Monthly Archives: October 2017

How the Other Half Loves

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 30 October

If any director knows how to bring out all the nuances in an Alan Ayckbourn play, that director is surely Alan Strachan. As anyone who remembers his productions at the Greenwich Theatre in the late 1970s and early 80s will bear fond witness.

This staging of How the Other Half Loves benefits from the split-second timing of its six-strong cast, notably in the crucial dual dinner-party scene. What also comes out strongly is the way that the three men, of such dissimilar ages and classes, employ each a different sort of violence in their relationships with their wives.

Frank Foster, the middle-aged middle-class husband, bludgeons anyone he comes into contact with by his incessant barrage of opinionated nonsense. Robert Daws has his insensitivity and self-satisfaction nailed; you can understand why Caroline Langrishe as his wife Fiona is tempted to stray, emotionally, financially and otherwise.

Newly promoted William Featherstone is uncomfortable at his new social and professional level. As Matthew Cottle makes clear, he’s really only happy when making himself useful. His poor little pink mouse of a wife Mary comes in for a regular series of wrist taps – not in themselves violent, but demeaning none the less. The moment when Mary finally finds her own personality is beautifully timed by Sara Crowe who gives throughout the best performance of the evening.

The youngest couple is Teresa and Bob Phillips. Charlie Brooks makes Teresa’s frustration with her stay-at-home-and-look-after-the-baby life which eventually flares almost out of control a natural response to Leon Ockenden’s Bob, a ruffian under his show-off skin with more than a trace of sadism in his relationship with women. Ockenden’s performance at times seems to come from a different production; he fails to bring the character alive.

Designer Julie Godfrey’s set, and her costumes, evoke the late 1960s setting admirably with a well-detailed box set which cleverly amalgamate the two-homes in furniture and furnishings as six contrasted lives parade before us. They’re not in search of an author of course, just looking for a present which offers hope for the future.

Four and a half-star rating.

How the Other Half Loves runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 4 November with matinées on 2 and 4 November. It is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 27 November and 2 December as part of a national tour.

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All Wrapped Up in Westwood

reviewed at The Undercroft, Peterborough on 29 October

This is the latest in Eastern Angles’ plays based on archival and spoken evidence – an example of the company’s own unique brand of drama-documentary. Freemans Catalogue Distribution Centre operated in Peterborough between 1969 and 2009 and its (largely female) employees were instrumental in initiating equal pay reforms.

Queen-pin of the story as written by Ivan Cutting is Edie (Jan Wright) who became the union’s shop steward. We also enter the lives of various of her colleagues, notably  Mandy (Kat Cushman) who tragically miscarries and Aisha (Summer Mooed) who works for Freeman having discovered that her secretarial skills are outweighed by her brown skin.

Suzanne Tuck as Kath, Rubin Carter as Liz and Michelle Scott as Susan also give good performances. Fiona Rigler has designed a suitably open and somewhat bleak set for Poppy Rowley’s production, which keeps the action on the move as the years pass, people come and go and new owners take over putting more emphasis on profitability than on personnel.

In many ways, this is a site-specific production, if you take “site” to be a place or even a city rather than an individual building or piece of open ground. Peterborough itself is an amalgam of the old and the new. Outreach ventures such as Eastern Angles’ local productions help to cement the two more firmly.

Three and a half-star rating.

All Wrapped Up in Westwood runs at The Undercroft, Serpentine Green, Peterborough until 5 November. There are matinée performances on 4 and 5 November.

 

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The Old Curiosity Shop

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 27 October

Common Ground’s autumn production now launched on its East Anglian tour is an adaptation of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. A cast of five, all of whom sing and play musical instruments, take us through the story of Little Nell and her grandfather as they flee London and the nefarious designs of Daniel Quilp.

The adaptation is by Julian Harries and Pat Whymark (who has also composed the music which is such a major part of the production. The effect is, I would imagine, close to that produced by one of the small-scale touring companies which plied the various East Anglian circuits in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is in some measure a ballad opera, in the style of The Beggar’s Opera or Black-Eyed Susan. Two numbers stand out – “The fair orphan maid” in the first half and “The turning of the tide” towards the end of the second act. All the cast take several roles, including drag versions of Kit Nubbles’ mother, the sadistic Miss Brass and the waxworks proprietor Mrs Jarley.

