Monthly Archives: July 2017

Emma

reviewed at the Empire Theatre, Halstead on 22 July

Jane Austen’s novels are multi-faceted gems and not always as simple to bring to the stage as the surface story-line might initially suggest. DOT Productions, with outdoor venues as well as small theatres and arts centres to consider, have however taken a sledge-hammer approach to Emma. It doesn’t really work.

Yes, Emma is a comedy, a comedy of misunderstandings as well as of manners and delicate social nuances. What it is not is a knockabout farce, which is how Michelle Shortland’s production and Non Vaughan-Thomas’ script presents it. The idea of having Serle, the Woodhouses’ housekeeper, as narrator is a good one, but Vaughan-Thomas plays her as a cross between a doddery old retainer and a feather-duster waving maid.

The caricature of Robert Martin further muddies the balance. I know that Emma describes him as “clownish” in the novel, but this is surely meant as a description of an ordinary country-man, not a straw-chewing half-wit (even though she’s trying hard to put Harriet Smith against him as a potential suitor). Frank Churchill is a selfish young man, happy to twist situations for his own amusement, but he’s not a pop-star poseur.

As far as the (mainly doubled-up) performances are concerned, Clara Power makes an attractive Emma and Andrew Lindfield manages to play Mr Knightley straight, which is more than you can say for his Martin or Churchill. Sarita Plowman simpers her way through Harriet and Jane Fairfax; the former is surely naïve but mannerly and the latter cultured, accomplished and elegant – which is why Emma’s attitude to her is so spiky and brittle.

Leigh Stevenson is the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse, the self-esteeming Mr Elton and his matching bride of arrogance and vulgarity, Augusta. Some of the staging is clever – the fireplace reversing to become a carriage, the use of empty picture-frames and the like – but the overall impression, not helped by much of the costuming, remains that of a picture slap-dashed by a decorator’s roller rather than a miniaturist’s fine sable brush.

Three star rating.

Emma tours mainly in East Anglia but also to  Isleworth, Enfield, Abingdon,Brighton, London and Eastbourne until 27 September.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2017

Murder Weapon

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 20 July

A weapon is usually something concrete. It can also be animal. Brain Clemens’ last thriller plays on this, with the story of a Paul (Clive Flint) found shot by his wife Diane (Amy Christina Murray) and her friend Jessica Bligh (Sarah Ogley), the county’s chief constable, as they return after a concert.

Under arrest is Charlie Mirren (Tom Slatter), found at the scene of the crime with a gun in his hand. An open-and-shut case, thinks Inspector Fremont (Rick Savery), especially as Mirren has recently been released from prison following conviction for the murder of his wife and children. No so, maintains Bligh, as she forces her colleague to re-evaluate the whole sequence of events and the people connected to them.

For instance, there’s psychiatrist Hugo (Joe Leat) who quickly establishes a rapport with Charlie on a scheduled visit to his consulting-rooms. The gun is obviously important, but what precisely was the context in which it was fired? The tension builds nicely in Andy Powrie’s production with the professional duel between Ogley and Savery well nuanced.

The set by Tory Cobb, brown with stained-glass window details, plays an important part in the action. Slatter’s portrait of a man struggling with his and his family’s past as well as his need for emotional support in his uncertain present and future is excellent. Leat has just the right combination of professional and personal arrogance.

Murray does suffer from the current fashion to whisper rather than enunciate. Modern theatre training and television have a lot to answer for in that respect Even small theatres when filled with an audience have a different acoustic to the same auditorium under rehearsal conditions.

Three and a half-star rating.

Murder Weapon runs at the Southwold Arts Centre as part of the Suffolk Summer Theatres season until 29 July with matinées on 20, 22, 27 and 29 July. It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 1 and 5 August.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2017

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 18 July

Mark Haddon’s book about a teenage boy with Asperger Syndrome has been adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens. The National Theatre production by Marianne Elliott is currently on the second leg of its UK tour. Elliott may be the director, but Bunny Christie’s graph-paper design concentrated on a cube, Paule Constable’s complex lighting plot and Finn Ross’ video certainly don’t take second billing.

It’s not a comfortable story. Christopher Boone (Scott Reid), caught in a neighbour’s garden with the pitchforked body of her dog, is a central character with whom at first we struggle to find any degree of empathy, just as his parents and those around him do. If you’ve ever had anything to do with a friend or family member with autism, you will find yourself in familiar territory.

