Tag Archives: Upstairs at The Gatehouse

How to Build a Better Tulip

How to Build a Better Tulip

★★

Upstairs at the Gatehouse

HOW TO BUILD A BETTER TULIP at the Upstairs at the Gatehouse

★★

How to Build a Better Tulip

Only the performance by Beth Burrows holds the whole thing together

 

To set the theme for the evening, the song Tulips from Amsterdam provides the somewhat tongue-in-cheek auditorium entry music, followed by other songs evoking buttercups and roses. Perhaps there is no available pop song concerning petunias as that would have been the other relevant flowery reference for this amiable comedy written and directed by Mark R Giesser.

A minimalist drab-coloured set (Designer Mollie Cheek) predominantly represents a greenhouse at the University of South Holland (Lincolnshire) where plant genetics are being researched. Faded tulip designs on delft tiles give a hint of historic Dutchness. A broadsheet notice on the wall informs us that a monetary prize of ten thousand guilders should be awarded to any person who succeeds in the breeding of a perfect Black Tulip. And therein lies the basis of the plot, loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Black Tulip, and making reference to the historical tulipomania of seventeenth century Holland.

Splashes of colour appear as university researcher Audrey Braddock (Jill Greenacre) in red corduroys and amanuensis Sheila Crouch (Bryony Tebbutt) with yellow bobblehat, frenetically enter. Tebbutt displays youthful exuberance in a deliberate and delightfully quirky manner. Greenacre’s speedy and breathy delivery means some dialogue is sadly lost in this opening scene. We are introduced to Braddock’s daughter Perci (Beth Burrows) whose latest boyfriend is petunia researcher Adrian Vanderpol (Christopher Killik) and then things turn strange. Alone in her room, Braddock begins to talk to a voice in her head – Carolus Hoofdorn (Richard Lynson) a seventeenth century Dutch tulip enthusiast. Vanderpol too communicates with the voice in his head – Cornelia Vanderpol (Tebbutt again). And when everyone appears on stage together, the two Dutch puritans are able to talk to each other too. Nice period costumes here (Giulia Scrimieri) for the historical Dutch, less convincing accents.

As it appears, Braddock and Vanderpol – driven by the two ghosts in their heads – are covertly endeavouring to create the elusive black tulip, espionage is undertaken, Perci is involved with the FBI and honey-research, Carolus sporadically breaks out into folksong, Cornelia inexplicably cannot abide the songs of Elvis, Vanderpol is arrested for environmental terrorism and tulip bulbs are identified as the next potential WMD. It’s all rather a muddle.

The character of Sergeant Ellsworth, managed stolidly enough by Lynson, sums up the difficulty of the play; he is given neither the insight of a probing detective nor the comedic possibilities of a bumbling village Plod. Only the performance by Beth Burrows holds the whole thing together. With energy and fine expression she appears to understand and believe in all the shenanigans and provides a central performance to savour.


Perci tells us at one point, “It all sounds more complicated than it needs to be” and I could almost hear the audience reply, “hear hear”.

 

Reviewed on 8th November 2022

by Philip Money

Photography by Flavia Fraser-Cannon

 

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:

 

Forever Plaid | ★★★★ | June 2021

 

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Forever Plaid

Forever Plaid

★★★★

Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Forever Plaid

Forever Plaid

Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Reviewed – 3rd June 2021

★★★★

 

“their sheer professionalism shines through each and every musical number”

 

Once upon a time, back in 1964, a semi-professional harmony group was on its way to its first big gig. While driving in a cherry-red convertible, the group was rehearsing their finale; ‘Love Is a Many Splendored Thing’. They were just getting to their favourite E flat diminished seventh chord when their car collided with a bus full of eager teenagers on their way to watch the Beatles make their U.S. television debut on the Ed Sullivan show. The kids in the bus miraculously escaped uninjured. The harmony, group, however, was killed instantly.

Fast forward to the present. The young guys are still in limbo – as unresolved as their final chord – but they find themselves back on earth for a chance to recreate the concert they never got to perform. It’s a simple set up: the four singers emerge, dressed in white tuxedos, slightly bewildered. Stuart Ross’s tongue in cheek book is updated for the Covid generation by John Plews; with a reference to the audience wearing masks. “Are we in a theatre or an operating theatre?”. But the soul of the piece remains intact. With its light humour, combined with stunning vocal virtuosity, this is a gorgeous antidote to today’s cynicism and cheap send ups. It is a heartfelt homage to an often forgotten but vital period in the history of American popular music.

“Forever Plaid” was the first musical that opened Upstairs at the Gatehouse in 1999, so it is fitting that it should be the first to herald its reopening after the pandemic. Cameron Burt, George Crawford, Christopher Short and Alexander Zane are, respectively, Frankie, Jinx, Smudge and Sparky, who lead us through a celebration of bands such as The Four Aces, The Four Freshmen and The Crew Cuts. Not instantly recognisable names, but the songs are instantly familiar. The musical performance is reminiscent of old variety shows that brought the whole family together around the television set. It is not character driven, but the cast have real personality as they reminisce about the past and try to make sense of the present. They are each portraying amateurs in their craft, but their sheer professionalism shines through each and every musical number.

The songs include ‘Catch a Falling Star’, ‘Cry’, ‘Three Coins in a Fountain’. ‘Heart and Soul’ and many others. The revue is a subtle spectacle, celebrating the flip side of the fifties which has become overshadowed by Rock n’ Roll, Elvis and the Beatles. The comedy is not restricted to the repartee between the songs. There is a wonderful moment when they take on the Beatles’ ‘She Loves You’, tightening the harmonies and singing ‘She Loves You Yes Siree”. There is a Calypso sequence, and a fabulous version of ‘Lady of Spain’ while they mime and juggle and impersonate bygone celebrities.

You don’t need to be an aficionado of the genre to appreciate ‘Forever Plaid’. It obviously helps, but what can’t be helped is the spell that is cast. Each note, sung and spoken is spot on. With musical director Ian Oakley on keys and Jess Martin on double bass, we have a real sense of the warmth and emotional tug of nostalgia. They sing ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing’ to close the show – the number the fictitious quartet were rehearsing before they died. They marvel at this dreamlike chance to have a second chance. “Can we pick off where we left off?” they ask. They answer their own question; “Why not? We came back once, we can do it again… A perfect chord. One perfect moment. That’s all anyone has the right to ask for”.

This isn’t the first time that “Forever Plaid” has run at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. And let’s hope it’s not the last.

 

 

Reviewed by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Darren Bell

 

Forever Plaid

Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 27th June

 

Other shows reviewed by Jonathan this year
Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Hung Parliament | ★★★★ | Online | February 2021
The Picture of Dorian Gray | ★★★★ | Online | March 2021
Bklyn The Musical | ★★★★★ | Online | March 2021
Remembering the Oscars | ★★★ | Online | March 2021
Disenchanted | ★★★ | Online | April 2021
Preludes in Concert | ★★★★★ | Online | May 2021
You Are Here | ★★★★ | Southwark Playhouse | May 2021
Abba Mania | ★★★★ | Shaftesbury Theatre | May 2021
Cruise | ★★★★★ | Duchess Theatre | May 2021
Amélie The Musical | ★★★★ | Criterion Theatre | June 2021

 

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