Monthly Archives: June 2018

84 Charing Cross Road

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 26 June

1949 can seem like an alien time in 2015, a dingy lapse between wartime heroics and the Swinging Sixties. Yet that’s when the correspondence between New York-based struggling writer Helene Hanff and London bookshop Marks & Co began.

Hanff’s book detailing her correspondence, first with manager Frank Doel and later with other staff members which lasted until the shop closed 20 years later was published in 1970. There have been several stage, radio and film adaptations; this Cambridge Arts Theatre production uses the James Roose-Evans text and is directed by Richard Beecham.

There is also music composed and arranged by Rebecca Applin. That may pull you up short, if you come to the theatre expecting a straight-forward staging. Norman Coates’ set is conventional enough – floor to ceiling books on dark shelves with a large wireless in the foreground and Hanff’s cluttered office cum living-room to one side.

Music makes itself heard before a word is spoken. For the Londoners, this is traditional and comes from two violins, a cello, an accordion and a flute. Hanff is heralded by a jazzy saxophone. The passing of the seasons is indicated by carols and folk songs; the quasi-sombre ending is marked by the hymn “Abide with me”.

In between these interludes, the story flows as postal friendships develop and the characters find themselves caught up with each other’s lives, from Hanff’s fledgling television scripts (thanks to John Donne) through the austerities and food rationing of postwar Britain which prompt gift parcels in one direction and reciprocal gifts in return.

Leading the cast is Clive Francis as Doel, beautifully poised between business rectitude and an underlying sense of generosity Stefanie Powers is every inch the savvy, slightly abrasive New Yorker, a nice contrast with Samantha Sutherland’s gentle Cecily Farr, Doel’s assistant, who first begins to broaden the transatlantic correspondence.

Loren O’Dair contributes a well-contrasted pair of cameos as the mousey Megan Wells and US leading lady Maxine Stuart. Ultimately, the story keeps our attention through the two leading performances, and in this we are not let down. Chris Warren’s sound and Chris Davey’s lighting designs are subtle, indeed clever, but I’m not convinced that this is the definitive way to stage this script.

Four star rating.

84 Charing Cross Road runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 30 June with matinées on 28 and 30 June as part of a national tour.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

reviewed at the Gothic House, Pulham Market on 23 June

It’s the Shakespeare play which most suits outdoor performance. Stuff of Dreams’ summer tour demonstrates this very well, abetted by the Tudor surroundings of this particular venue and the lack of artificial lighting which faded Puck’s envoi out of the human realm and back into that of his spirit world.

Hayley Evenett’s Puck is a lithe creature, black and dark-green banded and a prime stirrer of dangerous mischief. It’s an intelligent as well as a likable characterisation with just the right air of menace. The rest of the cast play two roles, with Tim Lane’s Bottom giving another stand-out performance.

Lane’s songs, with his own acoustic guitar accompaniment, have a genuinely folk-song quality; “Fairy friends” and “What a night, what a revel” are real foot-tapping numbers, following out of the situations at particular points and not merely superimposed on them. Cordelia Spence’s direction allows space for our imaginations to work and is never fortuitously busy.

As Hippolyta and Titania, Neve Doyle flows across the stage, trailing a Greek-inspired white trained gown as the Amazon queen and darkly tattered as th queen of the fairies. Leighton Williams is Theseus, rather more caught up in his own pleasures than the duties of administration, and a top-hated Oberon, partly gypsy, partly gamekeeper.

Demetrius, so determined in his preferences, is easily transformed into play-maestro Quince by Tom Moran and Alex Firth-Clark makes love-sick Lysander become Flute and Thisby very naturally. Their counterparts from Katie Cary are Hermia and so Snug/the Lion and from Kiara Hawker the determined Helena and the malleable Wall.

So many productions of Shakespeare nowadays seem to be delivered by actors who either cannot understand the verse and its language or fail to convey the rhythm and sense of what they are saying to the audience. This entire production is intelligently spoken and so flows naturally. As it should do.

Four and a half-star rating.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream can also be seen at Thornham Walks, Eye on 24 June, the Locks Inn, Geldeston on 29 June, East Point Academy, Lowestoft on 30 June and Bungay Castle on 1 July.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

Mischief Movie Night

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 19 June

Success has its flip side, and it’s very easy to access that. Improvisation can be hugely theatrically rewarding, as Adam Meggido’s Showstopper! productions demonstrate. Meggido is the consultant on Mischief Theatre’s successor to The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong.

Even with an ensemble used to working together, this is dangerous territory. Scripts can’t really an anchor-point for Mischief Movie Night, which relies on a sequence of cobbled-together to “improvise” a film based on the audience’s suggestions. “Plants” among us try to steer the whole thing, not always successfully.

We end up with a murder mystery set in a municipal baths. Corpses soon proliferate, as do nods in the direction of disaster movies and classics such as Psycho. Songs and dance also play their part. It’s all great fun, but at times you can see too much of the struggle behind the mirth.

