Actin’ wild as a bug

opening of All SHook Up

Dancin' to the Jailhouse Rock to open the show

All Shook Up

Unity Theatre, Liverpool

*****

LIVERPOOL may be the home of the Beatles, sundry Atlantic shipping lines, the football pools and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. But it also boasts two universities – Liverpool and John Moores, and a drama training college – LIPA or Liverpool Institute For Performing Arts – that from this present show looks to be a close match for the (Royal) Central School or RADA.

Why? Because this incredibly polished staging, directed and performed by (mostly, but not exclusively) Third Year drama students, and produced by three other young talents who can be credited with getting the show on the road (Hannah Clements, Helen Crilly and Katie Wood) proved as punchy, entertaining as witty as any professionally cast Musical I’ve seen in the past year.

It’s all done on a shoestring, but then the personnel cost nothing. Hence a terrific nine-strong band that produced sounds as varied as the aforementioned RLPO; Callum Clarke directed from keyboard, produced sensational rhythmic dexterity from his instrumental team, was a master at filling in the strummed interstices to cover a set change, and doubtless prepared the score – no trivial matter – beforehand.

Andreas Häberlin was a virtuosic treat on second keyboard, scampering around scales and producing vivid, eerie synthesiser effects for ‘If I Can Dream’ (Dean and Lorraine); bwrlin whilst clarinet doubling saxophones - super for ‘There’s always me’, guitar trio (beautifully articulate; bassist Danny Miller came shiningly into his own for ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’) and some exotic trumpets (fabulously paired for ‘Don’t be Cruel’ - first whisperings of the ultimate love-tryst), ensured this show never slept. Time and again, music and visuals hit you in the solar plexus.

Plus a delicious cast. True, I didn’t feel any of the chaps, led by Norwegian Inga Bremnes as Chad (the sort of Elvis Presley clone who sets the touch paper to a sleepy, conservative mid West town and creates joyous havoc), had mastered voices – yet - to match the superlative musicianship of the girls. A bit of work and focusing might go a long way to add a more profound vocal character, and ensure the voices are decently ‘supported’ so as to come across with attractiveness as well as their obvious flair.

 

Chad played by Norwegian Inge Bremnes

 

But Bremnes here showed himself a delicious character actor. Chad electrifies the town and in a way he electrified us, too. ‘Call me the carefree kind/ I wander with the breeze…/ No job can hold me down, I'm just a knock-around guy/ Gotta keep a-movin’ east or west/ Till I find my place….’ The way he interacted – with any available young townsgirl; with the delicious Natalie, for whom he falls almost unwillingly (despite ‘And even if a pretty girl should catch my eye I’ll give her a quick “hello”, and a fast goodbye.’); and with the oldies, especially the town mayoress who’s a closet sex-starved harridan posing as the worst kind of ghastly judgmental conservative – was pure joy.

Chad stands up for himself (‘I’ve hit plenty of friends before’, he adds, before declining to hit Natalie/‘Ed’). Anyone would go soft for this guitar-toting boyo, driftin’ just like the sand. Outwardly in the know; yet definitely an outsider, ‘other’, he’s innocent, genuine, honest, unpredictable.

So he – Chad - is the real thing. But so is his actor, Bremnes himself. As the luckless strummer-cum bummer-around (the lyric quotes above stem from the song ‘I'm just a roustabout’), he has oodles of charisma, and an elasticity of movement that is, well, pretty sexy. One was intrigued by the rectangular packet protruding so near his… er… package. We never saw him smoke, so let’s just assume he came … equipped. But equipped too for a charm offensive, albeit armed ‘with the libido of an Italian soccer fan’. With the arrival of ‘C’mon Everybody’ he has the whole town – and the entire ensemble - afire. ‘Do you hear that? It’s music, and it’s coming from inside of you.’ No wonder this show was ablaze from start to finish.

It was notable how despite being miked, it was lightly handled (Sound Designer: Javier Pando, Sound Operator and Assistant: Jamie McIntyre, James Roberts). You felt these singers could have filled the Unity Theatre effortlessly without, and Musical venues a lot larger. There was a real quality and punch and joyousness to their delivery. They never shouted and the sound system never screamed: yet this was Elvis. What a magnificent – rare - achievement for singers and engineers alike to get the balances so right.

