Reviews

Flat Stanley

Based on the children’s story by Jeff Brown and adapted for the stage by Mike Kenny, this story is not just a great fantasy story for kids but a story about the relationship between two brothers, Arthur and Stanley.

We see Stanley, who was flattened by a noticeboard, retrieve his mother’s ring from a drain, visit his friend courtesy of the US Mail, catch a art thief and become a kite before he returns to his normal size, thanks to his brother.

I was wondering how they would achieve the “flat” image but it is very clever how this is brought to life on stage, as well as being very effective, There are also clever computer animated images to replicate parts of the story, which also works well on stage.

The set is bright, colourful, big and bold and ideal for a young audience’s eyes and there is always something going on for the full hour duration of the musical, which will make sure that the audience that it is primarily aimed at, keep focused.

It is a musical and the songs, composed by Julian Butler, who is also the musical director for the show, has aimed for that fun 60’s “Hairspray/Little Shop Of Horrors” feel in the songs.

Four actors play all the main and secondary parts, Mrs Lambchop (Helen Woolf), Mr Lambchop (Christopher Barlow), Arthur (Adam Ryan) and Stanley (Sam Hallion).

“Flat Stanley” is a nice Christmas alternative to pantomime or to occupy any youngster to Grandparents for an hour in the run up to Christmas itself – Kev Castle Theatre Reviews

 

Quite a jolly miniature musical, this take by Mike Kenny and Julian Butler on Jeff Brown’s fifty year old, pretty timeless story makes for energetic, entertaining theatre. All credit to director Matt Aston and choreographer Claire Cunningham.

And it was good to catch it at Wimbledon’s Polka Theatre which is a homely delightfully friendly children’s venue with traditional red plush in the main house (where Flat Stanley is) and a simpler studio theatre downstairs for younger audiences. I’ve always loved the foyer with its magical, always changing, shop window-style displays alongside the rocking horses and beanbags. The outdoor play space is seriously enticing too.

Flat Stanley is about a boy (played by Sam Hallion) who is smashed flat but unharmed – in the Tom and Jerry tradition – by a message board falling on his bed. It means, partly with the aid of some neat video projection by Will Simpson) he can slide under doors, be posted in an envelope and disguise himself as a painting among other adventures. It’s very much an all-American family tale, growing a little darker towards the end with unhappiness and bullying before the inevitable upbeat all-problems-solved and all-singing-and-dancing conclusion.

Hallion, in the title role, is cheerfully boyish at the beginning gradually deepening his character to evoke the boy’s growing dislike of his predicament once the novelty has worn off. A very pleasing actor, he sings strongly and dances rhythmicallywhich can’t be easy when he is carrying the ‘flat suit’ like a big mask on the front of his body..

Adam Ryan as Arthur, Stanley’s brother is convincing as a young boy and gets the fraternal jealousy effectively as well as doubling in several other roles. He is also a notably lyrical singer. Christopher Barlow creates a big bass voiced Mr Lambchop and provides some nicely judged cameos of which my favourite was the camp art collector. As Mrs Lamchop – and some other roles – Helen Woolf is suitably chirpy especially when cooking her ‘sunnyside up’ eggs whenever the family needs cheering up. She sings tunefully and all the ensemble numbers swing along engagingly.

It’s rather uplifting to see a young audience so engrossed. The house I was part of included a uniformed primary school party – half term is evidently not universal – and lots of family groups. – Sardines Magazine

The Pirates of Penzance

The two essential elements of any of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas were on full display in Illyria’s high quality open air performance.

The singing is first class from all seven cast members, with Anna Brook Mitchell and Emily Juler on fine form, ably supported by Illyria newcomers Sarah Annakin and Lindsey Crow.

Much of the humour stems from Christopher Barlow who expertly exploits his height and commanding stature as a lovable Pirate King, complemented by Lytham-born James Dangerfield, ever expressive of face and gesture, as an energetic Frederic. – Lancashire Evening Post

The deft choreography and movement in Oliver Gray’s production add an inventive humour to many of the songs, supplemented by some simple but inspirational props.

