Monthly Archives: November 2018

The Nightingales

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 12 November

What brings people together in a choir? Once they’re in it, what holds them – or drives wedges between the members? Actor-playwright William Gaminara takes a North Country village a cappella group which on the surface is united with its choir-master and shows what effect a newcomer may have.

Steven (Steven Pacey) is the choir-master in question, a musician whose own ambitions, like his life with wife Diane (Mary Stockley), are not just fading. They’re actively withering. There’s a possibility that an IVF-conceived child might revive and re-bind this relationship.

The other members of the group are thwarted thespian Connie (Sarah Earnshaw), her handyman husband Ben (Philip McGinley) and the new-to-the-area doctor Bruno (Stefan Adegbola). He’s a bright, career-focused Black man, mature enough to shrug off casual racism yet conscious of always being an outsider.

Into the village hall wanders Maggie (Ruth Jones), another newcomer and outsider. She is currently undergoing chemotherapy for suspected breast cancer and the group welcome her, feeling that the choir would itself have a positive and therapeutic effect. Her endless supply of home-made and purchased treats suggests that she’s happy to be included.

But is she? More to the point, is she really ill? And, come to that, is she telling the truth about her own family and past life? The questions push their way into the foreground while Connie pressures Steven into agreeing to enter the choir into a national competition. One she had dreams of being as celebrity. Is this a second chance?

Gaminara has written  six good parts, the sort which actors love to inhabit, but not flesh and blood characters. I could perhaps believe that Diane and Bruno might have an affair, that Connie will do anything for that elusive flicker called fame, even that Maggie is either a fantasist or a sick woman (or both), but I failed.

It’s no fault of the cast, notably Pacey and Adegbola, who have a confrontation towards the end of the second act which builds into real dramatic suspense. Stockley and Earnshaw make a good contrast, and McGinley’s happy-go-lucky Ben provides genuine light relief. Jones  at times seemed to be as uncertain as Maggie herself.

Director Christopher Luscombe is well-served by Jonathan Fensom’s village-hall set and quick-change costumes. Music director Luke Bateman regales our ears with an agreeable sequence of unaccompanied song, from the devotional to the popular. These are all very pleasant decorations, but they hang on too flimsy a support.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Nightingales runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 17 November with matinées on 15 and 17 November.

 

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Season’s Greetings

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 7 November

The time of goodwill to all? Not if you’re planning to spend Christmas with Bernard and Phyllis. Ayckbourn’s wry look at the stresses marriage and parenthood impose when a miscellany of relations comes together doubles as cautionary tale and brutal farce.

Incompetent pacifist doctor Bernard, obsessed with his dire puppet-show for the house-party’s children, starts the festivities off by being at odds with Harvey, his wife Phyllis’ bellicose ex-service uncle over violence in films.

Phyllis drinks too much. Much too much. Her brother Neville is one of those men who tinker endlessly, preferably with other people’s gadgets. His wife Belinda is simply frustrated with life and love (what there is of it).

Enduring yet another pregnancy is Pattie; Eddie her husband is a gormandising layabout more concerned with cadging a job from Richard Munday’s somewhat blinkered Neville than taking his fair share of child-rearing.

And then there’s Rachel, Pattie’s intense and somewhat odd sister. She’s invited Clive, a would-be writer on whom she’s become fixated, as her guest. When he finally appears, he becomes the catalyst for what ensues.

You get the picture. Catherine Lomax’s production keeps the action on the move with a wide set that gives us hall and stairs, the living-room and dining-room. Victoria Fitz-Gerald’s Belinda and Lewis Collier’s Clive make a good central couple.

It is the misfits in the several households who really grab our attention. Paul Lavers’ militant Harvey is suitably lethal while Adam Shorey blithers away as Bernard. Alice Redmond allows Rachel a proper measure of pathos, even while she irritates.

Natalie Harman’s wine-swigging Phyllis comes into her own with the snakes-and-ladders game as Christmas Day ends. Chris Aukett’s Eddie, devouring anything edible in sight, is another infuriating delight.

As Pattie, Naomi Slights evokes understanding; her future – like her immediate past – is a bleak one. You really don’t want to be invited to join any of these people for an extended break; one evening would probably suffice.

The compliments of the season to you, too.

Four star rating.

Season’s Greetings runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 10 November with matinées on 8 and 10 November.

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Shakespeare in Love

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 5 November

It’s a delectable piece of froth which, as is only natural with its authorial pedgree, has mixed in some solid pieces of intellectual know-how to give it crunch as well as sweetness. This stage version by Lee Hall of the Stoppard-Marc Norman film script works splendidly in its own right.