About this show one thing has to be clear. Alongside the direction (Sam McKay, utterly in control, clearly a disciplined motivator, and endlessly inventive within extraordinarily tight confines) and bursts of choreography (Torie Holland: several numbers, including the opening quasi-caged ‘Jailhouse Rock’ performed in civvies, or rather in-jug attire, before the cast differentiates into characters, excelled), the triumph of this show was unveiling to us Kristina Humerfelt, another Norwegian, to charm and delight and dazzle dramatically as the girl at the centre of the story.

Natalie is the most wondrous girl-boy-garage girl feller. ‘Why wear a dress whepicture of Natalien you can use it to mend an engine?’ Natalie is the ultimate mechanic, who can fix a car or a bike (Chad’s clapped out On the Road machine) at the drop of a hat. She dons blue overalls and looks – sort of - like a boy. She’s her father’s favourite daughter-son. And by only the fourth number, ‘One night with you’ (‘Always lived very quiet life I ain’t never did no wrong…’), she had us eating out of her palm.  

Kristine Humerfelt as mechanic Natalie posing as the indefatigable Ed

The essence of the story is that she fancies the rocker but he hankers after every other available girl; that she dons (or retains) male attire/overalls to become his trusted number 2; and that he, perplexed, falls for her, despite thinking she’s a boy. Actually she looks scrumptious as either. Conclusion: ‘I guess there’s only one thing for a guy like me to do and that’s go and join the Navy’. It’s the most glorious farcical situation, in the best tradition of Rossini and operetta, Charlie’s Aunt and Whitehall farce – or Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder (besotted by ‘Bob’).

But thinly disguised – or not - under an oily cap as ‘Ed’, Humerfelt was winning, funny, touching. It’s not a joke that the boy she pines for in that song above dismisses her with unwitting cruelty. It’s comic, but Humerfelt made that pain ours. She is a very assured, attractive performer indeed, full of flair, happy-go-lucky, bright, intelligent, whose (for fear of a cliché) fabulous sparkling eyes set the auditorium alight.

And if in ‘Follow that Dream’ neither she nor Chad quite nailed it vocally – a bit iffy, and one of two weaker, not quite on-beam numbers in an evening consisting largely of hits, the singing was gorgeous thereafter. The other near-flop, however, was the very last item (bar a curtain call thrill), ‘Burning Love’: well enough sung, but not arrestingly, the only moment Holland’s choreography – so brilliant for the duple ‘Teddy Bear/Hound Dog’ and elsewhere - drooped.

But in everything else she touched Humerfelt shone – and grabbed you - right across the vocal range, such as in the legendary ‘Love me Tender’, with Matthew Parkinson’s wonderfully wimpish creation as the never-get-a-girl Dennis (he does, actually, latterly): the brother-wannabe-lover figure who brings his own poignancy and a hapless inadequacy that inures him to, the hard lessons of growing up, was pure joy.

It’s intriguing to think of Parkinson – as he did – playing  Dogberry in Much Ado, probably very amusingly and ironically indeed - but dogged he was here. He was also very, very funny, and clever at working out how to be so. Like several in this cast, he revealed great timing, and in his case, maturity. You could not not take to Dennis. ‘It Hurts Me’ was one of the show’s best numbers – and it showed: ever loyal (‘But if you ever tell him you’re through I’ll be waiting for you…’).

But McKay’s cast was riddled Natalie's hapless friend Denniswith talent. Consider the three girls (Kayleigh Blackburn, Gwennan Jones, Alice Phillips – second year drama student at John Moores and recently the ravished teen Wendla in Wedekind’s Spring Awakening), only briefly the secretary-Norns of the piece, because usually onside, but splendid as bar-flies and eggers-on and moral supports and a yummily tongue-in-cheek set of Three Graces statues (‘Let yourself go’) who kept on switching into life. They were Three Voices too, for I would gladly cast any of them in a Musical for their beauty and quality of tone – each different, but akin and fused rather sensationally in trio.

Matthew Parkinson as Natalie's hapless friend Dennis

Both sexes shone amongst the other parts: Bradley Stoker as Jim (honest Dad with a secret itch) has a striking voice that doubtless dates back to his playing Bugsy in the bad boys Musical as a teen; Erin Rowlands as long-suffering barmaid Sylvia (‘There’s Always Me’, which came across with the aching appeal and directness of those numbers from Lionel Bart’s Oliver); and Leela Dawson as boy-rapt Lorraine who dotes on soldier lad Dean, whose mater won’t let him go (Joshua Glenister, standing in very acceptably: their duet was ‘It’s Now or Never’, prised by Elvis’s songwriters from ‘O sole mio’ – some of us know it as ‘Just one cornetto’) all served up humdinger set-pieces.

