“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.
“emotionally heavy subject matter often relieved by astutely funny, bittersweet observations on female relationships”
The Silence takes us through the private musings and personal interactions of Ewa, Anna and Maria – three generations of Polish women. It’s hard to pin where the focus of the play sits, running over issues of national identity, the traumas of war and the infuriation of family. That sounds a bit hefty and dramatic, doesn’t it? Well, The Silence is both of these things but also light hearted at times with emotionally heavy subject matter often relieved by astutely funny, bittersweet observations on female relationships.
Kate Spiro gives a just-fraught-enough performance of the externally beige but internally chaotic Ewa, the mother and daughter at the centrepoint of The Silence in many ways. It isn’t an easy part to fulfil sympathetically and could quite easily come across as a standard middle aged meltdown figure. This is avoided with a real sense of tension, a visible tightness that makes one constantly on edge to see if she will begin to unwind or explode in a spectacular snap.
Tina Gray handles ‘babcia’ Maria quite sweetly, setting the audience up to accept the shambling, sweet-old-girl routine well enough to make the turn of the second act all the more hard hitting. Maria Louis completes the cast as Anna and absolutely nails the irritable but dutiful late-teen phase of the youngest generation of the family. All three dip into a not insignificant amount of spoken Polish which comes across quite naturally, a good job from dialect coach Karina Knapinska.
There is something of a stereotypical feel to the characters to begin with – bumbling grandma, middle aged mess and rebellious youth but these roles round out as the play progresses, Nicola Werenowksa has crafted the story of The Silence quite skilfully to take an extraordinary life history and make it relatable to a modern British audience. We go from tales of the Gulag to groans about the M25 seamlessly, seeing parallels in stresses and relationships since the WWII era without falling into the trap of belittling current woes by comparison to harder times.
The Silence is playing in the Studio at the Mercury Theatre, to which it is well suited. Three simple grey chairs make for the majority of the set with only a few other basic props. A high grey screen to the rear of the stage adds a looming bleakness to the atmosphere, cleverly used with a backlight later in the play to fill in time lost to a costume change. This is a play about conversations – conversations with ourselves and with others and the minimalist backdrop avoids any distraction from what is being said. It cannot be described as fast moving, though it flows very well despite the frequently overlapping dialogue of each character. This is helpful to the pace but does make it challenging to keep up with at times, more than once I found myself focusing on one and losing the thread of where the stories of the other two had gone. It is definitely a captivating play and although it is enjoyable at times one doesn’t exactly leave the theatre with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Touches of humour keep it from being completely depressing, however.
As a final note, it is refreshing to see an all female cast and creatives team telling an important story in a time when immigration, refugees and conflict commemorations are such hot topics of debate, so congratulations to director Jo Newman on the production as a whole.