Tag Archives: Emma Rice

“The Empress” by Tanika Gupta

at the Swan Theatre, Wednesday 17th April 2013

*Originally written for Exeunt*

Two of my favourite moments in Tanika Gupta’s The Empress occur on the walkway to my right, in the space between the worlds of the play and the auditorium. In the first, Tamzin Griffin marches across the stage for  short scene, meets a ‘servant’ on the vomit who helps her remove a layer of clothing so that she may turn around to play another part and says “I’ll meet you on the other side”, forcing the scene to reassert itself as a piece of theatre. In the second, I watch Beatie Edney dressed as an ageing Queen Victoria furiously pulling on a rope in order to assist in a scene change, which makes me laugh uncontrollably; there’s something gloriously absurd about the idea of monarchy as labour. These two flashes of genius encapsulate the tone of Emma Rice’s production, which is theatrical, energetic and fun and which also goes some way to offering a critique of empire and the monarchy.

Gupta’s play, inspired by Rozina Visram’s Ayahs, Lascars and Princes, focusses on the true story of the relationship between Queen Victoria and her teacher Abdul Karim, Continue reading

“Steptoe and Son”

adapted by Emma Rice

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 23rd October 2012

First, an admission: before seeing Kneehigh’s new production of Steptoe and Son, I’d only seen a handful of episodes of the classic series (three of which were viewed in the hours prior to the performance). I say this because I’m probably not the target audience here. In comedy terms, I’m of a Peep Show generation, an era bookended with The Office and Fresh Meat. The humour in Steptoe and Son doesn’t appeal to me and probably never will, as it’s pretty far removed from my own experience living in the twenty-first century. I’m therefore hardly the perfect audience member for Emma Rice’s theatrical adaptation of this ‘British classic’. But then one question perpetually repeats itself throughout the two-hour long show: if I’m not the right audience, who is?

Before that, a bit about the show itself. What Rice and her team present us with, rather than a new or complete narrative arc of Albert and Harold Steptoe, is four famous episodes with a theatrical twist. These four segments – ‘The Offer’, ‘The Bird’, ‘The Holiday’ and ‘Two’s Company’ span eight years of the show’s history (though the first three were made within six months of one another), and are clearly chosen to create, if not a narrative arc, at least an emotional one. But other than themes of separation and threats of leaving, little connects them and their choice feels a little arbitrary. This could be my ignorance, of course – these may simply be the best episodes of the entire run – but nonetheless it’s difficult to recognise coherence.

The scripts are shortened to about twenty minutes and, though some sequences are lifted straight from the TV series, dialogue is often adapted so that it works well on stage. Alongside this, Rice has also inserted a female figure (played by Kirsty Woodward) who acts as a sort of chorus, beginning and ending the show playing period records and appearing in the story proper – as doctor, as Albert’s wife, as Harold’s date – when the script calls for it. Other theatrical tropes include a smart use of set and choreographed interludes.

The production in itself is, at a simple level, good fun and thoughtfully staged. Neil Murray’s set features large rag-and-bone cart (which doubles as the Steptoes’ house) backgrounded by a gorgeous night-time cloth and bright moon (lit beautifully by Malcolm Rippeth). Indeed, sometimes it feels that more thought has been put into the tech than the performances; Simon Baker’s soundtrack is more evocative and engaging than the text itself, moving gradually from Cliff Richard to Elvis Presley, including a moving underscore in the spaces in between.

The performances, however, feel a little neglected and are a little difficult to connect with. Mike Shepherd and Dean Nolan as father and son respectively (with relocated south-western accents) are touching, and create a solid double-act, but for all this they don’t quite cover up the fact neither of these characters is really very amiable. True, this criticism can be laid at the original series, but in those episodes we find a level of sympathy which isn’t easy to spot here. I understand that their perpetuating of one another’s happiness is necessary to the social comment Steptoe and Son tries to make – that working classes are trapped and have no way out – but to maintain the lack of redeemable features is, to me, questionable.

The most interesting question which the production raises, however, is that of adaptation. What makes a successful adaptation? When is it that an adaptation slips into the realm of mere copying? To my mind, Steptoe and Son errs between the two, and fails in being a true adaptation due to its lack of theatricality. Let me explain.

Trusty Google Dictionary defines the verb “adapt” as such: “Make suitable for a new purpose”. Extracting from this, then, we can infer that if we want to transfer a piece of art (a TV series, say) to another medium (the theatre, for sake of argument), then decisions have to be made to make that transition work. Now, as we’re all aware, the televisual and theatrical world include extremely different conceits and ask very different things of their audience, meaning that, in some cases, whole storylines may have to be chopped, edited, shifted and rearranged in order to accommodate those aforementioned distinctive characteristics. The reason why, for example, the stage play of War Horse and the Lord of the Rings films are so successful is because they buy into the idiosyncracies of their chosen adapted form, rewriting themselves as if they were created for that medium all along. And this is the crux of why Steptoe and Son isn’t successful; rather than making us sit up and wonder why the series was never adapted for stage before, the show features episodes simply picked up and dropped in a different setting (with a bit of dancing added in for good measure).

This comes back to my question about audience – if Rice isn’t trying to reinvent the story (though maybe rights inhibit this – if this is the case you have to question why it was ever done at all) then where is this production being pitched? Those with a fondness for the TV series will hardly look at it in a different light after this. Their time would be better spent watching the episodes themselves, for even if nostalgia is the desired aim then you’re not going to do much better than the real thing.