Thomas Heard uses a rich voice, impeccable diction and skilled timing to create a memorable Modern Major General. Musical director Richard Healey’s superb work on the keyboard provides an excellent framework for every song.

On a beautiful midsummer evening the packed audience simply lapped it up, as the company captured the ridiculousness of Gilbert’s words together with the clever variety of Sullivan’s music. This was outdoor theatre at its very best.

IF GILBERT & Sullivan had it right, then “It is a glorious thing, to be a Pirate King.” While it’s safe to say that it’s unlikely any of us will ever get to be one, the next best thing was seeing what Christopher Barlow got up to “under the brave black flag” he flew in this production by Illyria.

A giant of a man, his footwork was as daring as it was dainty, and as the leader of “rough men who lead a rough life”, he was simply splendid.

Like his fellow actors, Frederick (James Dangerfield), Ruth (Emily Juler), General Stanley (Thomas Heard), Mabel (Anna Brook-Mitchell), Police Sergeant (Sarah Annakin), and Edith (Lindsey Crow) he acted, sang and danced his socks off, and that’s saying something for, as directed by Oliver Grey, this was a very physical, fast moving and foot-tapping production.

All praise, too, to choreographer Grant Murphy for devising the complicated but compelling patterns of hand, head and foot movements that added so much to the production’s visual appeal. – Review by Frank Ruhrmund  for The Cornishman

Much of the hilarity in Illyria‘s current touring production of The Pirates of Penzance comes from speedy dexterity of role-change by a small, highly-energetic, cast as well as Gilbert & Sullivan’s absurd words and Goonish storyline.  Swashbuckling pirates, winsome daughters and lose-some police, everyone morphed and bounded into all of these characters and more ~ special credit to Thomas Heard for including a Modern Major General in his multi-tasking and speed-singing too.

Oliver Gray’s direction ensures a fast-paced & very physical interpretation with surprises even for those who know the show better than I do ~ Queen Victoria herself pops in at one point.  James Dangerfield is strong as Frederick the piratical apprentice who values duty over love (and common sense) but wins the heart of Anna Brook Mitchell’s marvellously shrill Major-General’s daughter, and Christopher Barlow whether soft-hearted Pirate King or sprig-frocked girl is always magnetic.

But everyone was terrific, and so engagingly watchable I wanted to rewind and see it all again, a view that appeared shared by around 400 happy picnicking punters at Manor Farm Corsley on Friday night. A superbly well-run event ~ regular Elizabethan Evenings are run here & other venues could take notes from their organisation ~ this performance opened with a short curtain-raiser from local talent and closed with the sky still a deep Mediterranean blue… a perfect evening. – http://crysse.blogspot.co.uk/

“Last night we came and ate a picnic (before the rain) and saw Pirates of Penzance, (Illyria 2014) It was just brilliant, we laughed all the way through as well as enjoying the vocals. More of this company please it was great fun… Another success for Hever Theatre” Audience 2014

“The singing was excellent as was every other aspect of your production…” Audience 2015

Midnight is a Place

Few Forest Forge Christmas productions have ever topped Midnight is a Place. The story, involving the dealings of a mill, is fast moving and a little hard to follow but for sheer entertainment and real quality acting this is a real masterpiece.
There is so much to enjoy and the four actors play 20 roles between them and, in the latter stages, this bring some delightfully amusing moments when certain characters are required on stage at the same time.
When you arrive, the seemingly basic fit-up set gives no hint of the ingenious surprises to follow. Suddenly, there is a mill, factory, sewers, a market, witch, a hospital and a beautifully effective coach and horse ride. The strength of Forest Forge productions is teamwork, with never a television star in sight. In this one their work rate would leave a few Premiership footballers gasping. The story, which initially helps to depict the British slave labour days of punishing mills and factories, is cleverly lightened by some opportunities for the youngsters to react in true pantomime style.
All four actors are outstanding but in Chris Barlow they have one of the most charismatic performers the group has ever discovered. His amazing versatility, booming voice, exquisite diction and admirable manoeuvrability, for such a sizeable man, make him a joy to watch. He brings all this attributes to Mr Oakapple, the tutor, Mr Throgmorton, the lawyer, Gudgeon, a real baddie, and a rather surprise nurse, amongst others.
This incredible production is no one-man show. For the second year running Andrew Wheaton proves a master of the quick turnaround by playing ten parts – and each one is so detailed and effective, however small. Lee Rufford, as the hero Lucas Bell, makes a real impact and his scenes and duet with Julie Rose Smith, as Anna Marie, are among the highlights. Julie also excels as Mrs Braithwaite and Mr Horace Gobthorpe, the tax man.
The original songs, written by John Sebastian Brown, make an instant impact. Once again, Forest Forge is bringing true quality professional shows to tiny villages throughout southern England. – The Stage

