This summer’s West End productions are a collection of slapstick history and poignant journeys
Balmy summers were here again, albeit fleetingly, but for all the disappointments that the weather didn’t bring, several West End productions made up for what we invariably lacked in the skies.
One thoroughly enjoyable performance was Barmy Britain from the Horrible Histories team. Ostensibly aimed at primary school children, it had adult witticisms in among the slapstick and poo jokes, mixed with satirical references to British politics today.
Giving us an express tour of British history from 1297 to Henry VIII, the audience came away with a series of quirky facts around the history of Britain and Ireland, either tales we knew and forgot about, or were never told in the first place. For instance, did you know that the Vikings arrived in Dublin from Denmark in 851, only to attack the Vikings who were already there from Norway? Well you would if you had seen the show! Or, that Henry III kept a polar bear in the Tower of London and let it swim occasionally in the Thames? And that Henry VIII was buried in Windsor Castle, but his body was so bloated that it exploded inside the coffin? Had the average school history class taken a lesson from such a performance, it would surely engage even the most disinterested pupil.
Written by Terry Deary and Neal Foster (who also directed the play), this two-man performance was seamlessly executed. It had a rapid pace, so as to present the sense of there being many times that number of actors on stage. A momentary lapse of concentration and you would have veered off the play’s windy road with its many nooks and crannies. The only consolation of missing the occasional dig, is that there was an abundance of other ones round the corner to make up for it.
Rather less slapstick and cute, but nonetheless entertaining, is the double-hander by James Fox and Jack Fox in Dear Lupin which is still running until 19th September at the Apollo Theatre. The Foxes play Roger and Lupin, a father and son duo, based on the best-selling book by Charlie Mortimer. The book consisted of a series of letters, which was later adapted into a stage play by actor Michael Davies (also partly taking the form of letters).
As with Barmy Britain, Dear Lupin is scattered with witticisms and bountiful charm. It recalls the life of Lupin who goes from the ease of an Etonian schooling to a failed attempt to join the army, followed by a life of decadence in the 80s and, eventually, ends up as a weathered and unsuccessful 40-something-year-old HIV sufferer. With an underlying melancholy for a by-gone life and a different era, Dear Lupin depicts the existence of people who came from a once established class. Within these circles, a formality and distance – even between father and son – was the norm, and the role of women was narrow and, by and large, peripheral.
The staging is punctuated by sexist humour and a somewhat out-of-date banter that is best understood by an audience of a similar background; if you have been to Eton or know people who have, this production will mean a great deal more to you than if you were educated at the local comprehensive. That said, the acting couldn’t be faulted, demonstrating an easy performance by both father and son. And if plumped to go, you’ll see both Foxes looking very pleased to be on stage, and in doing so, imparting happy warmth to the audience.
Last but not least, this summer treated us to Hetty Feather, an adaptation by the acclaimed children’s author Jacqueline Wilson, which is on tour until April 2016. Combining music, dance, theatre and acrobatics, Hetty Feather conveys the heartbreaking tale of the lives of children born to poor mothers, and who were given over to the Foundling Hospital. It’s a play with soul, grit and a plot that hurtles along at express speed, drawing us into the plight of Hetty. She is a poor female orphan in Victorian England whose limited horizons never limit her ambition.
The energy of Hetty, brilliantly played by Phoebe Thomas, spreads across the entire production, combining a child-like innocence, euphoria and the disappointment of dreams that don’t come true. But in Hetty’s head, things will always end well one day, and it’s that hope which keeps her animated throughout. We are swept along with her on her journey, helped by the highly sonorous musicality of the production, with various songs and instruments being played by a multi-talented cast. The set creates a child-friendly environment, with vividly coloured cloths hanging from above and on which the cast perform circus-like acrobatics to take us from one scene to the next. All this with a gripping narrative of children separated from their mothers, taken on by surrogate mothers, and then ripped away once more back to the Foundling Hospital when they are aged a little over five – this time to be brought up as children being trained to go into service. The relationships they form, their broken dreams and the abrupt practicalities that life presents are underlined by a fundamentally sad story of a harsh period in history.
Entertaining, educating and moving, Hetty Feather is something that children and adults alike will appreciate in large measures, as Hetty’s quest to find her birth mother sees her running away to the circus where she is convinced the trapeze artist, Madame Adeline, is her mother. It’s this thirst that propels her at full thrust throughout the performance. Fortunately she has got so much energy that just the dregs of what she leaves behind in her wake are enough to keep the audience tuned in. Hetty Feather continues its tour of England with its next stop at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre.
Image from: http://www.hettyfeatherlive.com
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