At the end of the day, the overall problem of Kneehigh’s Steptoe and Son is that, frustratingly, it’s just not very funny. When going to see a sitcom on stage, you’d expect more laughs to be present. There’s about one laugh-out-loud moment per ‘episode’, with a few giggles in between, but I’m sure that’s a smaller ratio than the original series, no matter what your views on it. I’m also slightly worried by the fact that something in this vein could go on indefinitely, as more episodes are selected as worthy for stage versions until we’re eventually subjected to dozens of similar productions. There are, I imagine, some TV shows which would work on stage, but in its present form Steptoe and Son isn’t one of them. There are the seeds of something quite memorable in this production, but one can’t help yearning for a little more originality. A few more laughs wouldn’t go amiss, either.

“The Wild Bride”

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 25th October 2011

Written for www.StageWon.co.uk

It’s not often we find traditional folktales which have a feminist agenda. They normally reinforce patriarchal values and misogyny, mirroring the beliefs of the society in which they were first told. Kneehigh Theatre’s new production of The Wild Bride, fresh from the Lyric Hammersmith, manages to find a lesser known tale which champions women’s rights, creating a heroine who refuses to be identified in accordance with the men in her life and who manages to gain independence in a male-dominated world.

The story, adapted by director Emma Rice with text by Carl Grose, follows a daughter sold to the devil by her father due to a mistake. She is forced into the wilderness, but is taken in by a prince, who falls in love with her before impregnating her and heading off to war. It doesn’t sound like the setup to a defense of women’s independence in society, but the bride’s continued ability to survive without the help of men makes the point clearly.

In true Kneehigh style, the story comes first, interlaced with impressive dance routines and catchy songs. Rice’s direction doesn’t shy away from stereotypes, but these caricatures feel remarkably human. Some quirky touches and original ideas create a sense of magic and wonder. She is helped greatly by Stu Barker’s impressive soundtrack, the best since Brief Encounter, which begins as traditional folk music before introducing pounding base and club rhythms into the second act. Etta Murfitt’s choreography emphasises the bride’s zest for life.

Three actors play the bride during various stages of her development; as daughter, wife and mother. I worry somewhat that this reinforces certain stereotypes, but it’s bizarrely effective. She becomes a new woman with each turn in her life, and is played with a calm pathos by Audrey Brisson, Patricja Kujawska and Eva Magyar. Stuart Goodwin is hilarious as the father and husband, but it’s Stuart McLoughlin’s devil which impresses most, acting as narrator and creator. His vocal range is extraordinary, and he creates a human version of Lucifer who is at times truly scary.

It does seem at times, however, that although Kneehigh are doing what they’re good at, they are staying firmly in their comfort zone. There aren’t any techniques here which haven’t been used before, and even Bill Mitchell’s design doesn’t take many risks, bearing striking resemblance to both Hansel and Gretel and The Red Shoes. The production at times feels too polished (if that can be a criticism), and in being so slick it can become sterile, losing the charm of the original story. Though it’s hardly a bad thing that the company have become too good at their house style, it’d be nice to see a few more risks being taken.

Rice’s joyous production revels in storytelling and play. We are shown the growth of a woman, and by extension the growth of womankind. With one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a Kneehigh production and some beautiful moments of text, the company have created a solid, impressive production after a short lapse in quality. If you’re a Kneehigh fan (and why wouldn’t you be?), The Wild Bride won’t disappoint.

“The Red Shoes” by Kneehigh

at Warwick Arts Centre, Wednesday 27th October 2010

“Can any of us ever escape our obsessions?” Once we have nurtured a love of something, it is hard letting go when needs must. Letting those around us dictate to us which things we are obsessed about is never a good choice. It would be more than difficult to escape an obsession with Kneehigh Theatre, who have, with this revived production of The Red Shoes, proved once again that they are a company worth getting excited about.

Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, we are told the story through by Lady Lydia, who has at her disposal four story-tellers, who show to us how a young girl’s strong attachment with a shiny pair of red shoes leads to disastrous consequences. She is condemned by a priest, undergoes a horrible ordeal with a butcher and is chased by an angel. We all need something which fixates us.

Kneehigh are masters of storytelling, and Emma Rice’s direction shows her mastery of the art. Simple images twinned with effective use of narration make for an exhilarating journey as we follow the protagonist’s dilemma. Much of the entertainment derives from watching the narrator, Lady Lydia, choose how best to direct her storytellers to portray her story. They fight for pole position and there is just as much drama here as in the main narrative.

Once again, Kneehigh are ingenious with their design, as Bill Mitchell proves. Sliding doors hide certain atrocities from view and simple suitcases double as wardrobes and chairs. Costume is simple, defining the characters without going over the top, and the very fact that a donut-shaped piece of cloth can be turned into five different hats deserves commendation in itself. Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting intensifies the simple, scaffold set and Stu Barker’s energetic music is extraordinarily powerful.

The ensemble cast stick to the choreography with ease without making the performance seem mechanical or over-rehearsed. Giles King as Lady Lydia is domineering and confident, and Patrycja Kujawska as the young girl always has a look of absence about her, never quite seeming to be involved in the play, thus removing her from the insane world in which she lives. All the performers seem bemused when in their neutral role of story-tellers, but transform completely in their respective roles.

At times, more could be made of the magic and ethereal nature of the original story, for the construction of the piece would lend itself beautifully to more other-worldly qualities. Generally, however, this visceral and intuitive production is a masterpiece of story-telling, showing once again that there is rarely anything more satisfying than a good story well told.