War Horse, Bradford Alhambra *****
It’s wood and leather – the artifice isn’t even hidden, we can see the puppeteers – and somehow it still moves a whole audience to tears.
War Horse is one of the most magnificent achievements of contemporary British theatre.Technically it is staggering, but the real triumph of War Horse is the heart of the piece.
Watching the show at the Alhambra in Bradford, it is a reminder of the ultimate power of theatre. Steven Spielberg was inspired to turn this into a movie when he saw the show. It was not a success, mainly because a movie makes fewer demands of the watcher than a piece of theatre. Where literality failed, the combined imaginations of an audience succeeds.
Michael Morpurgo’s story of Joey the horse is a beautiful novel, but the multi-faceted tale seems anything but ideal for adaptation for the stage. For a start, the main character is a horse. How can you tell the story? Well, you get genius theatre makers, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, to employ every theatrical trick they can muster.
You then throw at it performances like that of Lee Armstrong as Albert Narracott. At the end of the play, when his mother sees a ‘man on a horse’ there is deep poignancy – we have watched this young boy become a man in front of our eyes.
There isn’t a misstep in the whole production, from Steven Hillman’s Ted Naracott, to his long-suffering wife Rose Narracott, to their farm’s goose, this is one of the most complete pieces of theatre you will ever see.
• To June 14.
Enjoy, West Yorkshire Playhouse ***
Alan Bennett himself insisted this play, the biggest flop of his career, was incorrectly titled. ‘Endure’, he suggested, was a more apt name.
It is a mark of the fact that Bennett was spot on when you consider that this is a brilliantly directed, powerfully acted production and yet is virtually impossible to enjoy.
No-one is suggesting that every piece of theatre needs to be enjoyable – some of the most powerful nights I have had in theatre have been watching pieces of work that have made me feel deeply uncomfortable.
But there needs to something in the play that is entertaining, or compelling. You can’t help but leave this production feeling like you have been through a test of endurance.
What’s difficult about it is that it is truly a very imaginatively directed piece of work. James Brining uses imagination and great skill to bring the story to life.
You just can’t help but wonder why.
The first in the Alan Bennett season, Enjoy tells the story of a Leeds back-to-back and the couple who live in it, the space defining them, and they in turn defining the space. As silent observers arrive to watch Mam and Dad live their lives, there is something prophetic about the 1980 play that speaks to today.
It does have some typically sparkling Bennett wit, but as the walls close in (ironically, by being blown apart) the oppression of the piece is palpable.
The coup de theatre at the end of this piece is spectacular, but it feels a long test of endurance to get there.
• To June 7.
Boeing Boeing, Sheffield Crucible ****
Sometimes it’s difficult to see the reason for a production to be staged in a particular time and place.
While Boeing Boeing is undoubtedly a successful piece of work – the most successful French farce in history no less – watching this production feels like being trapped in a timewarp. In look and feel it is very reminiscent of a scene from an Austin Powers movie, although it lacks the insight and incisiveness of the work of Mike Myers.
The “comedy” accents, particularly the French and German ones on display are clearly meant to be grotesques, but there needs to be some sense of weight to them too if they are to have any sort of appeal beyond that. Marc Cannoletti’s 1960s farce receives little updating in this production.
Director Jonathan Humphreys tells the story of Bernard, whose life is worked out to perfection with the help of a flight schedule – his three “fiancees” are air hostesses on different airlines. As long as he keeps his trusty schedule to hand, everything runs smoothly. Things go, predictably awry in the air, which has the inevitable impact on the ground.
Bernard finds himself on a collision course with destiny as all three women come together in his Paris apartment at the same time.
Joseph Kloska as Bernard’s friend Robert mugs his way through the entire piece. There really should be a rule that the a performer shouldn’t be having more fun on stage than the audience watching him on it. Julia Deakin as Bertha, the long-suffering maid, is the only sympathetic character and is the most watchable part of this production.
• To June 7.
Tonight’s the Night, Sheffield Lyceum, by Peter McNerney ****
“Tonight’s the night and everything’s gonna be alright” sings rock and pop legend Rod Stewart. He’s spot on when it comes to the former West End musical based on his plethora of hits. It’s now touring the UK and at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre the audience was up for a night of nostalgia as familiar tune after tune was performed by the young energetic cast. It perhaps doesn’t have the “joie de vivre” of Mamma Mia, or the spectacle of that other Ben Elton-penned West End hit We Will Rock You but Rod fans won’t be disappointed.The story? Boy meets girl etc, with it all woven together by the Scottish superstar’s biggest hits. We’re not talking plot twists and big reveals here. You have the comfort of knowing that every few minutes another classic will come along to keep the audience happy.
Two stand out performances for me. Great to see Jade Ewan in the role of Dee Dee showing why she was the outstanding UK entry for Eurovision in the last decade. She came fifth in 2009.
Also, Ricky Rojas steals the show as the hugely entertaining Stoner. The character’s title hints at how he interprets the role.
Some of the audience needed a little encouragement to get to their feet and don their paper sailor’s hat for the big finale of Sailing. Did I wear mine ? I don’t want to talk about it.
• To May 31.