Monthly Archives: March 2016

Invincible

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 30 March)

You know all the old contrast metaphors – chalk and cheese, oil and water, east and west. There’s also north and south, which is at the heart of Torben Betts 2014 play Invincible, how given a new production by Christopher Harper for an extended collaborative tour by the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds and the Original Theatre Company.

We’re in a rented cottage in the north of England. Emily (Emily Bowker) and Oliver (Alastair Whatley) have left London for what they imagine will be a simpler – not to say, cheaper – way of life. Oliver’s devoutly Christian mother is dying, which serves as a pretext; her greatest wish is for them to marry in church but, as Emily makes clear right from the start, that’s against her strongly-held principles.

Emily in short is one of those people so involved with chasing the motes that the actual beam (basically, her own selfishness) is completely ignored. Oliver may share most of her libertarian, organic and internationalist scruples, but is probably a fraction more reality-rooted. He knows that easing his mother’s last days has implications beyond the purely physical ones of nursing.

Their new next-door neighbours are Alan (Graeme Brookes) and his wife Dawn (Kerry Bennett). They have daughters, whose much-loved but marauding cat is another bane of Emily’s existence, and a son serving oversea in the British army. Alan in his own words is a “big flat slob”, football-obsessed, a drinker of lager out of cans and far too prone to laugh at his own jokes. it’s a delicious portrait of a type who is also a flesh-and-blood person by Brookes.

You can’t warm to Emily, not even with the burning sincerity of Bowker’s performance and can see why (in a farcical but bitter mix-up of actions and explanations) Whatley’s more gentle Oliver is drawn to Bennett’s earth-goddess Dawn. This is in many ways a farce from a classic mould, but it’s a savage one very much for our fractured 21st century.

Heidi McEvoy-Swift’s costume designs perfectly reflect the characters of their wearers while Victoria Spearing’s setting of the tattered décor of the rented cottage is briskly refurbished for the second half into Emily’s preferred Farrow & Ball London loft minimalism. it’s all foot-lighted by rows of miniature buildings and loomed over by the Angel of the North.

Invincible runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 2 April with a matinée on 2 April. It can also be seen at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich (19-23 April) and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (28-30 April).

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Don Giovanni

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 21 March)

Time and place an seem irrelevant as far as Mozart’s Don Giovanni is concerned. The story of the lethal heart-breaker is universal, and we accept it as such. Lloyd Wood’s production for ETO sets us in a fin-de-siècle location with his designer Anna Fleischle has produced a dark grey setting with a grim exterior stairway to one side (leading to a long upper platform) and cavernous vaults below. In the fore-stage is a lit oubliette grating.

George von Bergen is a sinisterly athletic Don Giovanni, a many who exults in wreaking havoc, selfish to his core. His masterly interpretation is helped by Jeremy Sams’ wittily contemporary translation, clearly enunciated by most of the cast. Sams is a compose and theatre director and he knows how to balance constants and vowels with the melodic line.

Then there’s Matthew Stiff’s burly Leporello, much put-upon but never quite managing to break away from his master. The “catalogue aria” is beautifully sung; Stiff balances the bitter comedy of the list of Giovanni’s seductions (albeit “one hundred and three”, rather than “mille e tre”) with a beguiling smoothness which may leave Ania Jeruc’s Donna Elvira unhappy, but not we in the audience.

Jeruc has the hardest of the three female roles, a woman who wants her seducer back and knows in her heart that this will never happen. By contrast, Camilla Roberts’ Donna Anna is a tiger-cat in her pursuit of vengeance (though I did wonder why a woman who proclaims her extended mourning for her murdered father so persistently wears soft, spring-like colours).

Matching Roberts, who throws off both the legato and the decorative elements of her arias and accompanied recitatifs with precision as well as legato, is Robyn Lyn Evans as Don Ottavio, less of a dull stick than he sometimes appears and winning applause for his one, second-act aria (conductor Michael Rosewell uses the original Prague 1787 score).

The two young peasants whose nuptuals Don Giovanni so successfully manages to disrupt are a seductive Lucy Hall as Zerlina – a girl who knows how to make a double-entendre out of any phrase while singing – let alone acting – and Bradley Travis as Masetto. he is a thoroughly earth-bound clod while she has a thistle-down element.