That grotesque mother, the ‘clean up town’ Mayor Matilda, got a spiffingly funny characterisation from Siofra McKeon-Carter, also from John Moores Uni down the road. She oozed ugly right-wing self-righteousness and a dubious prim morality that Chad’s libertarian innocence deliciously drives a coach and horses through; she ends up bedding Earl, the patient, common-sense Sheriff (Stuart Cullen: ‘A bit of indecency is good for you’); and she had the best high notes, almost coloratura, in the cast (‘Devil in Disguise’ – ‘You look like an angel Walk like an angel Talk like an angel But I got wise’ was a thrill).

Rachel Altounian’s Miss Sandra topped this lot: a rich, almost contralto tone, and attractive, sadly resigned personality (‘When I wake up and there’s no man on the other side of my bed, I know it’s going to be a good day’) that simply beamed out, in ‘Let Yourself Go’ and when supporting Chad and Jim in ‘The Power of My Love’.

But it’s when Natalie, or Natalie as Chad’s ‘best mate’ Ed, is onstage that the whole show blossoms. ‘A Little Less Conversation’ – Ed and company – was plain scintillating; ‘Take my hand, take my whole life too’, the not-yet-lovers’ preface to ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’, exquisitely moved and charged with undercurrents by Holland and McKay, what I noted down as ‘vocal choreography’, simply took your breath away.

With ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ – originally (1954) a Carl Perkins number: ‘You can burn my house Steal my car, Drink my liquor From an old fruitjar…but uh-uh, Honey, lay off my shoes Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes’ – a neat analogy for ‘occupying my space’ - this irresistible duo, plus Clarke’s perfect syncopated band of young instrumentalists, served up a musical miracle. Absolutely sensational, the more so for the surprise of the two at this fithe fesity mayorrst whisper of (‘gay’?) attraction. Which only proved you can have a kiss curl and like a feller.

But the chitter-chatter book (crafted by Joe DiPietro, who ingeniously uses Elvis’s hit songs to produce a continuous narrative), let alone the lyrics, was a delight: full of delicious nuggets and really shrewd observation of confused young people and their almost as confused elders alike. Humerfelt and Bremnes as straight actors were so alive, and so engaging, and in their characters’ shy teenage way so cleverly tragi-comical and understated, they could probably turn out  in Ibsen or Strindberg tomorrow.  

Siofra McKeon-Carter as the mayor whose propriety hides a few skeletons in the cupboard

The title, All Shook Up, had to come from somewhere. It’s echt-Elvis: ‘I’m itching like a man on a fuzzy tree  My friends say I’m actin’ wild as a bug  I’m in love  I’m all shook up…oh, yeah’. The start of act II with this energising number produced the longest sequence of triumphantly directed, beautifully focused numbers (It Hurts Me’, ‘A Little Less Conversation’. And it yields ‘I Don’t Want To’, probably Bremnes’s best number of all, taken at an exquisite slow pace by Clarke’s stylish, attentive, laid-back, mature-beyond-their-years nonet (complete with magnetising girl drummer Laura Williams): ‘I don’t want to let you know how much I want you, I was happy free and easy, could do the things that please me, I don’t want to get tied down with a girl like you, I don’t want to …love you, but I do.’ Did he sing ‘a girl’ or ‘a boy’? Either way, who- or whatever the object of his attentions, Chad’s loneliness is brought home to perfection by this wan song. Either way, it was magical.

So Bremnes is something of a star in the making; and Kristine Humerfelt is patently – I think anyone there would concede – megastar quality already. A beacon. A scrumptious performer. An onstage sensation.

All Shook Up’s set was serviceable, consciously plain in an area constricted by onstage band. Helped by cyclorama garishness, it worked fine. Along with a serviceable set of props, Designer Anastasia Burton came up with some appetising, relishable costumes (the obnoxious Mayor’s yellows, greens and magentas were just perfect, and the threesome ‘Character Chorus’ kept delighting the eye in shifting outfits). The lighting (Jack Leech) was pinpoint; the set-moving (Richard Chambers-Fowler and his four-man team) impeccable, tidy, enabling and unobtrusive.

It’s hard to fault a Musical where the direction was exemplary throughout, and the dance element so well-devised and polished. I’ve cursed countless times that there was no proper cast list in the Programme (though full biogs) and also no Synopsis (though every song title and its executants admirably listed). Maybe you can’t have everything. But paradoxically, this utterly professional show, to my mind, got almost everything right.

Roderic Dunnett 

25-05-14

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