Friday, 19 August 2022

Identical

 Nottingham Playhouse

6th August, 2022, matinee


They are identical


The premise of this world premier has, on paper, the perfect formula: based on a well-loved story, with music and lyrics by the UK's foremost composers and directed by a theatre legend. It is pleasing to see new musical theatre writing being performed at this scale with such polish and with creatives of this calibre involved. On the whole, Identical is an entertaining slice of whimsy, while not quite exceeding the sum of its parts.


Following the scrapes and schemes of Lottie and Lisa, twins separated at birth, Stuart Paterson's book owes more to Erich K√§stner’s original novel than the various film adaptations. Located in 1950’s Germany and Austria we’re treated to some stunning European set design, making great use of moving LED screens in which Douglas O’Connell’s video designs meltingly transport us from rural holiday camps to train stations, theatres and palatial mansions. I’ve often been cynical of the over reliance on video effects in theatre, but this has completely won me over, as the designs seamlessly blend with Robert Jones’s physical set pieces and effectively expand the world upon the stage. Returning to the story’s roots lends the piece a classic air, even if the lack of modernity and Nunn's direction favours quaintness over comedic potential.


Stiles and Drewe’s music and lyrics are ebullient and accessible. From the wry “It’s Not for Me to Say” to more emotional ballads like “We Were Young”, the music often helps to advance character. I particularly enjoyed “Little White Bird”, played after the twins have reunited, in which Lisa’s poem accompanies Lottie’s self-composition on the piano perfectly. It shows their synchronicity and implicitly reflects Stiles and Drewe’s song-writing process. But it’s the title number which is really memorable and the tune I’ve found myself humming a few days later.


Nunn creates some stunning set pieces. I particularly enjoyed the ballet scenes which later bleed into Lottie's nightmarish visions of being torn from her sister as a baby, set against a fairytale backdrop worthy of the Brothers Grimm. Large ensemble moments such as these are countered with many intimate scenes between the sisters and their parents. Emily Tierney and James Darch are both charming as the estranged couple, and Louise Gold and Michael Smith-Stewart make an entertaining double act as Johan's housekeeper, Roza, and the local Doctor. At this performance Lisa and Lottie were played by Eden and Emme Patrick, and both girls impressively lead the show with great skill and charisma. Casting Director, Anne Vosser, has accomplished a real coup in finding not just one, but three sets of triple threat identical twins. The relationship between the girls is completely believable and very sweet, ensuring the piece is full of heart.


The piece is quite long at just shy of three hours. In particular, there are some bits of exposition, even late in the show with characters explaining to each other what’s happened, which aren’t necessary. On the other hand, I felt that some cuts had possibly already been made which left parts of the show not making sense. For instance, a sub-plot in which Roza has been stealing money to send to her ill sister seems somewhat misplaced. Is this simply to convey that Lotte has better Maths skills than her sister and is able to spot that money is missing from the household? If so, I think other parts of the book achieve this already. I also couldn’t help but wonder if the dog, which barely gets any stage time, had another scene in which he excitedly welcomes the returned twin sister.


But these are all kinks I’m confident can be ironed out if the musical were to – and surely it must – have a further life. It may be twee, but Identical is also entertaining and bright, and spot-on musical theatre escapism.


Identical ran at the Nottingham Playhouse until 14th August. It plays at The Lowry, Salford, from 19th August – 3rd September.

Emme Patrick and Eden Patrick in Identical. Credit: Pamela Raith.


Secret Blog: 2point4 Children and the joys of rediscovering favourite TV shows

                                                                                                                 

Wanted: The BBC is looking for a typical blue-collar family with both parents working and two children


I’ve consumed so much TV over the last two years. Covid restrictions saw a surge in TV watching and online streaming across the country and that was no different in our home. We moved into our house in February 2020 and spent the first few weeks with no TV aerial or WiFi which resulted in evenings spent watching old Jonathan Creek DVDs! In this way, we were quite fortunate that the beginning of the first lockdown coincided with us being able to ditch the David Renwick locked room mysteries (as entertaining as they are) for a Netflix subscription and a deep dive into iPlayer. When the daily news bulletins got too much to handle, we’d turn to boxsets. From The Missing and Line of Duty to, more recently, The Staircase, they’re now a part of our everyday routine.


