The Bald Prima Donna – Upstairs at the Gatehouse – Review

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Eugene Ionesco’s works are seldom on in the capital unfortunately. The Bald Prima Donna, is his earliest work and Slip of The Lip present this quirky and fun piece of theatrical absurdity with a minimalistic set and Ionesco’s nonsensical dialogue flowing thick and fast.

The Martin’s have popped over to the Smith’s who live in a comfortable London suburb, one Friday night. What unfolds is not your usual naturalistic play, but rather a pertinent observation on the vacuous nonsense most of us spend our time talking about! Therein lies the inherent humour of the piece and there were plenty of moments where we chuckled and laughed out loud at the absurdity presented before us. Whilst acknowledging to ourselves that we too probably sound like this sometimes.

The cast of six throw themselves into Ionesco's strange world with great abandon,

The cast of six throw themselves into Ionesco’s strange world with great abandon,

Peter Eastbrook as Mr Martin had a wonderfully deadpan delivery of his lines which only heightened the humour. Perhaps the most obtuse and crazy lines are delivered by the Fireman portrayed with a wonderful nervousness by Guy Remy. Alice Devine is a feisty Mrs Martin and Griselda Williams being the mumsy linchpin of the piece. Brian Merry brings a brooding menace to Mr Smith. Annie McKenzie rounds off the cast with an exuberant performance as the maid Mary.

Paul Hoskins direction allows the surreal world of the play to be brought to life and he allows the script to draw us in I’m pleased to say. This is not an easy play to perform as the fluidity of script and thought means the actors have to be concentrating constantly. They ably threw themselves into Ionesco’s strange world. Yet they also used it as a mirror to our own world and the repetitive speech patterns we all use and the awkward silences that permeate conversations.

As it is his first play, it lacks some of the refinement of Ionesco’s later works. It’s not his best piece but is an enjoyable romp through our incongruous world of speech and miscommunication. Theatre of the Absurd is often seen as a niche of the theatre world, but I find Ionesco’s work much more accessible than most of Beckett’s so don’t be put of if you’re unsure what to expect. I was pleased to finally get to see a production of this rarely performed piece.

STARS : ★ ★ ★

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Brilliant Billy! – Billy – The Union Theatre – Review

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Billy Poster

The story of Billy Liar has been a story I’ve been familiar with ever since my early teens. I caught the film version featuring the amazing performance by Tom Courtenay one Saturday afternoon on Channel 4 (and recorded it – so watched it multiple times as a youth). Despite it being set generations before mine and it being a black and white film, I was drawn into the world of Billy. When I got a DVD player way back, it was one of the first films I got for it. It was only a few years ago I found out it had also been a musical in 1974, and I’ve only ever heard Some of Us Belong to the Stars sung by Michael Crawford on the odd occasion Elaine Paige plays it on her Radio 2 show.

When I discovered The Union Theatre were reviving it, I was excited to finally get to hear the rest of the score. I’m perplexed as to why it’s taken several decades for it to be revived. The story is fabulous, and the musical score is by John Barry (arguably one of the 20th Century’s finest composers) with lyrics by the award-winning Don Black. It’s such a shame the original recording is not available, perhaps this cast can get some crowd-funding to get their renditions recorded as these songs need a wider audience. (This version also includes three songs added in the 1990’s for a revival and as far as I can see these haven’t been recorded yet)

The role of Billy is synonymous with Tom Courtenay and the musical version with Michael Crawford (see here for an interview with Michael Crawford in 1974 when he was Billy) , it’s a brave actor that takes it on. Keith Ramsay does so in this production and leaves his own stamp on it. He gives Billy an awkwardness with hints that Billy might just be going onto the autistic spectrum. This makes him a character that you develop a care and concern for, I’d not experienced that previously. When Billy gets to sing out, Keith Ramsey’s melodious voice soars. His two renditions of Some of Us Belong to the Stars were stunning with his I Missed the Last Rainbow giving a melancholic and moving final song. This role has been career defining for previous actors and I have a feeling it will be the same for Keith Ramsay. He deserves it.

A Career Defining Performance from Keith Ramsey.

A Career Defining Performance from Keith Ramsay.

The Union Theatre may be small but the cast of 17 filled the stage with their personalities, witty lines, dances and voices. Mark Turnbull as Councillor Duxbury gave a tear-jerking rendition of the beautiful song, It Were All Green Hills.

Rosie Clarkson as Barbara and Laura Bryars as Rita

Rosie Clarkson as Barbara and Laura Bryars as Rita.  

The three girlfriends of Billy, are each contrasting characters, played with self-assurance by Rosie Clarkson as “good girl” Barbara, Laura Bryars as mouthy, brash bulldozer Rita and Katerina Stearman as Liz, the only one that actually understands Billy and gives him the chance to break free.

Liz Stearman as Liz the girl that "gets" Billy.

Katerina Stearman as Liz, the girl that understands Billy.

Billy’s interactions with his long-suffering parents are brought to life by Mark Carroll and Ricky Butt as his dad and mum respectively. Their confusion and frustrations come to the fore, but they never let you forget they love their son despite his short comings. It’s an honest and heartwarming show.

Michael Strassen has directed other hit shows at The Union Theatre and it shows, he knows the space and maximizes it to its fullest. The show punches to the wow factor when it needs and comes down to intimate levels as appropriate. He’s aided in this by Tim Deiling’s magnificent lighting. Richard Bates orchestration allows the songs to shine, which they deserve to do. As I’ve said this is a first-class score.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see it, as you may have to wait a decade or two until it’s back again. I don’t know why, but that’s the crazy world of theatre.

STARS : ★ ★ ★ ★

All photographs by Sam Mackenzie-Armstrong