The one woman in the cast is Eloise Kay, who takes on Nell (her age updated from the original “not quite fourteen”), the downtrodden Mrs Quilp and the Brass household drudge eventually nicknamed “the marchioness”. Quilp and the mysterious Single Gentleman makes an interesting doubling, as does pliable lawyer Mr Brass and Nell’s devoted but gambling-addicted grandfather.

Harries, Joe Leat, Tristan Teller and Ivan Wilkinson there for play all the male and the afore-mentioned female ones in a production in which Whymark  takes Dickens’ story seriously as well as briskly while allowing space for character development. Notably these include Kit and Dick Swiveller. The Punch and Judy show is a delight – that’s the way to do it!

Four star rating.

The Od Curiosity Shop tours East Anglia until 25 November, including the Corn Hall, Diss (28 October), the Jubilee Centre, Mildenhall (30 October), the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket (2 November), The Cut, Halesworth (3 November), the Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge (4 November), the John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (6 and 7 November), the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (between 9 and 11 November, with a matinée on 11 November), the Headgate Theatre, Colchester (13 November), the Wingfield Barns (22 November) and the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh (24 November).

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The Eagle Has Two Heads

reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 25 October

This rare Cocteau revival uses the classic Ronald Duncan translation, first heard in London in 1948, four years after the play’s Paris première. Duncan was a literate playwright, poet and librettist, whether translating, adapting or creating afresh; perhaps he is due for a revival.

Stash Kirkbride has staged it in an arena format, which is admirably suited to a drama (here a melodrama in both senses of the word with Ivan McCready’s cello accompaniment) which is basically a sequence of gladiatorial confrontations. The stage is furnished only with tables and chairs.

Cocteau’s use of characteristics from two well-known monarchs of the previous century whose lives created their own fantasies, rendered some of these concrete and met untimely ends – the Empress Elisabeth of Austria and King Ludwig of Bavaria , both scions of the Wittelsbach dynasty – adds its own veiled dimension to the story.

The first act has as its centrepiece the Queen (Tracey Catchpole)’s lengthy tirade (in the proper French sense of the term) justifying her abrogation of responsibility in favour of building castles after the assassination of her husband to her own would-be killer.

He’s a young, anarchist poet, Stanislas (Adam Edwards), whose pen nane is Azrael, the Muslim angel of death. Edwards has a chance to make his own tirade in the second act, and takes it.  Another confrontation is between Lucy Monaghan as Edith de Berg, the Queen’s lady (and government spy) and Christopher Neal’s Duke of Willenstein, the royal equerry.

But the evening is dominated by Catchpole, who displays the right sort of inbred arrogance which in part gives the character such interest. One can believe that she was devoted, in her own fashion, to her husband and that his assassination triggered her strange combination of building mania and veiled seclusion.

Her two meetings with Peter Barrow’s Chief of Police, a slightly cuddlier version of Sardou’s Scarpia but just as dangerous in his ruthless attempts to command the kingdom as he thinks both proper and necessary have the necessary bite, just as her relationship with Stanislaus emphasises how both of them (to paraphrase) are in love with needless death.

Tawa Groombridge makes the Queen’s servant Toni, who communicates with her mistress by sign language and is barely tolerated by her more aristocratic superiors , into a silent symbol of a place and time which has outlived itself. Amanda Greenaway’s costumes for the Queen are eye-catching in colour and material, but I feel a trim riding-habit would have suited the third act better than breeches and hacking jacket.

Part of the irony is that the first production of Cocteau’s play took place in 1944, when Paris was liberated from the dual tentacles of the Nazi occupation and the Vichy régime. But Cocteau always did spin his own, uniquely personal weave of fantasy laced with irony.

Four star rating.

The Eagles Has Two Heads runs at The Hostry, Norwich Cathdral until 29 October.

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Things I Know To Be True

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 17 October

Plays usually depend on what is said and the actions natural to the dialogue. Frantic Assembly do things slightly differently. Words, yes, and intelligent, character-credible ones at that by Andrew Bovell – but also a species of physical version of onomatopoeia from co-directors Scott Graham and Geordie Brookman.