Timothy Dawkins’ Commenadatore, emerging in formal top-hatted grandeur from what Don Giovanni (in one of Sams’ best throw-away lines) calls his tasteless monument, dominates the finale. If his first scene confrontation shows the enraged human father, the entry into the increasingly anarchic supper-room is as menacingly supernatural as one could wish.

Don Giovanni is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 22 March, at the Snape Maltings on 8 April and at the Cambridge Arts Theatre 27-28 April.

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The History Boys

(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford on 16 March).

If you’re an arts complex with professional actors as well as a thriving stage school attached, then Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is an ideal choice of production. As well as the adult staff members at the fictional boys’ school in the 1960s, there are the students – as mixed a bunch as you’re likely to encounter then, now or in the 1950s on which Bennett drew from his personal experiences.

Some of us were lucky enough to be taught by charismatic as well as dedicated teachers – I know that I was, though not by anyone quite as maverick as Hector. Matthew Ward makes him into less cuddly than some other actors’ characterisations; it’s as though he is deliberately courting disaster from our first glimpse of him, motorbike-revving as though he had just materialised from another planet.

Sue Last balances this with her straight-forwrd Mrs Lintott, a no-nonsense type who teaches efficiently but without ever stirring her students’ imaginations. Then there’s Jeremy Small’s Headmaster with his sights set on Oxbridge places. It’s a portrait of a man who lacks true authority.

As Irwin, parachuted in to polish the likely university candidates, Jack Downey offers a well thought-out portrait of a driven half-failure who knows what will work in certain circumstances and eventually manages to apply these lessons to his own career. Downey is flint to Ward’s fire, which is at it should be.

Jeanne Stacey’s production has a set by Douglas Heap which, with its simple foreground of school chairs and tables, keeps the action flowing. Of the boys, Joseph Vaiana’s brash Dakin, Joe Llewely’s Posner slowly coming to terms with his homosexual instincts, Will Edden’s chirpy Timms and Daniel Boulton’s bovine Rudge stand out.

The History Boys runs at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford until 19 March.

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Shadowlands

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 15 March)

Some love stories are rooted in place as well as time; they epitomise both. Take William Nicholson’s popular play Shadowlands about the relationship between Oxford academic, writer of children’s novels – such as the Narnia series – and sought-after broadcaster on religious subjects CS Lewis.

Secure in his common room circle, Lewis’ apparently calm existence was disrupted by the advent of American divorcée Joy Gresham and her Narnia-addicted son Douglas. What began as a formal acquaintance matured into affection and, after Gresham’s diagnosis with an incurable illness, love and ultimately marriage.

A church-blessed wedding between a committed Anglican and a Jewish-born, Christian convert divorcée was deemed impossible – at the time. Think about Princess Margaret’s doomed desire to marry Group-Captain Townsend and the furore this evoked, not just within political and ecclesiastical circles.

Alastair Whatley’s new production for Birdsong Productions and the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford has a flexibly realistic set by Whatley and Anne-Marie Woodley which takes us from common room to the house Lewis shares with his brother Warnie to a tea-room and a hospital. Which leaves a great deal up to the performers themselves.

As Gresham, Amanda Ryan presents a sharp-witted (not to say, sharp-tongued) single mother trying to carve out an intellectual life for herself while bringing up two boys. Post-war England seems to offer more satisfactory solutions to her financial and emotional problems than the United States. You believe in her throughout, and long for her lengthening shadows to be lifted.

Balancing this is Stephen Boxer’s quiet but steely Lewis, a man who is more open to the changing world than many of his contemporaries. The moment when he embraces Shannon Rewcroft’s bereaved Douglas as both face up to a Joy-less future is immensely moving. There’s more than one way in which a heart can break; it’s not necessarily a noisy process.

The university’s masculine, not to say misogynist, coven includes Simon Shackleton as the acidic Professor Riley, Jeffrey Harmer as the devout Reverend Harrington and Denis Lill as Warnie, a bull of a man who yet manages to fit tidily into the different Oxford environments.

Shadowlands runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 19 March wih a matinée on 19 March. It can also be seen at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge (23-28 May), the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (4-9 July) and the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (11-16 July).

