“Her witty modern-day lyrics are reminiscent of the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda”
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. Those immortal words the Bard penned in his rustic comedy, As You Like It, seem as true as ever in this recent musical adaptation of the play which makes its European debut. Produced by Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch in partnership with the National Theatre’s Public Acts, a national initiative to make inclusive, community theatre, it brings a one hundred-strong cast from all walks of life together to create this vibrant version which is unlike any other production of As You Like It you will have seen.
In a condensed telling of Shakespeare’s tale we find Duke Senior (Rohan Reckord) has been banished from the court by his brother Duke Frederick (Curtis Young), finding solace and a new home within the Forest of Arden, where many of his supporters begin to converge and take commune. In paranoid rage, Duke Frederick lashes out at anyone that threatens his authority, including his niece, Rosalind (Ebony Jonelle), who is exiled. Taking on a male disguise, she similarly flees to the Forest of Arden bringing in tow her cousin Celia (Marjorie Agwang), and the trusty clown Touchstone (Vedi Roy). However, before her banishment, Rosalind falls head over heels in love with Orlando (Linford Johnson) whom she must conceal her true emotions from when their paths cross again in the forest.
The original songs that interject this adaptation, help to flesh the characters out further, giving their actions and motives more depth. Composed by American Shaina Taub, she is certainly a name to listen out for in the future. Her witty modern-day lyrics are reminiscent of the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda and help to give a nearly 400-year old story a current relevance.
This may be a community project, but by and large the main characters are played by trained actors. Stand outs include the incredibly watchable Ebony Jonelle who offers a vivacious Rosalind, whilst Vedi Roy as Touchstone delivers the sassiest clown in town. Rohan Reckord has such a smooth voice it will undoubtedly give you goosebumps when he sings.
Nevertheless, it is the amalgamation between the trained actor and the ‘average Joe’ that really is something special, proving that a passion for theatre is what truly wins out and that anybody has a right and the capability to perform on stage. During the colossal group scenes, it is nigh impossible to not feel moved seeing a broad range of people of all ages, abilities, cultures, and backgrounds coming together. The sheer joy that beams from the stage is infectious. The carnival-like atmosphere and colourful costumes (Hayley Grindle and Daisy Blower) make it a party you never want to leave.
“what truly drives this production are the performances”
Initially a stage play, “Little Voice” was turned into the hugely successful fin-de-siècle movie starring Jane Horrocks, but has since been staged and well received enough for it to have become, if not quite a classic, a safe bet on the theatre scene. A victim of its success, there is the danger that audiences will cease to be amazed by the story of the shy, reclusive girl who reveals a powerfully beautiful voice. Tom Latter’s revival at the Park Theatre steers clear of that danger with a production that, even for those who know the story backwards, is as fresh as if it were written yesterday.
Desperately missing her dead father, Little Voice spends her time locked in her bedroom listening to his old record collection and perfecting her striking impersonations of famous singing divas. Her mother, the brash Mari, through sheer neglect does her best to stamp out this talent, until she starts dating small-time, dodgy impresario Ray, who attempts to coax Little Voice out of her hiding place. He sees a ticket to the big time. Mari sees an escape route to a better life. Little Voice just wants a normal life. Surely not everybody can get what they want.
Latter’s direction is punchy, assured and, played out on Jacob Hughes’ simple yet clever split-level design, remains faithful to writer Jim Cartwright’s script. But what truly drives this production are the performances.
Rafaella Hutchinson as Little Voice is a master impersonator, capturing the tones and vocal inflections of Monroe, Bassey, Holiday, Garland, Lee – and even Cher. Hutchinson’s transformation from damaged waif to impassioned cabaret star (and back again) is entirely believable, while she manages to trigger those contrasting emotions within you: you are willing her to break out of her shell and achieve the recognition she so deserves, yet at the same time condemning the exploitation.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly Sally George as the relentlessly chattering Mari. A sharp contrast to the silent and fearful Little Voice, yet thanks to George’s captivating performance you can see through Mari’s brash exterior to know that she shares the same insecurities as her daughter. (Interestingly they are also real-life mother and daughter). Her portrayal of Mari is quite magnificent. No pause is left unfilled by Cartwright’s bitingly hilarious text as George delivers her lines with precision timing. Seemingly unaware of the damage she is inflicting, it is all the more heart-wrenching when her daughter finally cracks the hard shell of her self-centredness.
Strong support comes from Linford Johnson as the tongue-tied electrician who woos Little Voice from the rooftops with a nervous uncertainty that belies his faith in her. Kevin McMonagle’s dubious Ray Say pans from leery charm to heartless menace in a riveting performance that lifts his character well out of the pitfall of caricature that is all too easy to fall into with this role. Jamie-Rose Monk as monosyllabic Sadie often threatens to silently steal the show, while Shaun Prendergast takes that threat further with his stand out portrayal of the stand-up Mr Boo: nightclub owner. His club-compere routines are hilarious. While the laughs from the audience are genuine, Prendergast’s own appreciation of his pitch-perfect wise-cracks are a thin veneer that fails to conceal the charred and dying hopes and dreams beneath.
The performances highlight the humour in Jim Cartwright’s dialogue, but here they also accentuate the play’s central themes of neglect, exploitation, grief, loneliness and abuse. When Little Voice herself finally dispenses with her alter-egos and poignantly sings in her own voice we are reminded that this production has its own voice too, which sets it apart from many other versions of this Northern fairy-tale.