director director Jemima Levick’s colourful production of The Witches proves, something inherently theatrical about the Welsh-Norwegian author’s vivid, darkly comic and gloriously absurd stories.

Narratives don’t come much more absurd than The Witches. Boy (Matthew Forbes on delightfully energetic form) and his grandmother (a deliciously eccentric Irene Macdougall) check-in to the dubiously named Hotel Magnificent in Bournemouth, only to discover that the English witches are holding their annual conference in the same establishment.

Not only that, but the Grand High Witch of all the world (Emily Winter, tremendously sassy and domineering) is the guest of honour at the ghoulish gathering. A plot to turn all the children of England into easily disposable mice is at hand.

Cue a battle between good and evil as Boy and Grandma try to sabotage the witches’ evil plan. Oh, and did I mention that Boy and his gluttonous acquaintance Bruno Jenkins (the very funny Stephen Bangs) have both been turned into rodents?

As ever with Dahl, it’s a fabulously ridiculous caper, given bold expression in Jean Chan’s appropriately over-the-top set and costume designs. The scenes in the insanitary hotel kitchen, complete with filthy, fag-puffing head chef are a putrid delight.

The piece loses a little pace on occasion, not least when there is literally nothing going on during a long set change. More worryingly, the purple smoke used during a moment of catastrophe for the witches is much too pungent and sends many in the audience into coughing fits.

Otherwise, however, the Rep’s talented ensemble, which is completed by two charming mice puppets, carry off Dahl’s story with admirable aplomb.

One could (almost) say the same for the cast of the Royal Lyceum’s festive offering, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. Director Andrew Panton and designer Becky Minto have fashioned a classy and stylish staging of CS Lewis’s famous story of the war evacuated Pevensie children and their adventures in the troubled paradise of Narnia.

Lewis’s tale may be heavy on Christian allegory (albeit of Christ’s Passion, rather than his birth), but his beautifully drawn characters allow the story to transcend a narrowly theological purpose. For instance, who couldn’t adore the soft-hearted, guilt-stricken, but ultimately heroic faun Mr Tumnus (an endearingly benign Ewan Donald)?

The production has, for the most part, a lovely sense of balance. Mr and Mrs Beaver (John Kielty and Gail Watson) generate a comic warmth that threatens to melt the ice of Minto’s chilly Narnia.

On the other side, Pauline Knowles is outstanding as the callous and enchanting White Witch. Young Edmund (a convincingly seduced Cristian Ortega) has no resistance to the wiles of a woman who, one suspects, could sell oil to the Saudis.

If Knowles is the captivating star of the show, she is ably supported by Lewis Howden as the White Witch’s sycophantic driver. Largely subsumed within his massive coat (an inspired bit of costume design), Howden’s servant chuckles away like a school bully’s particularly malignant sidekick.

There is, however, a major flaw in this otherwise gorgeous production. Ben Onwukwe, although he puts in a perfectly reasonable performance as the daft professor, is entirely miscast in the crucial role of the redemptive lion king Aslan. Palpably uncomfortable with the role, and with the movement work required of him, the actor seems to shrink, where, of course, his character’s moral and physical stature should dominate the stage.

Onwukwe’s self-doubt inevitably transmits itself to his fellow actors. Consequently, as Theresa Heskins’s adaptation comes to its dramatic conclusion, this hitherto impressive production takes on a disappointing fragility.

There’s fragility, too, in Robin, the Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling’s Christmas offering for pre-school children. Created by award-winning children’s theatre makers Frozen Charlotte, in co-production with Aberdeen Performing Arts, the play joins a little robin redbreast (Gemma McElhinney) on her first day as a postal worker.

The town (a lovely, multi-coloured affair that looks a lot like an advent calendar) is home to all manner of animals, including a Spanish donkey (called Donkey Hoti, of course) and a Brummie sheep called Baaarbara. Robin reads her map upside-down and delivers her parcels to the wrong addresses, which, needless to say, leads to the kind of chaos you’d find in an Ealing comedy.

The problem is, McElhinney and her fellow performer/creator Laurie Brown (who plays the posh postmaster and operates a dazzling array of puppets) haven’t got the structure of the piece right. Although it comes in at well under an hour, the piece still manages to sag in places; as evinced by the occasional restlessness of the nursery school audience on Wednesday morning.

The best theatre for pre-school kids actively engages its audience. Frozen Charlotte require their young patrons to behave as traditional, static theatregoers.

That works when something big is going on; the donkey eating Robin’s letters, for example, has the little ones in paroxysms of laughter. However, lovely as the performances, set and puppets are, such moments are simply too few and far between.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 6, 2015

© Mark Brown



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