JOAN Aiken’s book Midnight is a Place is set in 1842, when orphan Lucas Bell is incarcerated in his peculiar guardian Sir Randolf’s house, Midnight Court…That’s the start of the story that four actors from Forest Forge are telling on tour this winter, in a rivetting adaptation by Russ Tunney, vibrantly and imaginatively directed by Kirstie Davis with just enough music.With the simple and versatile set needed to fit into the many different venues of the tour, and effective use of projections to bring weather conditions into the auditorium, the exciting, funny and sometimes threatening story is brilliantly told by four performers playing more than 20 characters.

Andrew Wheaton makes a welcome return to the company, contributing a bullying uncle, a sinister Friendly Society leech, and even Lady Murgatroyd.

Lee Rufford is the intense young Lucas, with Julie Rose Smith as various women including Anne Marie. And Chris Barlow towers over the rest as Oakapple, a seedy lawyer, a nurse and others, all required simultaneously on stage!…It’s an exciting story. – Blackmore Vale

YOU can always rely on the Forest Forge Theatre Company to come up with something innovative, and this season’s family show is no exception with its original choreography, eye catching visuals and verbal wit…An excellent cast of four actors take on a dizzying array of roles, we counted 18, ranging from a medley of market traders and mean machines to the terrifying Robert Bludwerd and hilarious Mr Oakapple, not forgetting Old Towzer the butler and the beloved pet dog Redgauntlet, in a fast-paced tale that stirs a little bit of pop music into the mix as well….Midnight is a Place is a shadowy but uplifting family adventure that works on several levels, appealing to the very young, the very old and everyone in between. – Salisbury Journal

 

Robin Hood

Simply put – and by that I mean laughs, hollers and screams per minute – it’d be a crime to miss this year’s Playhouse panto. And trust me, bearing in mind what’s gone before, that’s an extraordinary claim…  The Robin Hood tale is not the stuff of witches and ogres and fairies….

… It’s loud, colourful, clever, smart, surprising and, as everyone who buys a ticket deserves, utterly, utterly enjoyable.

As always, the cast play their roles with all the energy and mischief of 10-year-olds on their last day of school.

Chris Barlow as Little John and Anna Wheatley as the plucky and spirited Will Scarlett are the glue who bond the show together (like Ant and Dec but with no jungle).

Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Kris Manuel) is deliciously smarmy and revolting, while the Sheriff of Nottingham (Andrew Pepper) is vile and moronic in equal measure.

As for the man himself, Robin Hood, Jos Vantyer is cool, brave, charming, and able to laugh openly at his fellow cast’s ad-libs (of which there are many). And let’s not forget Maid Marian (Leonie Spilsbury) who is perfectly ‘Maid Marianny’ or Dame Terese Tuck (Daniel Stockton) who is perfectly ‘Dame- delicious’.

A riot then from start to finish and for me at least, the most accomplished, most memorable and most perfect of Christmas treats, except on this occasion both the wrapping and gift within are equally captivating. – Oxford Mail

Robin Hood the panto is an in-house production by the Oxford playhouse …  we go back in time to witness Little John (Christopher Barlow) and Will (Anna Wheatley) who meet Robin Hood (Jos Vantyler) and become his band of Merry men, along with panto dame Friar ‘Terese’ Tuck (Daniel Stockon). Beware the ‘wet seats’ at the front during Little John’s staff fight with Robin Hood.

