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ARTS: A question of commerce makes Crescent up the ante; CULTURE John Slim reports from the region's amateur stage community.

Byline: John Slim

If, among the regular patrons at the Crescent Theatre, there are quite a few who are shaking their heads in bewilderment at the current season's brochure, I shall not be at all surprised.

Until Monday night, I had not seen Shopping and F***ing, with which Birmingham's prestigious amateur theatre is bravely leading us into March. Author Mark Ravenhill engineered a tacky title to excite the gullible - and behind the title is a tale of five disparate, desperate characters, superbly and bravely presented in Robert Ball's production.

Bravely? Well, yes. A couple of homosexual kisses turn out to be the preamble to the depiction of anal sex, which in turn precedes something pretty unspeakable involving a knife.

And clearly, irrespective of a bold production, this is the Crescent itself being brave - recognising the need to attract a wider audience if it is to repeat for the future what it insists has been a commercially successful season so far.

Crescent chairman Andrew Lowrie, who is one of the five-strong cast, sees the asterisked offering as being part of the way forward in the theatre's 75th year. He puts similar hopes in Closer, by Patrick Marber, due there next month and containing a vile scene involving two men, one of whom is pretending to be a young girl during their internet chat room conversation.

Both plays, he says, came up during discussion about the season's programme and were recognised as something different to do. He acknowledges this week's production as "risky" but points out that it suits the studio, has got an audience and has sold well.

"I'm pleased with what we've put on this season, and it's definitely better figures-wise. I'm not regretting it. It's good to do something that's different, though I'm not saying we shall do this sort of thing every year by any means.

"We should be proud of what we have got here. We should show people we've got a history and a present and a future. It's not just about looking back. The Crescent is here to stay, and I want to make sure it does."

It's a commendable ambition and I salute it. But I can't forget that the studio theatre now housing Shopping and F***ing, and due to accommodate Closer very soon, bears the name of the late Ron Barber, former Crescent chairman and a man of upright principles, who died before Andrew Lowrie joined four years ago.

Heaven knows what he would have thought of either of these offerings, especially with the realisation that they have been chosen as signposts to the future of the theatre he loved to distraction.

When he moved to Shrewsbury three years ago, Tony Mackey thought he had ended the longstanding stage career he had enjoyed as a member of Highbury Little Theatre.

But then, he had no idea that A Man for All Seasons was going to appear on the Highbury playlist. And when it did appear, he found, like Mae West, that he could resist everything but temptation.

Tony has been travelling by train to and from the Sutton Coldfield venue so often for rehearsals that by the end of the run on March 24 he will have covered 3,500 miles. It's the price he is paying for getting the role of Sir Thomas More in the Robert Bolt classic.

Highbury regulars will recognise several other familiar faces in the cast, but there are also newcomers in Malcolm Robert-shaw (Henry VIII) and Nigel Higgs (Thomas Cromwell). John Brenan, last seen in The Cemetery Club in May last year, plays The Common Man - a part that requires him to link the scenes as well as playing six other characters.

June Meller's production opens on Tuesday next week.

Walsall's Grange Players will be having at least two reunions in the course of Lynne Matthews' production of Bus Stop, the William Inge play on which Marilyn Monroe's 1956 film was based, which opens tomorrow.

The Players first performed it in 1987, and John Walton, who played the sheriff before moving to Worcester soon afterwards, will be coming back to see it on the last night - that's Saturday next week - for old times' sake, and he will see Paul Viles repeating his role of 20 years ago as the drunken Dr Lyman.

And Richard Roberts, who played Vergil Blessing 20 years ago in what was one of his first stage appearances, will be back at the Grange Playhouse to see the production next Wednesday. His professional career since leaving the Grange Players has included a year in Blood Brothers.

Another member of the original company to have turned professional is Jed Simmons, who appeared as Bo Decker. He was in television's The Bill for 12 months - during which time he always tried to find an opportunity to display his West Brom-wich Albion mug in Sun Hill Police Station.

Richard Roberts is hoping to contact him and suggest that he, too, should take a look at the new Bus Stop.

WHAT'S ON

Shopping and F***ing, Crescent

Theatre, Birmingham (to Saturday).

The Homecoming, Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth (to Saturday).

Orpheus in the Underworld,

Astwood Bank Operatic Society, Palace Theatre, Redditch (to Saturday).

Thoroughly Modern Millie,

Wolverhampton Musical Comedy Company, Grand Theatre,

Wolverhampton (to Saturday).

Separate Tables, Dudley Little Theatre, Netherton Arts Centre (to Saturday).

Bus Stop, Grange Players, Grange Playhouse, Walsall (Mar 8-17).

84, Charing Cross Road, Oldbury Repertory Players, Barlow Theatre, Langley (Mar 10-17).

Titanic, the Musical, Knowle Operatic Society, Solihull Library Theatre (Mar 12-17).

42nd Street, Walsall Operatic Society, Lichfield Garrick (Mar 13-18).

A Man for all Seasons, Highbury Little Theatre, Sutton Coldfield (Mar 1 3-24).

CAPTION(S):

Nigel Higgs as Thomas Cromwell and Tony Mackey as Thomas More in Highbury Little Theatre's production of A Man for All Seasons
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 7, 2007
Words:965
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