The Band

The Band by Tim Firth – The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth

I have a lot of feelings about The Band. So I’ll start with the positives. The production values are high, all of the staging looks incredible and there’s some pretty powerful pyrotechnics to appreciate. The cast are very capable performers and crowds around me all seemed to be having the time of their lives. Similar to Jersey Boys, it’s a play that allows people to engage with theatre through something they’re already familiar with. The storyline was decent as well, far better than some other jukebox musicals I’ve seen.

That’s the good stuff. And I did have a good time watching The Band, there were just a few elements of it that sat very uneasy with me. For instance, there is a lot of fat jokes. Like, too many. I’m aware that, being fat myself, I tend to be more sensitive to this sort of thing than most people are. That said, I still think that it was lazy and cheap writing. The Band features characters who are working class, older female characters, characters who are fat, characters who are gay. It should have been a representational slam dunk. But they kind of fucked it, as far as I am concerned. They had a real opportunity to offer some positive representation for people who very rarely see themselves reflected onstage. There were some characters for whom this was achieved, for instance the presentation of working class people was positive. I just can’t look past those fat jokes. They happened so often and were usually centred around ‘lol, fat people like to eat’ or just straight up ‘lol, look, they’re not slim’. Basically the kind of comments that school bullies have been peddling for years. Seriously Firth? That was the best you could come up with? Having a less than slim character doesn’t need to be a plot point to address, it doesn’t have to be their only character trait. Which for one of the not slim characters, it wasn’t. However, for another, we learned essentially nothing about her life except that she used to be slender and then comfort ate her way to fatness. So predictable, so dull. Not all fat people are fat cos they’re sad, FYI guys. Many of the more cruel jokes are uttered by that character herself, seemingly to make the laughter ok. I don’t feel like that’s good enough. If I were to suddenly start making loads of sexist jokes that wouldn’t be empowerment, the fact that I’m part of the marginalised group doesn’t make it ok if I am feeding into toxic ideals that other people already hold – it’s hindering the cause and my being female wouldn’t change that. Same here re: fat jokes. The jokes were not made to question the idea that fat bodies are inherently inferior or funny. It wasn’t some form of smart satire to question beliefs. It stuck very much to the status quo. At one point the character talks about how she became fat. It’s played for pathos little else. The jokes continue, except the other characters decide they won’t make them anymore (she can belittle herself, they don’t need to). There’s no character development except her now deciding to go on a diet (she’s slimmer of the week now guys!). The final scene involves one character making a fat joke, and our bigger character excusing this because it means she can then make jokes about the other character being a lesbian. What?! I don’t understand what point that is supposed to be making. Sure, it’s good to be able to laugh at oneself and not take life too seriously, I’m just not sure these are the traits to be making that point with. Particularly when numerous people laughing at these jokes are very much laughing AT and not WITH.

It was super frustrating for me because the rest of the musical was great, far better than I was expecting it to be. It should have been a fun night of nostalgia but I left feeling pretty mopey really. For many, these jokes will have been a tiny aspect of the play that had little impact on the rest of the story. Which I feel is kind of the problem, it normalises it. I feel that the writers could have done so much better. The cast were really talented, this could have been a great show and a really positive thing for a lot of people. I’m not angry lads, I’m disappointed. And I do mean lads there, it’s another all male creative team presenting female experience.

This became a huge kill joy rant, apologies! I’m aware that a lot of people saw this show and had a really lovely night out and I’m pleased for them. There was a lot of talent involved here and a lot about the production that is positive and worthy of admiration. I found it very difficult to appreciate that at the time though, being somewhat blindsided by the aforementioned elements.

This House

This House by James Graham – The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth.

Following a run at the National Theatre, This House is currently touring the UK. The play marks something of a homecoming for Theatre Royal as a several of James Graham’s earlier plays were staged here, helping him to develop as a writer. It’s something we’re all very proud of so This House was a pretty big deal.

It’s a great play too. A funny and engaging look at our country’s political system, told through the lens of the years leading up to Thatcher’s rise. The play features live music, with the band reflecting the changes of era. Some members of the audience were sat onstage, forming a crew of back benchers. This added an extra level of unpredictability and fun to proceedings – though it was rare they were interacted with. I didn’t always know who the MPs were, but knowledge of the British political history isn’t essential to understanding the play. The story is clearly told and interesting without it, even if there were a few moments where most of the audience were chuckling at remarks I hadn’t registered as funny.

I don’t have much insightful to add tbh! Suffice to say that it’s good and you should see it if you can. It has a guy from The Bill in it! And a guy from little remembered T4 show As If!

The Believers Are But Brothers

The Believers Are But Brothers by Jaavad Alipoor – The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth.