Reid’s portrait of a brilliant, logical and gifted mathematical youth trapped in a world whose lack of sequential reasoning seems so incomprehensible to him is a searing one. Siobhan (Lucianne McEvoy), one of his teachers,  comes closest to understanding his wavelength; McEvoy’s study of a woman who tries to comprehend – and to accept – is equally fine.

The other three main characters are Mrs Alexander (Debra Michaels), an elderly neighbour  who doesn’t condemn Chris out-of-hand, his uncomprehending father Ed (David Michaels) and Judy (Emma Beattie), the mother he was told had died but in fact who left her husband for a lover, Roger Shears. There is also a large ensemble.

Movement is an important part of this hypnotic production. Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett use the players in angular, often formal, groupings which echo Chris’ inner turmoil. This is a staging where what we hear – spoken dialogue apart – chimes in with the movement; Adrian Sutton’s score and Ian Dickinson’s sound design provides this. It’s akin to the incidental music familiar from films and, increasingly, television drams and documentaries.

What matters in the end is that it’s Christopher’s story, seen largely through his eyes and filtered through his off-kilter mental processes. Stand ing ovations are becoming a bit of a curtain-call cliché these days. The one for Reid (and, by inference, for the whole staging concept) was thoroughly merited.

Five star rating.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 22 July with matinées on 19 and 22 July.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2017

Jane Eyre

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 17 July

You can’t keep a good story down, especially when it’s Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This version, now on a national tour, is a co-production between the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre, devised by the company but with a firm directorial hand provided by Sally Cookson.

Jane’s progress from a stroppy child, taken in unwillingly by her dead mother’s family and eagerly dumped into the unhealthy surroundings of Lowood School, to an independent woman who makes her own life through being true to her individual values is in any case a gripping story. It’s taken at a considerable pace.

Designers Michael Vale (set), Katie Sykes (costumes) and Aideen Malone (lighting) present us with a platformed set and a number of ladders. Ten actors play all the parts, as well as acting as a sort of Greek chorus, articulating Jane’s thoughts an fears. Nadia Clifford is a feisty Jane, crinkle-haired with eyes which glare as readily as they glance.

Melanie Marshall, clad in blood-red and with a fantastic vocal range plays Bertha Mason and provides a musical commentary spanning everything from Negro melody to Coward. The incidental music – there’s a lot of it and it sometimes drowns the dialogue – is by Benji Bower.

It’s always difficult to warm to any of the men who litter Jane’s path to self-knowledge. Paul Mundell has a well-contrasted double as authoritarian schoolmaster Brocklehurst and tail-wagging dog Pilot. Tim Delap’s Rochester is more of a typical North Country squire of the early 19th century than a much-travelled cosmopolitan.

Evelyn Miller, in a bit of gender-blind casting, is fervent missionary St John Rivers. She also plays Bessie, the one servant who takes Jane’s side in the Reed household. Hannah Bristow is consumptive Helen Burns and Rochester’s pert French ward Adèle while Lynda Rooke contrasts aunt Mrs Reed and housekeeper Mrs Fairfax.

Four and a half-star rating.

Jane Eyre runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 22 July with matinées on 19 and 22 July.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2017

Out of Order

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 10 July

Farce requires two masters. One to write it. Another to direct it. For the current Out of Order tour, Ray Cooney combines the two roles, aided by a well-balanced ensemble cast and a deceptively realistic set by Rebecca Brower. Stage management also took a thoroughly deserved curtain-call bow.

The ingredients for the perfect farce include a scantily clad nubile girl (or two), a pompous personage losing his trousers, an upright citizen who should know better being caught out in flagrante, usually by his spouse (who herself may not be completely blameless, a vast number of doors – and split-second timing by a straight-faced cast.

Cooney has updated his 1990 West End success to incorporate up-to-the-minute political references. Out ant-hero is junior Cabinet Minister Richard Willey (Jeffrey Harmer) who plans to spend the night of a vote-critical debate with Jane (Susie Amy) who just happens to be the secretary to the Leader of the Opposition.

Things go awry (of course they do) and gormless, mother-ridden bachelor PPS George Pigden (Shaun Williamson) only makes them worse. The action takes place in a hotel near the House of Commons and the quartet in the suite (did I mention an apparent corpse (David Warwick) tastefully draped over the windowsill?) have to cope with a hotel manager who knows his job (Arthur Bostrom) and a waiter who knows how to rake in tips (James Holmes).

