“The energy that flowed from the musicians was infectious as they recreated the nightlife of the era”
Stepping into the Mercury Theatre to see Ain’t Misbehavin’ was like stepping into the Jazz clubs of Harlem in the 1920s. The smooth tones of the music transported us deep into the life of Fats Waller, the iconic African-American jazz pianist, organist, composer and comedic entertainer. The show, not prescribing to any linear structure or story, explored the musical talents of Waller by embracing a selection of his work including ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’ and ‘The Viper’s Drag.’ The songs were performed by Adrian Hansel, Carly Mercedes-Dyer, Landi Oshinowo, Renée Lamb and Wayne Robinson, who each, with their own impressive array of talents, added a unique flair to every tune. The quality was outstanding, as each performer amazed with their booming voices and effortless dance moves choreographed to perfection by the brilliant Oti Mabuse.
Making his directing debut, Tyrone Huntley proved his creative talents extend to offstage as well as on. He has ensured that every element of the show conveys the period and the true essence and freedom of Jazz.
At first, the absence of a storyline was noticeable and I caught myself thinking that the presence of scripted dialogue could have tied the songs together more efficiently. However, by the second act this thought was disregarded as we journeyed into more slow and sombre numbers.
‘The Viper’s Drag’ was a particularly impressive number, hypnotic as it stirred a silent excitement in the audience. Waller’s words filled the theatre, as Wayne Robinson smoked away, singing about getting high and dancing slickly across the floor. The audience watched as his feet slid across the stage, his body resembling ‘The Viper.’ The song ‘Black and Blue’ delved into the topic of race and importantly touched upon typical white American views towards black identities at the time. The power of the lyrics, “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case, Cause I can’t hide what is on my face,” created a story and perhaps indicated Huntley’s vision of allowing the music to speak for itself.
It would be criminal not to acknowledge the excellent live band that performed alongside the outstanding cast. The energy that flowed from the musicians was infectious as they recreated the nightlife of the era enhanced by the stunning period set and costume design (takis).
Ain’t Misbehavin’ was hugely entertaining. A beautifully crafted piece of theatre from the Made In Colchester stable reflecting the talents of a bygone era.
“excellent acting, purposeful direction and evocative visuals”
Spurred by the centenary of the Amritsar massacre, Phil Willmott sets this tragic tale of love, jealousy and vengeance in India during the British Raj, casting Othello as an Officer – one of the few Indian soldiers who made it through training at Sandhurst and back to a position of command in the British army. Within the rich tapestry of plot, characters and language Shakespeare epitomises the malevolent aspect of human nature, sparked by its undermining negative feelings of resentment, envy and insecurity. He also brings to light the subject of racism and in this production, we are reminded of the abhorrent attitude towards Indians in their own country. Inferior in rank and whose lower-class British background prevents any hope of promotion, Iago seethes with rancour and orchestrates those around him in an evil revenge; Othello, weakened by self-doubt, falls into the trap.
The scene is set with a tastefully oriental design and some strongly patriotic piano playing. But once the plot begins to unfurl, the background fades. Despite the resetting, it is the words which define the narrative and the dimensions and balance of the characters which bring context. Matthew Wade creates the impression of a young, earnest General, helplessly in love; he lacks the majestic quality of the original experienced warrior which makes his downfall by a malicious, conniving underdog so tragic. Rikki Lawton’s powerful rendering of a more identifiably modern Iago dominates the action and his psychopathic nature eclipses a personal hatred, making Othello simply another of his victims. With his significance diminished, this becomes Iago’s story.
Despite the imbalance we can enjoy the colonial flavour through the atmospheric set (Justin Williams and Jonny Rust), Zoe Burnham’s sublime, cinematographic lighting, detailed costumes, (Penn O’Gara) and solid, nuanced interpretations all round. In particular, Jerome Dowling’s Cassio wins our empathy as he is caught unawares in Iago’s net. As Desdemona, Carlotta De Gregori portrays the incomprehension and suffering of her husband’s turn of face with great sensitivity, but her initial coquettish behaviour towards him only hinders our perception of his standing. And a spirited Emilia (Claire Lloyd) adds plausibility to the era through her accent and demeanour, though fails to grow into the play’s increasing tension.
This modern take on ‘Othello’ has all the ingredients of success – some excellent acting, purposeful direction and evocative visuals – but as a consequence of the weight of importance between Iago and Othello on stage, it is in retrospect rather than a reaction to the drama that we feel the relevance of Willmott’s fresh approach.