After the interval we’re in easier territory – the tryout for an evening of magic. Needless to say, the self-proclaimed mind mangler makes a hash of his act, with the aid of audience volunteers. There’s also a girl in a box enacting a variety of creation myths while managing not to be sawn in half.

This part worked much better for me than the movie-manufacturing act. I felt that the performers were much more in control of their material so able to draw the audience into the joke more subtly. After all, a joke is only funny if evenly shared.

Three and a half-star rating.

Mischief Movie Night continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 23 June with matinées on 21 and 23 June.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

The Case of the Frightened Lady

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 18 June

Edgar Wallace’s 1931 play was an early example of those which have an investigative policeman at the heart of the action. His Chief Superintendent Tanner, as Gray O’Brien makes clear from his first entrance, is not a man to be trifled with.

His assistant Detective Sergeant Totti (Oliver Phelps in his stage début) is no mere sidekick but an active contributor to unravelling the murderous mess in which they become involved.

It all begins with a fancy-dress party at the home of the autocratic dowager Lady Lebanon (Deborah Grant). Her son (Ben Nealon) may have inherited the centuries-old title and the heavily restored family seat, but balks at settling down to responsibility.

That includes marrying his attractive but impoverished cousin Isla Crane (April Pearson), the title character. He is also at odds with most of his mother’s staff. They, to put it mildly, are an odd bunch.

Gilder (Glenn Carter), butler Kelver (Philip Lowrie) and housekeeper Mrs Tilling (Rosie Thomson) have their own spiky variations on one-upmanship. Denis Lill’s Dr Amersham is not quite the genial friendly practitioner initial impressions might suggest.

So it goes on in violence. Adapter Antony Lampard and director Roy Marsden keep the action flowing with scenes of activity intercut with personal verbal exchanges. The trouble is that we in the audience are so busy following the plot that we end up thoroughly bemused.

The transitions are akin to those in a novel or even a film. Lighting designer Chris Davey uses subtle shifts of light to indicate them but even so doesn’t really clarify anything. It’s all of its inter-war period but tries too hard for 21st century relevance.

Costume changes proliferate, with some neat touches to indicate status and seniority. Wallace knew his craft and perhaps it should simply have been taken as he wrote it. You can’t fault the actors; everyone takes it at proper face value. But it just doesn’t work.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Case of the Frightened Lady continues at the Palace Theatre Westcliff until 23 June with matinées on 21 and 23 June. It is also at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 30 July and 4 August.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em

reviewed at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich on 12 June

The popular television series of this title written by Raymond Allen ran during the 1970s, and it’s in this era that writer and director Guy Unsworth has set his new comedy.

As you may recall, accident-prone Frank Spencer manages to be sacked by a whole series of employers while his cack-handed attempts at home improvements constitute a separate recipe for disaster.

The role is a gift for any flexibly-limbed comedian, and Joe Pasquale takes full advantage of every opportunity. Around such a stealing performance, the supporting cast needs to work very hard to take a proper share of the limelight.

Sarah Earnshaw’s Betty, Frank’s long-suffering wife, manages to be something of a scene-stealer, from her opening exchange with parish priest Father O’Hara (David Shaw-Parker) through to the final dénouement.

Then there’s Betty’s mother, Mrs Fisher (Susie Blake), who has shed her husband to take up with bank manager Mr Worthington (Moray Treadwell); she’s a sultry battle-axe of a throughly recognisable kind.

Among Frank’s less likely get-rich-quick schemes is to develop his “magic” act to the extent that the BBC comes calling. I won’t spoil the plot turns for you; but simply say that nothing is quite what it seems…

Chris Kiely plays the policeman who eventually descends on the mayhem, as well as the BBC cameraman; Treadwell has a nice cameo as his boss Mr Luscombe.

Arguably the real stars of the show (Pasquale’s performance aside) are designer Simon Higlett and those under-sung heroes, the stage management team.

Lights flash and flicker, music centres blast out, kitchen appliances blow up, staircase banisters tumble while legs detach themselves from chairs and sofa on cue. It’s all great fun, whether you remember the original or come fresh to it all.

Four star rating.

Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em runs at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich until 16 June with matinées on 12 and 16 June. It can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich (9-14 July) and the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (24-28 July).

 

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

Whisky Galore

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 6 June

Compton Mackenzie’s novel about the 1941 foundering of a ship which was bound for the USA with a cargo of prime whisky is probably best known in its 1949 Ealing film comedy version Whisky Galore. Philip Goulding’s stage adaptation adds its own twist.

We therefore find ourselves watching not just a play with the 26 characters all played by seven actors but one being staged by the Pallas Players, an all-woman troupe based on the Osiris Players.

The scene, as visualised by director Kevin Shaw and designer Patrick Connellan, is a co-operative hall in 1955, occupied by a flexible set of packing-cases which transform into rostra, hillocks, cars and anything required. The cast wears buff-coloured breeches and stockings, topped by a colourful array of bonnets, coats, kilts, shawls, skirts.