Re-watching classic sitcoms has also been fun, many of which the BBC put on iPlayer or even in primetime slots. From Fawlty Towers to The Vicar of Dibley, they provided much needed comic relief. But there’s one I’ve particularly enjoyed rediscovering over the last year. 2point4 Children, Andrew Marshall’s sitcom about suburban surrealism, was one of the BBC’s biggest sitcoms of the 90s. Set in Chiswick, it follows the working-class Porter family and their friend Rona negotiating the ups, downs and bizarre turns of everyday life. After eight successful series, culminating in a Millennium special, the show ended in 1999 due to Gary Olsen’s death the following year. But considering the show’s popularity, it seemed like it had been all but forgotten apart from a smattering of repeats on UK Gold. I even had to convince my wife I hadn’t made it up as she’d never heard of it! But earlier this year, I re-discovered it again through two vehicles. The first was J.D. Collins’ brilliant podcast Don’t Slam Your Podcast. The podcast reviews each episode alongside creator Andrew Marshall recalling his memories, and interviews with cast members. The second is that the BBC have put all 56 episodes on iPlayer, something I never thought I’d say considering it’s not aired any episodes in over 20 years and that rights issues have stopped a full DVD release from ever happening.


I’m not entirely sure how I came to like 2point4 Children. I was born in 1992 so after the series started airing and was surely too young to understand some of the jokes, even during the later series. I remember watching series 7 and 8 but also remember parts of series 6 when I would’ve been about four years old! For me, it is hugely and pleasingly nostalgic. Even if I didn’t understand some of the lines, watching the series back has unlocked a peculiar sort-of muscle memory where I can remember memorising certain lines and trying to fit them into conversation with my family. My inclination for comedy when I was younger was clear. Some years later, I also remember ripping off the plot for The Deep, in which the Porters think they’ve killed their neighbours’ fish and rush to replace them only to discover they were already dead and instead have killed their racing pigeons, for my GCSE English Language exam. It served me well. And probably somewhere in my mum’s loft are VHS tapes with episodes of ChuckleVision, The Queen’s Nose and episodes of 2point4 recorded on them.


What I love about 2point4 is that Marshall marries the mundane with the surreal. He grounds the show in a setting and characters which are believable. We believe the jobs they have (Bill in catering, Ben a self-employed plumber), we believe the house they live in, and we believe they are a family. Much of this is down to the performances. Belinda Lang and Gary Olsen have great chemistry but we also believe that Bill is the leader of the pack (as the first episode title sets out) whereas Ben more often plays the clown role. But this is not always the case and does a disservice to how funny Bill is. I really like a point made in a recent blogpost on Dirtyfeed that although Bill is the glue that holds the Porters together, she can also be ridiculous in her own right. Much of the show’s believability is also down to the design which, although filmed in front of a live studio audience, doesn’t feel like a set. The Harpers’ house in My Family (also set in Chiswick) looks and feels like a brightly lit, oddly-shaped TV set and would probably be worth several million pounds if real. Rooting 2point4 in a credible domestic sphere allows Marshall to take the show to some surreal and dark places. In one episode with parallel plots, we see Bill and Rona inadvertently stumble across Shirley Bassey’s dress warehouse which leads to a fantasy song and dance number. Meanwhile, we see Ben kidnapped by a friend and taken to Portmeirion in a plot which parodies 60s TV show The Prisoner. But these plots are brought together by a touching scene between siblings Jenny and David. All of this in 30 minutes! Similar to Renwick’s One Foot in the Grave, it plays with the form and challenges us to think what a sitcom can be. But none of the strangeness feels contrived or out of place, simply a part of everyday family life. As in life, the ordinary and extraordinary sit side by side.


Re-watching it recently, I was struck by how contemporary the show was: in the early series, we see the effects of a long Conservative government in several running jokes in which Bill blames everything on Thatcher. Greed (1995) is about the lottery at a time when the National Lottery was only a year old. Fame (1999) prophesies an obsession with reality TV when the Porters film a pilot fly-on-the-wall documentary. The Millennium Experience (1999) captures the nation’s fears about the Millennium Bug. After the Fox (1999) is partly set on the Eurotunnel when that was only a few years old.


I’m delighted 2point4 has a new lease of life. The show’s aged exceptionally well and much of the dialogue still crackles. One of my favourite episodes is a Christmas special, Two Years Before the Mast (or “the baps episode” as my mum refers to it due to Sandra Dickinson’s line “I’ll just wipe my nose on these baps” living rent-free in the back of our minds), in which the Porters find themselves as stowaways on the Oriana. All episodes of 2point4 Children are available on BBC iPlayer, so go have a deep dive.