This takes the form of part-mime, part-dance where the three women in the story – mother Fran, elder daughter Pip and younger afterthought Rosie – are lifted and swirled around the stage by their menfolk, partly in control and partly passive. It all takes place on a stage with minimalist furnishings (Geoff Cobham).

Kirsty Oswald as Rosie opens the drama with a monologue explaining that her gap-year travels culminated in a romantic encounter in Berlin which has left her disillusioned and robbed.

Then we meet her over-protective parents, Fran (Cate Hamer) who works in a hospital and father Bob (John McArdle) who has retired from an assembly-line job and now tends his garden while worrying about his children.

Pip (Seline Hizli) has come to the end of her marriage. Ben (Arthur Wilson) is a salesman on the way up, and on the make. Mark (Matthew Barker) is uncomfortable in his skin, as he reveals to devastating effect on his family in the second act.

Bovell’s script is a realistic and adult one, which managed to lure a predominantly teenaged audience into complete involvement with his characters’ difficulties; perhaps there’s something of Pip, Rosie, Ben and Mark in most of us, however submerged.

It’s acted with immense conviction, which in turn communicates itself across the auditorium. So that Rosie’s painful experience of growing-up contrasts with Pip’s determination to grow into her own person, not just the roles of wife and mother.

Fran’s increasing desperation to keep her brood together and happy within her own context in turn holds the reverse side of the mirror to Bob’s ultimately futile attempts to protect his daughters and maintain his sons on what he sees as a normal, honest path. These make up the drama and its inherent heartbreak which we can all recognise.

Four and a half star rating.

Things I Know To Be True runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 21 October with matinées on 19 and 21 October.

 

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The Best Man

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 16 October

Politics are seldom a clean business wherever they are. Gore Vidal’s 1960 behind-the-scenes drama about an US Democratic Party convention to nominate a presidential candidate rings almost as many bells for a British audience in 2017 as it did for the American one when first staged.

Basically it’s a duel between the two main candidates, each with seconds as in the personal combat tradition. Both have display wives and devious behind-the-scenes manoeuvering campaign manager. There are also Party heavyweights, one a former President and the other a matriarch with her own power base, who are needed to endorse the front-runner – whichever he turns out to be.

Squeaky clean is the image to present to those all-important voters. Needless to say, a vast amount of energy is expended in digging up as much dirt to sling at the opposition and making it stick. Is Secretary of State William Russell subject to severe nervous breakdowns? How secure is his marriage? Does Senator Joseph Cantwell’s military past hold a story which would not merely damage but criminalise him?

Martin Shaw’s urbane Russell and his coolly elegant wife Alice (Glynis Barber) are the first couple we meet in their Philadelphia hotel suite (a design by Michael Taylor whose semi-transparent panels suggest that nothing a public figure says or does is ever completely private. His hit-man is Dick Jensen (Anthony Howell), a typical Washington (or Whitehall) apparatchik.

In contrast, Jeff Fahey’s Cantwell (a name which Sheridan would have relished) is a ramrod who still can relax in private with his blonde photo opportunity-seizing wife Mabel (Honeysuckle Weeks). the wives’  meet-the-Press scene shows Barber and Weeks as polar opposites and is very funny, particularly as is mediated by Gemma Jones’ grande dame Mrs Gamage.

Walking away with the acting prize is Jack Shepherd’s ex-President Hockstader, a man hiding a terminal disease who cannot be bamboozled into throwing his weight behind either candidate without good cause – and he has his own methods of ferreting out not just the truth but all its surroundings, past and present.

Evidence of a sort which might be Cantwell’s undoing is provided by David Tarkenter as Sheldon Marcus, a former Army officer now adrift in civilian life but determined to reveal what may – or may not – have happened in 1943. Jim Creighton’s Don Blades has to act quickly either to disprove the story or to suppress it.

Simon Evans’ direction keeps the action taut and also allows space for the characters to flourish as three-dimensional people through their speeches and other exchanges. We may be in the 1960s onstage, but the rumbles of that time are still around in our decade. And beyond it, almost certainly. Power is indeed a weapon.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Best Man continues at the Cambridge Arts theatre until 21 October with matinées on 19 and 21 October.