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Ireland’s Call

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 9 March)

This new touring production is both a story about Irish emigration in the mid-20th century and a showcase for traditional Irish dancing, an increasingly popular genre. The story by Ross Mills, Ged Graham and Trevor Payne focuses on a young man Sean Dempsey (Mike Burr) and his childhood sweetheart Cora McGowen (Shauna Barry).

Sean sees no furture for himself at home, so migrates first to London and then to New York. Here he joins the Police Department and saves enough money for Cora’s passage, but she is torn between her family obligations and her love for him. Eventually she decides to stay in Ireland and, somewhat on the rebound, he marries his captain’s daughter Ekeanor (also plyed by Barry).

Linking the different times and places is the narrator (Graham), first as the parish priest, then as a Cricklewood fixer and finally as the NYPD chief (all three men are brothers). All three principal come at their roles with sincerity, though Graham does tend to milk his, especially in the second half. Mills directs and the excellent choreographer is Lianne Stubbs.

You can’t fault to precision of the dancing ensemble with exceptionally neat footwork throughout and some spectacular leaps and jumps from Burr and the other male dancers. Jarrod Loughlin’s historical and topographical projections provide the background and take the place of scenery though Mike Stevens’ complex lighting design fell prey to a technological fault at the performance I saw.

It’s fair to say that the audience loved every minute of it, but there are longeurs; no doubt the show will tighten up as the tour progrsses (this goes on until May). Certainly the extended clap-along after the finale could be cut – not everyone wants to stand up and wave their arms about for what seemed like a quarter of an hour when cars, buses and trains await the journey home.

Ireland’s Call is at The Cresset, Peterborough (11 March), Cliffs Pavilion, Southend (26 March), Theatre Royal, Norwich (27 March), Prince’s Theatre, Claction (2 April), Regent Theatre, Ipswich (9 April), Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch (25 April), Mercury Theatre, Colchester (26 April), The Grove, Dunstable (28 April) and Civic Theatre, Chelmsford (2 May).

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Much Ado About Nothing

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 7 March)

Expect a lot of new Shakespeare productions this year – it’s his quatercentenary. Hornchurch under its new artistic director Douglas Rintoul has been quick of the mark with what is my personal favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies – Much Ado About Nothing.

Rintoul and his designer Jean Chan have kept the Sicilian setting but opted for the end of World War II period. There are also some gender-shifts in the casting; Leonato (Mark Jax)’s broher Antonio is now his widowed sister Ursula (Eliza Hunt) and Pamela Burgess doubles Dogberry and Margaret.

What stands out in this interpretation is the characterisation of the two main characters. Thomas Padden’s Benedick and Hattie Ladbury are both outsiders in their respective milieux. One feels that he has developed his blistering wit as a fitting-in device with his fellow officers. She is a land-girl type, preferring slacks to skirts, and perhaps also concerned, as a poor relation, to prove her usefulness to her uncle and aunt.

Both catch the audience’s attention and affections from their first exchanges; we have all of us known the type and understand the vulnerability under the carapace. James Siggins’ Claudio suggests that it is Hero (Amber James)’s fortune as her father’s heir which initially attracts him. Both Liam Bergin’s Don John (all fascist black and bitter with it) and Sam Pay’s rough-hewn Borachio are excellent portraits, and there’s a good sketch of the Friar by Jamie Bradley.

But the play stands or falls by its Beatrice and Benedick. Ladbury and Padden wear these personalities with complete comfort and naturalism. I was waiting for the nervous laugh which so often follows her “Kill Claudio” and his immediate reaction “Not for the wide world”. It doesn’t happen here; just a gasp of horror has the injunction and rebuttal sink in.

Much Ado About Nothing runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 26 March with matinées on 10 and 19 March.

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Flare Path

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 2 March)

The co-production between the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions of Terence Rattigan’s Second World War drama Flare Path has been recast for its 2016 tour. Slipping a new cast into a production designed for a different set of actors is often an illuminating process.

Justin Audibert’s staging is straightforward with a semi-realistic set and costumes by Hayley Grindle. The min plot revolves around Flight Lieutenant Graham (Daniel Fraser), his actress wife Patricia Warren (Hedydd Dylan) and her former love film star Peter Kyle (Lynden Edwards). We are in the main reception room of a hotel near the air-base where the bombers and their crews are based.