Jaavad Alipoor explores extremism in its many forms and how the internet becomes a breeding ground for radicalisation. The play makes pertinent points about the ability of the online world to become a place of solace for those struggling with day to day life, along with how that can be exploited. There is the unusual addition of a Whatsapp group that the whole audience is added to (with people being neighbourly and sharing their screens for those without Whatsapp). It allows Alipoor to communicate with the audience throughout the show, placing us firmly within that online world. The audience builds up a little community, which is fun. There are also violent interjections direct to your phone that allows for a visceral insight into how online abuse can feel.

The play is a fairly intense viewing experience and felt particularly resonant now things like the incel community are becoming part of mainstream consciousness. It’s not always a fun experience but it is definitely worth your time. Alipoor is a skilled performer, presenting an engaging story in an interesting and unusual form.

Education, Education, Education

Education, Education, Education devised by The Wardrobe Ensemble – The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth.

As with Whey Down South, I saw this play far too long ago to write a post that does it justice. But I’ve said I’ll write about everything I see this year, so you’ll have to bear with. I will uphold my promises, dammit!

Anyway, Education, Education, Education is great. It’s a smart commentary on the impact of education systems on young lives, and in turn the impact of a country’s political environment upon schools. Some scenes are heartbreakingly familiar but it’s not short on laughs either. The music and dancing add fun to the piece, as well as making it properly nostalgic. If you’re at an age where Tamagotchi’s were a big part of your school life this play will definitely resonate with you. Scratch that, if you ever went to school you’ll enjoy this play. It’s really good.

See, told you I wouldn’t do it justice. Have some Lyn Gardner instead!

Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys by Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice, Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe – The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth.

I don’t really have much to say about Jersey Boys. I enjoyed the show and had a fun evening, but it’s not a play that requires much thought beyond its surface. It does exactly what you’d expect a big budget jukebox musical to do. And there’s nothing wrong with that, everyone needs a night of escapism every now and again. Jersey Boys brought huge crowds to Theatre Royal, many of whom very rarely (if ever) attend the theatre. It’s getting people to engage with the arts through something they’re already familiar with, and I’m here for it.

It’s definitely worth seeing if you’re after a fun night out. The cast are great, it’s a slick and impressive production, and the songs are all certified bangers. Little ashamed to admit that I thought Beggin’ was a Madcon original – genuinely no idea the Four Seasons did it first. The more you know! I also really enjoyed finding out that Joe Pesci helped create the Four Seasons. Folk sat next to me were shocked to see someone so young in the crowd, so we ended up having a nice chat about why I was there. Turns out they were also Brummies! One of them sang very loudly throughout; he was so into those tunes. I was loving it, it’s rare you see someone at a theatre so unabashedly havin’ it large. My aisle mates weren’t all as on board but the band were playing loud enough for them to still hear the performers – as far as I’m aware no complaints were made.

All in all, a very good time!

Whey Down South

Whey Down South devised by Sam Parker and Alex Robins – The LAB, Theatre Royal Plymouth.

Full disclosure: I have left writing this latest batch of blogs far, far too late. I only have hazy memories to draw on here, having seen it well over a month ago. So all of my opinions are super vague – I’d suggest seeking out an actual review if you want a proper sense of what I mean!

Whey Down South was devised by one of Theatre Royal’s LAB companies – a scheme that puts together a group of artists, nurtures their talent and aims to create a company. The Narwhal Ensemble are definitely one of the scheme’s success stories. They seem to fit together perfectly, creating a sweet tale that is both routed in locality and fairly universal in theme. From what I remember, it’s a story about the impact of modernity on rural communities and how friendships change as we grow older and forge new paths. The piece features songs that suit its tone perfectly. There was some storytelling via the medium of milk and cups that I didn’t always fully get, but that was the only flaw I found. I really enjoyed the play and can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Then Again

Then Again devised by Tremolo Theatre – The LAB, Theatre Royal Plymouth

Then Again is a fast paced and funny time travel adventure. Focusing on socially awkward PHD student Millie, we see her develop from being unable to speak to anyone, into a YouTube celebrity. The story is a pretty familiar one – girl finds fame, thinks she’s getting everything she wanted, realises it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, ends happily with her finding what’s truly important in life. That narrative arc was familiar and is not the play’s strongest element. However, the time travel injects some fun into a familiar tale. The performers are all very talented, particularly in relation to the play’s comedic elements. Even though I knew what was coming, I enjoyed seeing Millie get there. I laughed out loud several times, particularly at interjections from talking toothbrush MIRI (it makes sense in the play, I promise). The lighting design was very impressive too, at some points perfectly recreating that classic computer screen glow through plastic tubing.

It isn’t a play that I’ll be thinking about for days afterwards, but it was a really enjoyable hour of theatre by a very talented group of performers. I look forward to seeing what they do next.