It is a lavish set with great care taken to show the forest and the castle, home to Maid Marion (Leonie Spilsbury), and our baddies Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Kris Manuel) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Andrew Pepper). Two baddies you will love to hate…There is a great mix of songs written especially for the panto …  A very talented cast they are all great singers and dancers, particularly good vocally is Jos Vantyler and Andrew Pepper is a great all round entertainer.

The panto continues the tradition of gender swapping by making Friar Tuck our Dame (Daniel Stockon), who has some fabulous costumes and of course, a tuck shop. Leonie Spilsbury (Marion) mans up, pretending to be the miller’s son ‘Much’ so that she can warn Robin and his gang of The Sheriff and Guy’s dastardly plans. And Will is played by Anna Wheatley, I really liked her….

There is a Punch and Judy style puppet show from Christopher Barlow (Little John) and Anna Wheatley (Will) who engage well with the audience, encouraging participation and shout outs. The sing a long is fun with different versions for the adults and the children. Also impressive are the stage fights and archery contest.

All of the cast are great, including the guards (Noel Samuels, Adam Lyons), Jen (Vicky Longland) Jill (Sam Wingfield) and the Children’s Chorus who put in so much effort and are faultless….I only wish my little boy was either a) older or b) better behaved to sit through this two hour show as it is really well done and was such much fun, even for us big kids… Femalearts.com 

The Twits

The five strong cast did both their director, Oliver Gray and Roald Dahl proud. An entertaining conclusion which saw Mrs Twit hurtling to the moon at one point, encapuslated everything that was successful about this production- it had humour, endless enthusiasm and terrific acting. It was my second time at an Illyria production and I’d definitely go back for more. I’ll pass on the worm spaghetti though! – Berwick Advertiser

 

t’s not just the children who are happy to participate. In order to help trick the Twits into believing the world has been turned upside down we must take off our shoes and put them on our hands. It’s quite a sight, and can only be testament to a great performance, to witness a sea of shoe-waving children and grown-ups, in a mass display of audience interaction. Illyria’s production of The Twits is a perfect blend of horror and humour with enough absolutely disgusting bits to enthral the most demanding child.  – Tring Today

It has to be said that they were brilliant, as indeed was the whole show. ….All the actors brought the characters from the story to life with charisma and integrity. Mr and Mrs Twit were particularly superb. From their costumes to their mannerisms they were truly believable and had the audience, young and old, in stitches on numerous occasions.

The story itself was brought to life using live music and puppetry and you could see some of the adults revisiting their childhood memories. The whole audience were entranced throughout the show and I think the children loved the interactive elements, which were incidentally very clever and inventive. Given the compact nature of the set it was well thought out and provided the audience with all they needed to let their imaginations do the rest.

Overall I have to say this was one of the most enjoyable theatre productions I have shared with my family. I love the fact that this was a treasured story from my own childhood and that I have been able to share that in another dimension with my children. – Little Yellow Birds

Christopher Barlow’s huge stature and booming voice make a comic and perfect contrast to Lizzy Dive’s abbreviated height and squeaky tones. They are particularly impressive at doing what The Twits do best, being horrible to each other. And the more horrible they were, the more the children loved it.

Alastair Chisholm narrates and interprets the action as a knowing and genial ringmaster and Thomas Heard, as the Roly-Poly bird, grabs his opportunity to involve the audience as he makes everyone, from the newborn to great grandparents, hold their shoes in the air, upside down.

A well-designed set with three stages adds to the energy of the action and the spectacular coup which launched Mrs Twit up a tree, complete with a cluster of balloons and red bloomers, drew gasps of delighted applause from an always enthusiastic audience.

The gymnastic and tumbling skills of Emma Vickery and Matthew Rothwell as the Mugglewumps are matched by their puppeteering skills and plaintive tones with the junior Muggles.