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Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick

reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford on 10 October

The Carry On... films and the team of actors involved with most of them in the 1960s and 70s have become embedded in the British consciousness. As with all such phenomena, myth has partly obscured fact – both for the films themselves and also for the actors.

Terry Johnson’s 1998 backstage comedy about three of the core performers and one other actress treads a fine line between impersonation and impression. The cast of this new Contexture Theatre production directed by Gailie Pollock for the most part manage this tightrope admirably, both in appearance and in sound.

As Kenneth Williams, Simon Kingsley manages the vocal and body mannerisms extremely well, having the audience on his side from the moment he steps into Sid James (Ray MacAllen)’s dilapidated former camper-van dressing-room – designed by Isobel Power Smith and giving stage management problems on the opening night.

His spiky yet underlying affectionate relationship with Chelsea Fitzgerald’s Barbara Windsor is delicately handled. Fitzgerald looks right and sounds right as the East End girl who knows which of her assets is marketable, even though she also knows that these are being exploited.

Her marriage with second-string gangster Ronnie Knight gives a twist to the plot when Eddie (Doug Shepherd), a sort of all-purpose hoodlum, intervenes. MacAllan’s Sid is another well-rounded portrait of a man who knows that time may well be running out for him without all he want – professionally, emotionally and sexually – ever remaining within his grasp.

Also involved are overworked dresser Sally (Hayley Thornton) and lissome actress Imogen Hassall Emma Denly), another performer whose aspirations were forced down a career path in which appearance mattered (as it still does) more than any dramatic talent. Both make you emphasise with their characters and their problems.

Four star rating.

Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick continues at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford until 15 October with matinées on 12, 14 and 15 October.

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Duet for One

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 9 October

“…that one talent which is death to hide lodged with me useless”. Milton was writing about his blindness, but his desperation is that of any creative or interpretive artist.

Since 1980, my own understanding, as well as that of most fellow critics and theatre- and film-goers understood that this play was based on cellist Jacqueline du Pré whose spectacular career was cut off when she developed multiple sclerosis in her mid-20s.

In a programme note for Robin Lefevre’s tour of his production for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, author Tom Kempinski denies that his violist protagonist Stephanie Abrahams is actually based on du Pré. Quite frankly, I’m not entirely convinced.

That is not to say that Lefevre’s excellent staging with its realistic set by Lez Brotherston cleverly lit by Ian Scott and with John Leonard’s never obtrusive use of sound isn’t effective. It is.

As Stephanie, Belinda Lang gives a superbly paced performance of a young woman in (quite natural) denial both of her early years and the bleakness of her present situation and lack of options for the future. On one level, this is indeed a duet for one person, her constant fiddling with hair and scarf mirroring her own insecurities.

Oliver Cotton’s Dr Feldmann provides much more than mere accompaniment and a soundboard as the psychiatrist she so unwillingly consults. Between them they people the stage with those who have affected Stephanie’s life.

These include the mother with her own frustrated musical ambitions who died young, the father intent on providing her with future security, the composer husband whose own ambitions don’t really include the care of an increasingly invalid wife.

On one level it’s a tragedy about wasted lives. But the two actors bring out the comedy in their exchanges and the ending is far more upbeat than I remember it from both the original production and subsequent revivals. As all good plays should do, this production leaves one thinking. And wondering.

Four and a half-star rating.

Duet for One continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 14 October with matinées on 12 and 14 October.

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Elton John’s Glasses

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 5 October

Obsessions damage people. Both the one obsessed and those with whom he or she comes into contact. David Farr’s savage comedy, revived in a new production by Psyche Stott  20 years after the Palace Theatre commissioned it, has as its central character Bill (Niall Costigan), a football fanatic.

More precisely, a Watford Football Club fanatic. His life revolves around the club’s catastrophic defeat in the 1984 Cup Final at Wembley – which he attributes to a mis-shot due to the sun glinting from John’s spectacles as he rose to his feet to encourage the team.