As befits a co-production originating from the Bath Theatre Royal, director Phillip Breen has assembled a large cast deliberately brought into close quarters by Max Jones’ revolving set with its balcony and steep staircase. Tudor London was an over-crowded milieu; privacy was a luxury at any level of society.

You probably know that the action begins with would-be dramatist Shakespeare (Pierro Niel-Mee) experiencing a bad attack of writer’s block. His alter-ego Marlowe (Edmund Kingsley) has no such problem. Lurking around the floorboards, playing his own games (and all sides against each other), is teenage Webster (Jazmine Wilkinson) – not a nice child.

Niel-Mee gives us a rounded portrait of a young man beset by deadlines from theatre managers who know that they want (and think the public does also) as well as bills and family responsibilities he’s endeavouring to keep at a distance.

Imogen Daines is Olivia, a merchant’s daughter about to be traded into marriage with Lord Wessex Bill Ward),  but yearning to be a actress – or should that be, actor? They make a thoroughly enjoyable hero and heroine, though it’s Olivia who in the end has to pay the heaviest price.

Swaggering the whole length of his gleaming red-clad legs is Edward Harrison’s Burbage (eventually cast most appropriately as Mercutio. Kingsley is his saturnine equivalent; their ends even echo each other.

Giles Taylor as Tilney, Master of the Queen’s Revels) doubles that increasingly frustrated functionary with the part of Olivia’s father. Rob Edwards and Ian Hughes make much of Fennyman and Henslowe respectively. Ashley Gale makes much of a stuttering player.

Also catching the eye – and the ear – are Geraldine Alexander doubling Viola/Juliet’s nurse and the imperious Elizabeth I (given an impressive entrance in the second act through the audience), Rowan Polonski’s Ned Alleyne, Ward’s Wessex and the musical score by Paddy Cunneen.

All in all, this touring production in partnership with Eleanor Lloyd is a thoroughly enjoyable antidote to the dark, dank days of late autumn and early winter.

Four and a half-star rating.

Shakespeare in Love continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 10 November as part of a national tour with matinées on 8 and 10 November.

 

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Haunting Julia

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 3 November

How do you define a haunting? A person, a place, an occurence, a combination of these – or something even less tangible? Ayckbourn’s 1994 drama Haunting Julia threads its way around the doubtful death of a young composer-pianist

It can never be easy to find that you’ve a fully fledged genius in your family. Difficult enough for Leopold Mozart with an established musical background, or for the Du Prés. Near impossible for a run-of-the-mill North Country working-class family.

There’s pride, of course, but no real understanding or appreciation.  Julia dies while still a student and her father makes a shrine of the student-room in which she died. it attracts visitors, not all of whom have genuine informed curiosity.

Andy, now a music teacher with a career-forging wife, had been close to Julia. Her father Joe has invited him to find out if he too can hear the strange sounds and inexplicable cold which have developed. A third visitor is former janitor Ken, who may – or may not – be able to unravel the mystery.

From which you will gather that this is not straightforward Ayckbourn. Yes, there are moments of humour, not all of which are dark. There are odd, sinister happenings guaranteed to give the audience a jolt or two. By the end of the play, we know much about Julia and her circles. But not everything.

Director Lucy Pitman-Wallace controls her stage with impeccable timing, aided by Jess Curtis’ apparently straightforward set, the sounds conjured up by Paul Dodgson and Mark Dymock’s lighting. Ultimately though the weight of the play is on the three actors.

That’s four, if you count Laura Elsworthy’s voiceover. The three men are played by Sam Cox as Joe, Matthew Spencer as Andy and Clive Llewellyn as Ken. Spencer shows us a man who may once have had potential but has now settled for what he can get without too much struggling.

Cox and Llewellyn offer studies in two types of obsession. If Andy discounts any possibility of the paranormal, Ken embraces it. As he reveals more of his own place in Julia’s life, so out sympathy for and understanding of the character grows.

What personal ghosts is Joe exorcising? Cox draws out the no-nonsense side of the man then gradually overlays it with uncertainties. Is he the real villain of the piece, or is that Andy? The strength of the performances is in leaving us undecided.

“There are more things in heaven and earth…” Also, perhaps, in the space between them. Limbo? purgatory? Or even somewhere even less charted?

Four and a half-star rating.

Haunting Julia runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 17 November with matinées on 8, 10, 15 and 17 November.

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