“it is a compliment to say that this is an uncomplicated hour of comedy”
Fresh, as they say, from the Edinburgh Fringe, Anna Nicholson’s breezy ‘Woman of the Year’ show arrives, touting comparisons to Victoria Wood and Tracey Ullman under the slogan, ‘Character comedy just got competitive’. The format is essentially a showcase for Nicholson’s comedy and vocal talents, pitting four of her comedy creations against each other. To evoke Edinburgh in the austere East End, five round tables are deployed before a shabby proscenium creating a cabaret mood at The Space, and as Kieran Stallard strikes up on an electric keyboard, Anna herself, with help from a prerecorded game show voice, emerges to be Master of Ceremonies.
The first contender is a slightly-too-keen bra saleswoman who, with Joyce Grenfell jolliness, forces her mission of feminine comfort on an audience member with quite the opposite effect. After a quick change of hair and adjustment of skirt length, Geordie glamour vlogger Bianca sashays on to instruct us on the art of the selfie in a breathy dialect all her own. By now the character-creation model is established, with types being familiar enough for audience recognition whilst avoiding over-proximity to existing characters or clichés. The tomboyish female vicar is next. With only a vague Vicar of Dibleyness, she develops a cheerfully vulpine streak as she strives to outdo a local rival. Her competitiveness peaks in a village fete at which she announces a Reverent Baxter piñata in revenge for his success in the bake off. Finally, with an inevitable nod to Catherine Tate, a sex-mad gran totters out to share some affectionate memories of her husband, who died doing what she loved best.
The harder you work at a script the easier it is to watch its performance, so it is a compliment to say that this is an uncomplicated hour of comedy. The characters aren’t overburdened by punchlines or attempts to be clever. The writing support from the show’s Director, Neil Armstrong, and oversight from TV comedy writer James Cary appears to be working well, as does a format which allows performance subtleties to develop, while being robust enough for a beery crowd to follow. Script aside, Nicholson’s portfolio of talents are delivered with slick timing and spirits are kept high by her punchy singing voice and the Variety show vibe of Bobby Goulder‘s near-constant music.
There’s a fine line between fresh and slightly derivative, but Anna Nicholson’s characters are strong enough to suggest she can follow in her heroines’ footsteps, so long as she doesn’t try to do so too closely.
“The cast were superb, with the quality of sound leaving a lasting impression after the show was through”
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is a musical mouthful to explain to your friends, but it delivers the plot of this 2005 Broadway musical succinctly and accurately. The story follows the fortunes of six students in their local final of the all-American tradition of the Spelling Bee, each with a good shot at winning and with their own story to tell of how they got there.
What sets this musical apart is its use of audience participation, inviting four audience members up onto stage in Act One to also take part as finalists. Watching each audience member attempt to spell with varying levels of willingness and success was very entertaining, and the novelty and improvised nature in the early rounds stove off any doldrum due to the repetitive nature of the Spelling Bee, keeping it entertaining for longer than would have been possible without it.
The songs giving insight to each character’s life, rather than necessarily moving the plot along, become more tiresome in the second half when the contest becomes a simple whittling down to find the winner. I found the building blocks of the show including plot, music and lyrics to be unimaginative, and was surprised to learn that the original Broadway production earnt a Tony award for Best Book of a Musical. However, the piece was produced and performed with such enjoyment that I couldn’t help but enjoy it myself.
The cast were superb, with the quality of sound leaving a lasting impression after the show was through. Elizabeth Chadwick as the Bee’s facilitator, Rona Lisa Peretti, has a stunningly crystal clear voice, and masterfully guides the action with it. The actors portrayals are also acutely funny, with Michael Watson-Gray as Douglas Panch, the slightly unstable school Vice Principal using each of the required spelling words in wickedly funny sentences. TJ Lloyd as William Barfee and Jeannie May as Marcy Park also had great humour in students who were confidently unphased by the event others were so eager about.
Set design by Victoria Francis is impressive, turning the small studio space of the Drayton Arms Theatre into a miniature school gym with letters littered across the stage, stickered on the floor walls and chairs of the gym. Similarly the choreography by Adam Haigh did well to liven up the action within such tight constraints.
With the components given, this show could have been a drag. But with such joy, care and attention applied by all involved, it instead brightened up my evening.