Audibility, pace, a host of clever props and, without fail, an inventive interpretation are Illyria’s hallmark, whether it’s Henry V, HMS Pinafore or, here, Roald Dahl. Children queued excitedly after the show to be photographed with the gruesome Twits – a tribute to the appeal of a very successful show. – Blackpool Gazette

Illyria have never disappointed me with their catalogue of previous touring shows..Each show was done with a humorous take and I knew from the start that this one would be another gem. And packed with hilarity it was, with a special pantomime-style production, perfect for the children. Perfect casting of the principal characters Mr & Mrs Twit (Chris Barlow and Lizzy Dive), who played the smelly and unpleasant couple. Their violence toward each other and their facial expressions were fantastic, along with the over exaggerated body movements. They had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion. The cast of 6 were not just superb actors, but musicians, and stage hands alike. Not to mention the impressive acrobatics and puppeteering from the Muggle-Wumps played by Matthew Rothwell and Emma Vickery. A very talented bunch indeed. The puppets themselves were artistically created and sophisticated, courtesy of Set Designer Christopher Barlow, who was also responsible for the revolving caravan on set, and most of all the tree, which Mr Twit used to stretch Mrs Twit, with a bunch of balloons, and rope tied to an anvil. This prop had to be well constructed to hold Mrs Twit’s weight as she was left dangling in the air when Mr Twit cut the rope – a great finale to a great production. They are a very well rehearsed team and I cannot wait to see what their next performance will be – The Derbyshire Times

…The Twits at Hatfield Forest was as gloriously gross as fans of his books have come to expect… a riot of burping, slurping, snorting and bellowing as two of literature’s most revoltingly rotten characters were brought to life.

Ilyria promised its version would be slimy, sticky and wickedly funny and it certainly delivered, much to the delight of the children in the audience… the actors appeared to be having a genuinely wonderful time revelling in the pranks and bad behaviour which would see their young audience sent straight to bed after a stern ticking off.

The scene where Mrs Twit fed her unsuspecting spouse a plate of worms was particularly stomach-churning and saw more than one person putting their picnic aside….As the first UK open-air touring company to be granted permission to perform Dahl’s work, Illyria has since staged highly-acclaimed productions of James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr Fox and The Twits looks set to enjoy similar success. – Herts Observer

So vociferous were the schoolchildren at the opening performance, I wouldn’t have been surprised if either the Penlee lifeboat or the Cornwall Air Ambulance appeared in response to their screams.
Directed by Sennen-based Oliver Gray, while it’s possibly one of the noisiest it must certainly be one of the “nastiest” of the 36 shows he has directed so far for the company.
However, just as Roald Dahl did, so he appreciates that youngsters love noise, slapstick, pratfalls and violence, indeed, the more cruel the characters are the better. Having said that, and just what this says about my character I dread to think, I must admit I enjoyed every horrible and hideous, shocking and silly second of it. The cast of six, The Ringmaster (Alastair Chisholm) the Twits (Christopher Barlow and Lizzy Dive), the Muggle-Wumps (Matthew Rothwel and Emma Vickery) and the Roly-Poly Bird (Thomas Heard), are athletic and appealing, courageous and convincing. Revenge may be sweet, frogs may be sticky, glass eyes may be moveable, and balloons may be on their way to the moon, but this is a daring and delightful “shoes off” winner of a show. – The Cornishman

The Fair Maid of the West

… Beer barrels are variously rearranged to suggest a bar or a ship’s prow; fight scenes are breathtakingly energetic; Elfyn Jones’s live music steers us through leaps of faith and geography. (There’s also a message on a screen to remind us where we are.)

The result is great fun, and exuberantly performed. Highlights include Katherine Senior as the indomitable Bess, Steve Bennett as the cowardly rogue Roughman, Tom Hackney as the sweet young Clem, and the outrageously funny Christopher Barlow as the Moroccan ruler enveloped in mint-green velvet and hedonistic sauciness.