Behind is a map of the two Outer Hebridean islands Great and Little Todday where the action of Whisky Galore takes place. They’re clannish sorts of places, in more ways than one, with a distinctly cavalier attitude to incomers, such as the Waggetts.

Waggett is a pompous know-all, overly immersed in his command of the Home Guard. The leftward-leaning schoolmaster, Dr Maclaren and the priest Fr Macalister have all however been assimilated without overt mockery.

Two young couples find that the path to matrimony is not necessarily a smooth one. George Campbell is kept firmly under her thumb by his dour widowed mother, who refuses to meet his beloved Catriona Macleod.

Her sister Peggy is also being wooed, by serviceman Fred Odd, who has just come home on leave. Their shopkeeper father Duncan is also something of a martinet. All these diverse characters offer opportunities to the cast, which they seize upon.

Christine Mackie’s Mrs Campbell is the stand-out performance, closely followed by Isabel Ford’s Waggett and Lila Clements’ George. The gender-swapping throughout is as thoroughly credible as that I remember from the real Osiris Players.

It’s all affectionate without a whiff of send-up, but the action does take some time to pick up momentum. Too much so, especially during the first half. Clever touches, such as the visible gramophone for sound effects and the rolling hills, don’t really fill this gap.

Three and a half-star rating.

Whisky Galore continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 9 Jun with a matinée on 9 June.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 5 June

Deconstructed Shakespeare. There’s been a lot of it about, possibly as a reaction to the bardolatry of the quatercentenary. From the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith and Filter Theatre comes Sean Holmes’ addition to this new canon.

How much you enjoy this Midsummer Night’s Dream overall, I suspect, is largely up to your appetite for transposed stand-up comedy and popular cult-figure spoofing  leavened with elements of the traditional pantomime.

There’s a band (music by Chris Branch and Tom Haines), modern costuming and a set which suggests a dilapidated rehearsal-room (Hyemi Shin). Not to mention “audience interchange”, both planted and spontaneous.

Some of the glosses on the central story work very well. Bombastic Theseus has his mirror image in Oberon’s unsuccessful attempts to be Superman. Dogmatic Egeus (here Hermia’s mother rather than her father) transforms into an occasionally fallible stage-management Puck.

Bottom (that “audience plant” I mentioned) transforms into an ass straight out of  Apuleius’ Metamorphoses by sound and gesture rather than an animal mask. Hippolyta, so buttoned-up as Theseus’ bridal trophy, transforms into a sex-hungry diva as Titania.

The close girlish affection between Hermia and Helena dissolves credibly into bitchy squabbling and carpenter Peter Quince, bossy impressario for the craftsmen, is a natural double of the compère who greets us then gravitates automatically to any available microphone.

As performers, you cannot fault the cast, including the versatile musicians. They all throw themselves (frequently quite literally) into everything required of them. The sense of undergraduate spontaneity carries absolute conviction. It works on its own terms, but on a “love it or hate it” basis.

Three and a half-star rating.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 9 June with matinées on 7 and 9 June.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

Europe After The Rain

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester on 31 May

On the beach… beached up. Either way this is an emotive phrase. it balances the good, even the thoroughly enjoyable, against a sense of desolation, of being abandoned.

That is presumably why director Cara Nolan and designer Amelia Jane Hankin have set Oliver Bennett’s first full-length play – which won the theatre’s 2017 playwriting prize –  on a sand-strewn surface with minimal furniture and a background which suggests taut fishing lines or the bars of a lobster pot.

At the start, this space is inhabited by three people. Will (James Alexandrou) seems to be its proprietor. Marta (Natasha Kafka) and her mother Yana (Anna Koval) have joined him; it transpires that they are Ukrainian refugees.

The time is the future, perhaps not-so-distant. Ukraine has been re-invaded by Russia. Populist (for which read right-wing) governments are everywhere taking power. Even in Britain, if the election we understand to be currently underway so dictates.

Enter Max (Simon Haines), a free-spirited, free-wheeling sort of man. His arrival is the trigger for personal, as well as political, revelations. There are crescendos of violence, very well spaced by the cast, but little sense of plot development running parallel to the personal.

Kafka’s Marta, using electronic media as a substitute for human interaction, is a recognisable type. So is Koval’s Yana, one of life’s born survivors.

The men are more formulaic, though Alexandrou shows us Will’s suppressed volcano of frustration, one for which he can find no verbal vocabulary. Haines’ Max is in many ways Yana’s masculine counterpart, though he lacks her innate integrity.

It all holds attention while it is being acted out before us. The compressed format, though it sustains tension, might perhaps not be diminished if expanded by another half-hour or so. That would allow for more background for both the characters and their political world.

Three and a half-star rating.

Europe After The Rain runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 9 June with evening performances on 2-9 June, an early evening performance on 1 June and matinées on 2, 7 and 9 June.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018