The sub-plot concerns a Polish Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky (William Reay) who seeks vengeance on the Nazis who killed his wife and children. He has remarried, a good-hearted former barmaid called Doris (Claire Andreads); theirs is a complex relationship and whether or not it will survive the end of hostilities is left open to individual interpretation.

Edwards makes the (now fading) screen heart-throb into a man who is outwardly assured but inwardly both needy and selfish. Fraser makes much of the big, ultimately very moving scene where Graham returns from an operation and admits the strain under which this puts him to his wife. Dylan and Andreadis both bring their characters to life and there’s an abrasive cameo of the hotel proprietor Mrs Oakes by Audrey Palmer.

There is comedy as well as drama in Flare Path, mainly provided by Sergeant Miller (Jamie Hogarth) and his wife Maudie (Polly Hughes). Reay for my taste doesn’t quite fit into Skriczevinsky’s boots; he plays for laughs which seem at odds with the driven essence of the man.

Flare Path runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 5 March with a matinée on 5 March. It also plays at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester 7-12 March.

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The Last Five Years

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 1 March)

Jason Robert Brown’s one-act musical The Last Five Years could be defined as a chamber opera. It’s based on the film of the same name and tells the story of two young people – an aspiring writer Jamie Wellerstein (Chris Cowley) and an equally ambitious actress Catherine Hiatt (Katie Birtill). They meet, fall in love, marry and separate.

Catherine’s story is told backwards, from her reception of Jamie’s letter saying that he’s left her. Her opening lament with its bitter-sweet refrain of “I’m still hurting” suggests her melodic line throughout; there’s occasionally a hint of a waltz during the good times when their lives seem to run on such smooth parallel lines. The characterisation is in the two characters’ musical idioms, hers the more lyrical, his with rather more of a rhythmic rasp.

Brown knows how to write a tune and the five-piece band, perched high above and at the back of the action in James Perkins’ simple but effective multi-location set, sustains the singing actors without ever overwhelming them. Peter Rowe’s direction wisely allows for the basic simplicity of the story – so old, and always so new – to shine.

He’s lucky in his cast. Birtill shows us the fragility of Catherine’s life, as the failure of her marriage is mirrored in the collapse of her career – a sequence of failed auditions. Cowley is a whirlwind of hopes realised, but at a personal cost. His acting out of a Jewish story in front of a decorated Christmas tree is deservedly something of a show-stopper. He knows that he must leave (his part in the story runs forward, not backward), that there is an emotional price for this – and that he accepts its payment.

The Last Five Years runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 11 March with matinée performances on 2, 5 and 9 March.

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Toast

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 29 February)

All trades have their own peculiar vocabulary. Richard Bean’s Toast, set in a Humberside bread-making factory in the 1970s, is no exception. Bean has based his wry comedy on his own early work experience. This new tour is directed by Eleanor Rhode

James Turner’s set presents us with the rest room where the under-paid men doing boring, repetitive jobs spin out their breaks as far as management allows (and quite a bit further). It’s a weekend night shift, so the bosses are elsewhere; Colin (Will Barton) who somehow manages to combine the oles of union shop steward and stand-in for director Mr Beckett is nominally in charge.

The workers are a motley bunch. There’s Cecil (Simon Greenall) whose physical and verbal banter with his colleagues has a barbed edge and Dezzie (Kieran Knowles) who knows he’s in a dead-end but also that there’s no comfortable way ut of it. Above all there’s old timer Walter (Matthew Kelly), known to the other as Nellie and definitely living on borrowed time.

A student appears – is he just a temporary pair of hands who needs to be shown what to do or is he on a fact-finding mission? Or is he ondeed a student at all? John Wark gives a nicely nuanced study of the fish out of too many different waters. But the play belongs to Kelly, in his detailed characterisation of an old man who knows that he’s a failure yet clings to the vaguest shred of hope that he can still be useful.

Sound designer Max Pappenheim has created a ground-bass of the off-stage ovens, the sound of instrusive noise to which the ear accustoms itself so that the audience, just as the bakers, only notice it when things go drastically wrong. Which they inevitably do. Twice.

Toast runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 5 March with matinées on 2 and 5 March. It also plays at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 28 March and 2 April.

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