If you have minimal interest in football, as I do, then your interest in this play has to be in the interplay of the different characters to whom Farr introduces us.

First of all there’s Dan (Leon Williams), Bill’s younger brother who turns up after an absence of some years with the two other members of his unsuccessful group – taciturn bass guitarist Shaun (Thomas Richardson) and extremely short-sighted drummer Tim (Euan Kitson).

Amy, a teenage girl who just loves a kick around, is played by Leila Ayad. The other woman’s role is that of Julie (Joanna Croll) a middle-life wife and mother who drops in on Bill each Saturday for a couple of hours’ sex. The confrontation between Amy and Julie provides the half-time coup de foudre.

Designer Ruari Murchison has provided a stark set which throws the excellence of the performances into focus. Costigan and Kitson dominate in their two very different ways and there is overall a real sense of time and place. But it remains a somewhat detached experience for all that.

Three and a half-star rating.

Elton John’s Glasses runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 21 September with matinées on 5, 7, 11, 14, 16, 18 and 21 September.

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Beautiful

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 3 October

As shows hewn out of  back catalogues go, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is much more enjoyable than most. Just launched on its post-West End tour, it juxtaposes two couples.

The main one is song composer Carole King (Bronté Barbé) and her future husband lyricist Gerry Goffin (Kane Oliver Parry). Then there’s a less intense and more wise-cracking pair – lyricist and singer Cynthia Weil (Amy Ellen Richardson) and hypochondriac composer Barry Mann (Matthew Gonsalves).

Carole’s mother Genie Klein (Carol Royle) and music publisher Donnie Kirschner (Adam Howden) act as their stimuli as the story moves from 1958 to 1971, from young beginners fighting for their first vital contracts and professional contacts to Carnegie Hall itself.

Visual impressions are no longer a mere matter of smoke and mirrors. Their place has been taken by lights and scaffolding, give or take the odd item of furniture, staircases and a couple of pianos.

Derek McLane’s sets, Alejo Vietti’s costumes and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting ensure that Marc Bruni’s production keeps on the move.

Josh Prince’s choreography also reflects the decades in question and is very well danced by the 12-person ensemble with Esme Laudat and Khalid Daley in particular making their presence felt.

As King, Barbé manages the transitions between eager schoolgirl, young wife and solo performer effectively and puts over the feelings as well as the words and notes of her numbers. Richardson makes a fine contrast. Parry and Gonsalves play far less sympathetic characters equally well.

Four star rating.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 7 October with matinées on 4, 5 and 7 October. it also plays at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend between 10 and 14 October and at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich between 17 and 21 April 2018.

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Anglian Mist

reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 30 September

People, and places, are not always what they seem. Take the National Trust nature reserve at Orford Ness. Nowadays it’s home to all manner of wildlife; from the First World War to the height of the Cold War, it harboured military research and latterly Anglo-American radar development.

Time, place and people form the fabric of Tim Lane and Cordelia Spence’s Anglian Mist, Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company’s autumn tour. On one level it’s a spy story, one in which nobody is ever quite what he or she appears to be. On another, it’s a study in corrosion, personal as well as physical.

We begin with one of those over-prepared academic lectures. Matthew Barnes is Valentine Scarrow who delivers it until he is interrupted by an elderly member of his audience. Adrienne Grant plays Anna Rees and the flashback sequences which follow take us through the past history of the three main characters from the 1970s onwards.

As well as Rees and Scasrrow, this story has a third man. That is Yevgeny Markovich, Russian born and English educated. The lives first of  Rees and Markovich, then of Scarrow, entwine, separate and to a large degree strangle themselves, like some noxious but nearly non-eradicable bindweed.

it’s very well acted, particularly by Grant and Turner, in Spence’s production which slow-motions the scenes of violence and interrogation to good effect. Molly Barrett and Julia Pascoe Hook are the designers with music and sound by Lane. It’s a story stripped down to its bare bones and the look of the production reflects this.

Four star rating.

Anglian Mist tours East Anglia until 25 November including performances at the Public Hall, Beccles (4 October), the Fisher Theatre, Bungay (5 November), the Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft (14 October), at the Hostry Festival, Norwich (24 October) and the West Acre Theatre (3 November).

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