The final episode review of Don’t Slam Your Podcast lands this weekend and all episodes are available here: https://linktr.ee/2point4podcast  

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Finding Home: Leicester's Ugandan Asian Story at 50

Curve, Leicester

2nd August, 2022


The rains are coming


Fifty years on from the Ugandan Asian Exodus, in which 70,000 people were expelled from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin, Curve are marking the anniversary with a programme of work to commemorate the journey made of the 28,000 Ugandan Asians who left their homes in Africa to come to Britain, many of whom settled in Leicester. As part of this, three new plays have been commissioned by local writers and performed by a local community cast. The double bill which opened last night made up of Ninety Days and Call Me By My Name showcases some exceptional new writing. Both plays explore the turmoil as well as the resilience of the communities involved in what was a pivotal moment in Leicester’s history. Under the direction of Mandeep Glover, they explode onto the stage with a vibrancy, rawness and unshakeable determination to explore difficult issues.


In Ashok Patel’s Ninety Days, we’re placed at the heart of the personal upheaval in which Ugandan Asians found themselves when told they had 90 days to leave the country. Sudesh and Geeta are one such couple who are unable to withdraw money, unable to sell their businesses and properties, and are torn apart because of having different passports. Through Patel’s writing and the finely drawn performances from Rav Moore and Sneya Rajani, we get a sense of the trauma they experience. Patel also introduces us to Ugandan characters who are sympathisers of Idi Amin thus setting the scene of a nation divided by race, class and an imbalance of wealth.


I particularly liked the play’s use of food to explore cultural differences. In one scene we see (and smell the aromas of) Wynnie, a Ugandan housemaid and Sudesh’s mistress, cooking for Geeta. Initially, we see Geeta enjoying the blend of African and Indian spices but, in a shocking moment in which she spits out the food, she uses this against Wynnie. Like in Rachel De-lahay’s The Westbridge, characters bond over food, yet it is also a notable marker of identity. Similarly, Patel uses food to explore irreconcilable differences and its nourishing qualities. When Geeta arrives in the UK, an old lady (a good comedic performance from Billie Grace Venus) offers her tea and biscuits. And in the coda, 18 years later, we see Wynnie and Geeta reunite, this time food helping to heal their feud.


That was our home, as Leicester is yours


The second act starts with Octavia Nyombi’s startling poem Who’s England Anyway read by Nathan Obokoh. Nyombi’s poetry is a refreshing accompaniment to the more prosaic language of the plays either side of it. Accompanied by movement choreographed by Kesha Raithatha, it is an impressive mix of words, movement and sounds which sets the energy and tone of the second play. In Dilan Raithatha’s Call Me By My Name, set in present day Leicester, we see Danny filling out his UCAS application. Unsure of what to put as his ethnicity, this triggers a discussion with his elders about identity. Through a series of flashbacks, Raithatha charts a community’s early days in Leicester, the adversity they faced and ultimately their resilience.


Raithatha’s play is about the power of storytelling and gives a really adept examination of how we reflect on our identities. Developed by visiting Ugandan Asian communities around Leicester, and listening to their stories, it’s also about the need to share stories and how we edit those stories as they get passed down the generations. One character wishes ‘someone took a genuine interest in [their] story’ while also omitting the more harsh memories. It is played out on Eleanor Field’s multipurpose set in which a mountain of suitcases conveys characters’ displacement. Along with Rhys Parker’s lighting, it captures the vibrancy and heat of Uganda.


These are crucial plays which explore a part of history of how our city came to be. I loved their blend of global scope with a local perspective, their focus on both past and present, and their unflinching approach at staging difficult truths. The series marks a new direction for Curve’s community productions in which they share stories of Leicester’s rich culture and history. Like Chris Bush’s superb Rock/Paper/Scissors recently in Sheffield, these plays are a powerful coming together of stories from our local communities being told on our local stages.


Finding Home: Ninety Days and Call Me By My Name runs at Curve Leicester until 6th August. They play in rep with a third play, Chandni Mistry’s RUKA, a new play for children, also until 6th August.


Manas Kotak and Jishnu Soni in Call Me By My Name. Credit: Kieran Vyas