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> > > Graeae Theatre present The Threepenny Opera

18 March 2014

Garry Robson as JJ Peachum, King of the Beggars, leads a chorus of policemen in Graeae's touring production of The Threepenny Opera

Garry Robson on stage as JJ Peachum in Graeae Theatre's touring production of The Threepenny Opera

Graeae's production of Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera attempts to provoke thinking around approaches to creative access. Liz Porter caught the show in Ipswich and sent in the following review, written from a visually impaired perspective

The new production of The Threepenny Opera is a timely and well-considered choice. It is encouraging that the partner organisations (Nottingham Playhouse, New Wolsey Theatre, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and West Yorkshire Playhouse) want to reinvigorate debate around possibilities to involve Deaf and disabled professionals in mainstream Musical Theatre productions. It is also good that this inaugural tour is outside of London. (Although I sincerely hope it comes to London at a later stage)

Co-directors Peter Rows (New Wolsey Ipswich) and Jenny Sealey (GRAEAE) have brought an impressively talented integrated cast of Deaf disabled and non-disabled actor musician’s together as a result of a rigorous audition process. It is clear that the cast are having a ball doing this show as the delivery is playful and poignant.

Mark Smith’s movement direction pulls the ensemble together with good use of space. The singing is often sublime and saucy, with particularly strong characterisation from Garry Robson (Mr Peacham) and Amelia Cavallo (Jenny), extraordinary vocals from Victoria Orawari (Mrs Peacham) and a very sexy duet between CiCi Howells (Polly) and Jude Mahon (BSL interpreter).

The design and feel of the set conveys a stark grey cleanness, contrasting with swathes of flowing red material in the opening section signalling underlying macabre layers. However, it felt nothing like as dark as it could have been with leanings towards pantomime. Milton Lopas (Macheath) was a striking presence with warm and gentle vocals but he lacked conviction with the menacing and dangerous aspects of his performance. I think this was the directorial intention, making the audience peel back layers, see what lies underneath. I'm not sure it completely worked.

The new English translation of the dialogue (Robert David McDonald) and lyrics (Jeremy Sams) creates a tension between the past, present and future. As the audience we question life for the oppressed through wicked political satire. This is a busy and often crowded experience with 21 actor/ musicians on stage for the majority of time. The degree of concentration needed made it difficult to emotionally engage and pull all the strands of the story together.

Collectively the partner theatres are clearly committed to examining potential roles for developing an inclusive aesthetic around creative access. However, basic access guidelines were not always addressed with some surprising decisions made – particularly around the film captioning and audio description. The pre-show access information on display was great. It included programme notes and character descriptions (described by the actors), which were also available on headsets. There was a show synopsis in alternative formats, braille, LP easy read and BSL as well as swatches of costume fabrics to convey the look and feel of the show up close.

The idea of having a narrator/ describer was a clever one and John Kelly’s descriptions did help set up the scenes. However, he provided basic description which was not always consistent. Other actors were engaged in delivering audio-description that visually-impaired audiences are receiving through headsets as scenes unfold. But some performers were more able to rise to this challenge than others. Some of the best description was given by Amelia Cavallo who is visually impaired herself. It would have taken things one step further had the describers stayed in character. I’d have loved the audience to experience more description than they got.

The show is a visual feast with multi-layered approaches including film with captioning. When a show is so visual, making decisions about access and which bits are described and signed is complex. The creative interpretation often got in the way of clear access, for example the font size and bubble writing that appeared on screen was difficult for many. I could see some of the film images and remarkably some of the larger captioning but it wasn’t consistent and I missed a lot which was frustrating as some film images were presenting key subtext information. 

The film work also took place in different spaces. The intention was clearly to keep the audience engaged. However because there was no description I was having to work very hard to keep up. I did wonder what it would have been like if I’d been nearer the front or had the opportunity to have an IPAD on my lap, which might bring the film experience nearer and could have had description woven into it. Perhaps that is something that could be explored as a low cost solution? It would be great to have pre-show access to song lyrics as this also helps people understand the story  

I attended an after show workshop around creative access which was a great opportunity to have a conversation around some of these themes; flag up ideas and hear other’s perspectives. 

It isn’t GRAEAE’s responsibility to solve all creative access problems, but a wider audience does look to the company for example especially when it’s so hard to convince funders of the need to support good practice financially.

This production grabs you way beyond the end of the show and I certainly want to catch it again. (although I hope I’m sitting nearer the front next time).

The Threepenny Opera tour continues to Ipswich, Birmingham and Leeds. Please click on this link for details


Liz Porter

23 April 2014

Review of ‘The Threepenny Opera’ at the Birmingham Rep Wed 9 April

It’s fascinating to see a piece of work twice, a few weeks apart, particularly when it’s being staged in a different venue. This show has definitely moved on and is more edgy – Milton Lopes’ ‘Macheath’ is stronger.

My parents live in Birmingham, and I saw the show in the Rep’s newly-refurbished building. It looks great from the outside. However, inside it took a little while to find the box office. My first impression was that they could do with better signage.

The Wolsey had had an Access table with AD programme notes, a mini set and LP/Braille programme notes etc. including an IPad with BSL pre-show notes. I had hoped to find an access table at the Rep but unfortunately there was none. This is disappointing as the pre-show notes and other bits are incredibly good and could easily have been provided at each venue and for every production. That they were not suggests the need for more active conversation between producers and tour bookers to encourage consistent approaches to access throughout a tour.

Eventually we were directed to the cloakroom where I could pick up an AD headset. The Rep is used to providing AD, but although the woman on duty understood the basic principles of AD she wasn’t aware of the impact of using headphones. This highlights the need for each venue to provide good access training for all staff members. I was given a pair of massive headphones that conveyed the AD clearly but blocked out the sound on stage and were very uncomfortable to wear. I’m hearing-impaired in my left ear so I ended up wearing one earphone on one side but it was tricky.

‘Pickles’ Norman worked on most of the AD for this show. He had been given a huge task - not only was he responsible for writing the AD script, but he was performing the role of Matt and providing some general access support. I appreciate that Graeae are trying to involve performers in delivering on-stage access provision, but acting and doing other bits as well as writing the AD script would present a huge challenge for anyone. Providing great AD is a skill which requires training. ‘Pickles’ did what he could under pressurised circumstances.

This strongly suggests the need for Graeae to involve external AD consultants as much as they do external BSL consultants – especially for large productions such as this.

Graeae should also actively consider what they want AD for? Is it merely to enhance access provision (which I’m afraid this felt like), or to form part of the creative aesthetic? I think this was their aim with the role of Narrator

GRAEAE and its partner venues could create Access focus groups of Deaf and disabled advisors and Creative access experts, who could be brought in at production level to help think through the access approach.

Deborah Caulfield

22 March 2014

An interesting discussion on creativity and access, and the extent to which they invariably conflict. Let's hope your feedback and ideas will be seriously considered, and trialled at least.

From your review, it seems perhaps that too much was happening on the stage at once. As someone without a visual impairment, I'd have found this annoying, if not difficult.

I've noticed the word 'immersive' crops up a lot these days in descriptions of artwork. 'Sensory overload' might be more apt.

I should add that I'm not put off going to see this particular show; if I get the chance I will.

And I like that people are tackling these issues, learning by doing, and working co-productively.

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