Sue Holderness as Richard’s wife Pamela, Jules Brown as Jane’s firebrand husband Ronnie and Elizabeth Elvin as Nurse Gladys (not just a pillow-smoother) complete the cast. Yes, it’s formulaic. No, it’s probably not politically correct. But it is a thoroughly enjoyable laugh-out-loud evening of light-hearted theatre with just the right hint of a bite.

Four and a half-star rating.

Out of Order runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 15 July with matinées on 13 and 15 July.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2017

Communicating Doors

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 5 July

Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors is on one level a farce with sociological bite, as expected from the modern master of that genre. On another, it plays with the notion of time, much as did JB Priestley in dramas such as Time and the Conways, Dangerous Corner and An Inspector Calls.

The action takes place in suite 647 of a London hotel owned by ruthless business-man Reece (James Morley) with his equally ferocious second-in-command Julian (Michael Shaw). We begin in 2037 with the arrival of a dominatrix called Poopay (real name Pheobe) played by Melissa Clements; her attentions are in response to Reece’s last wishes.

It transpires that both Reece’s wives have met untimely ends, first Jessica (Rosanna Miles) and then Ruella (Claire Jeater). In both cases Julian appears to have been the hit-man and he has no compunction about serving Poopay in the same way. Her escape through a door into a cupboard takes her into the same suite but, at different times, in 2017 and 1997.

Mark Sterling’s production keeps up a lively pace with the audience at times hard-pressed to follow at the same speed. Tory Cobb’s set and Miri Birch’s costumes work well in this context, as does the clever use of lighting (including laser shapes to indicate time changes) and shadow-play.

The cast brings commitment and a good understanding of both Ayckbourn’s words and the characters they define. Clements offers a rounded portrait of the girl from a children’s home who grits her teeth and gets on with earning a living. Miles and Jeater differentiate the two wives and the way their personalities develop over 40 years.

Bumbling in and out of the action is hotel security-man Harold, who Bob Dobson makes likeable even as the women manipulate him. Shaw has the lion’s share of the nastiness, and relishes every nuance of it. Morley’s role is in many ways a more difficult one, but his last scene with Pheobe has real heart.

Four star rating.

Communicating Doors runs at the Southwold Arts Centre as the opening production in the Suffolk Summer Theatres season until 15 July with matinées on 8, 13 and 15 July. It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 20 and 29 July with matinées on 22 and 29 July.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2017

Emma

reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 4 July

Novels and plays both tell stories. However, they often do this in different ways. In his new Jane Austen adaption for The Production Exchange, Tim Luscombe chooses to make part of the action which make up the multi-layered plot of Emma happen before our eyes (and ears) rather than to be revealed as a sequence of dénouements.

So we follow Frank Churchill (George Kemp)’s secret engagement to Jane Fairfax (Georgie Oulton) with all his convolution of subterfuge – designed to ensure his legacy from his domineering aunt – before Austen allows us to understand it. It makes him much more of the villain of the piece and allows us to sympathise with Jane’s predicament from the beginning.

Both Oulton and Kemp make the most of this; Oulton’s portrait especially comes over as that of a young woman with a conscience torn between love and financial necessity rather than as a simple feminine victim. There’s another neat study of a certain kind of womanhood in Hannah Genesius’ Mrs Elton.

Miss Bates with her disconnected vocal ramblings is made sympathetic in Kate Copeland’s brown-sparrow characterisation. Polly Misch makes the rather dippy, easily influenced Harriet an excellent foil to Bethan Nash’s Emma, the heroine who loves matchmaking and being the queen bee of her small local society. One understands why Philip Edgerley’s Mr Knightley is so exasperated as well as charmed by her.

Selfishly hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse and self-important Mr Elton make an interesting double for Nicholas Tizzard. Colin Blumenau’s production uses two levels in Libby Watson’s setting. One is a tilted circle (a wedding-ring, perhaps?) and the other is the well inside it, furnished with a table, chairs and a keyboard. Mike Cassidy’s lighting is subtle and the choreography by Claire Cassidy thoroughly applause-worthy.

Four and a half- star rating.

Emma runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 8 July with matinées on 6 and 8 July.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2017