… and crucially, you believe in Bess. Hers is a glorious reign while it lasts, and this production a welcome reminder that it was not only Shakespeare who wrote complex parts for women. – The Guardian

Pardon me, good reader; just giving you a taste of this powerful entertainment directed by Amanda Knott who has gathered as manly a crew of sea-faring, cider-swilling, jolly songsters and roaring good actors as ever did tread the boards of ship or stage. And Ms. Knott, she’s set ’em on a sure & certain course to a successful voyage in this tongue-in-cheek, West Country tale, acted at The New Theatre in Exeter….Christopher Barlow stands eye to eye with Gaffney in height and is extremely funny as the ‘camp’ but heterosexual Sultan Mullisheg, who like most men in the play, is smitten with Bess. But Barlow also shines in three other, widely varied roles in this romp of a play,…”The Fair Maid of the West” is an education as much as an entertainment and does the heart good to feel its zest. – Remote Goat

Amanda Knott directs a right rollicking romp at the New Theatre in Exeter  as Creative Cow interprets the Elizabethan comedy The Fair Maid of The West…Played tongue-in-cheek with superb facial expressions and timing by a talented, versatile cast, the audience is transported, drink in hand, from Plymouth dive to Fowey pub to the Azores and Morocco.

The ubiquitous pantomime Dame Steve Bennett is the blustering rogue Roughman whose machismo is harnessed by the cunning of good Bess, while Toby Gaffney is a powerful presence as go-between Goodlack (and fight master).

Tom Hackney (last seen in Exeter in Dumb Waiter) is, among other bit parts, cheeky chappie tavern apprentice Clem who brings quick-witted banter to play while Christopher Barlow is fabulously camp as Mullisheg, milking every ounce of comedy from the character.

All, along with Nathan Banks, Richard Warwick and Christopher Talon, make the most amazingly swift costume changes to populate the stage with minor characters, drunken revellers, sailors and swordsmen. – Whats on Stage

THIS production has surpassed itself! It is filled with bawdy humour, aggression, and a cocktail of theatrical styles, that range from the ribaldry of beer drinking sailors in Plymouth, to the seductive boudoirs of King Mellisheg’s court in Morocco.

This Elizabethan play, written in 1599, by Thomas Heywood, is directed by Amanda Knott at a cracking pace with the actors responded likes dogs tearing a bone to bits.

One of the things which I loved in this production, apart from the chaos, was the simplicity of the language. Much of it is in rhyming couplets that smacks of today’s street language. The scenery for this giant undertaking is no more than a load of beer barrels rolled on to the stage by the pint pullers.

However, what is truly amazing about this production is the vicious sword fighting, done to the rhythm of a drum.

There are some stunning performances, particularly from Katherine Senior, who is the only woman in a cast of nine. Senior plays Bess, the coquettish bar maid, who is pursued by three men, Steve Bennett’s Roughman, the snarling macho, Toby Gaffney’s dour Goodlack, and Jonathan Parrish as her hero Spencer.

This is a fabulous production. Enjoy! – The Express and Echo

The Wind in the Willows

This charming musical version of an old favourite excites even before it starts because of its attractive set. With trees, boat, jetty, mole-hole and two woodland hones, it trebles the size of the Brook’s small proscenium by building forward onto the floor and creating a split level playing space. It enables kind, urbane Ratty (Mark Boadicoat) and the nervous be-spectacled Mole (Damaris Fowler) to explore the river in a real boat.

Christopher Barlow was surely born to play the outrageous Toad with his towering stature (he is twice the height of Damaris Fowler) flexible face and expressive eyes. Several times he climbs into the audience and assaults/insults individuals while Mole and Ratty apologise for him. It makes for fine comedy. Justin Deaville’s kindly Badger provides just the right level of gravitas to counterbalance Toad and he is funny as the washerwoman. Emmy Bradbury is suitably weasly as the lead villain and the supporting cast of children and teenagers achieves a pleasingly professional standard with plenty of thrust.
Bill Davies’ sensitive adaptation, framed with Deaville as Badger telling the story to a group of children, is closer than most to Kenneth Grahame’s novel and it is good to see an exquisite owl puppet in the second half in an incident which adapters usually cut. – The Stage