Monthly Archives: February 2017

Henceforward…
reviewed in Cambridge on 22 February

There’s nearly always been a dark edge to Ayckbourn’s plays, even the most apparently fluffily light-hearted of them. Henceforward…, originally staged 30 years ago, predicates a world where creativity is both stifled and liberated by technology, where the have-nots out-number the haves and where a feral and fractured society makes its own rules. It was a nightmare vision. It’s one which is equally terrifying today.

Central to the story is Jerome, a composer. Mainly because of his creative obsessions and wholehearted embrace of the new technologies on offer, his marriage has broken down and he is denied access to his child. He is holed up in a studio-cum-living-space in a London area where the Daughters of Darkness both make the rules and enforce them. He communicates almost exclusively through a battery of electronic screens and devices.

One of these is a domestic robot, NAN 300F – a prototype which never made it into production. If he is ever to reclaim his daughter, then he needs to display a settled home environment to the social services who will determine his future access to the child (now 13 years old). So he hires Zoe, an actress from a dating agency, to act out that scenario. She arrives in his steel-boarded studio after suffering robbery and assault from the Daughters of Darkness.

These two personalities clash, react and eventually come to an understanding. The trouble is that she interprets (as a performer does) while he creates, every sound made duly recorded and then used for his “masterpiece”. When we meet estranged wife Corinna in the second act, just how much damage Jerome’s obsession has caused and is still causing is made brutally bare.

Ayckbourn has directed this touring revival with a new set by the original designer Roger Glossop. The cast is excellent – Bill Champion as Jerome, Laura Matthews as Zoe, Jacqueline King as Corinna, Jessie Hart as the mixed-up daghter Geain and Nigel Hastings as Mervyn, the official tied up (in more ways than one) with red tape. NAN 300F is well worth attention, whether grey-haired or blonde-wigged.

It doesn’t make for a comfortable evening in the theatre. It’s disturbing, as most visions of a technology-led future can be. It makes you realise why the creative artist is in so many ways a person outside the rhyme and the rut of everyday existence. The ultimate question is – do artistic ends justify the means? Ayckbourn rests his case. Make up your own mind.

Three and a-half star rating.

Henceforward… runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 Fbruary with matinées on 23 and 25 February.

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The Red Shoes
reviewed in Norwich on 21 February

Seeing the Powell-Pressburger film The Red Shoes for the first time (for me that was in 1949) is, as the programme notes for this Matthew Bourne danced adaptation emphasise, something of a defining mark for anyone with an interest in ballet as well as the cinema.

Bourne keeps to the film story but adds some subtle hommage to the choreography of, among others, Fokine (Les Sylphides), Massine (Beach) and Cranko (The Lady and the Fool) in the episodes featuring the ecclectic repertoire of the déraciné company run so autocratically by Lermontov (Sam Archer).

There are nice humorous touches, notably when the soon to be supplanted prima ballerina Irina (Michela Meazza) and her posturing partner Ivan (Liam Mower) monopolise an over-worked and under-staffed stage crew in order to ensure that their follow-spots for Les Sylphides are becomingly bright and accurate.

Such characterisations are neatly pointed by all the dancers. It’s great fun picking up the in-jokes, such as the Wilson and Keppel sand dance and the music-hall girls’ abundance of slightly moulting feathers – but you lose nothing if you just take it as it unfolds.

Archer radiates the certainties of a man who has no time to waste on anything which isn’t for the good of his company and even more importantly, his vision for how it should be. So he recruits struggling composer Julius Craster (Dominic North) but reacts violently when Craster and his latest protegée Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw) fall in love.

Emotion is the enemy of art, Archer maintains; which was basically Diaghilev’s reaction to Nijinsky’s doomed marriage to Romola de Pulszky. The irony is, of course, that Lermontov is strongly attracted to Victoria. Glen Graham’s ballet-master and character dancer Grischa can foresee disaster looming; his tempter in the actual Red Shoes ballet sequence plays out both sides of the scenario.

There’s great fluidity as well as style in Bourne’s choeography, both in the ensemble dances and the mre formal pas de deux. The settings by Lez Brotherston take us effortlessly from front of stage to back-stage, from the luxury of Monte Carlo and a Mayfair salon to East End music-hall and garret lodgings – and swirl us in between through a surreal world which is neither realistic stage set nor pure abstraction.

This is a show where the lighting matters; Paule Constable achieves this superbly. The story is multi-layered and the choreography and visuals mirror this in perfect synchrony. The pre-recorded score has been arranged by Terry Davies from the film and concert music of Bernard Herrmann. It’s an evening whee a story and how it’s told balance perfectly.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Red Shoes is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 25 February with matinées on 23 an 25 February. The national tour continues until 22 July, including Curve, Leicester between 16 and 20 May.

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The Crucible
reviewed in Hornchurch on 20 February

What is arguably Arthur Miller’s best play – and certainly it is among his most popular – is a layered affair. Ostensibly a realistic drama about the notorious 1692 witch trials in Salem, it is a searing indictment of the 1950s McCarthy-led witch-hunt for potential Communist sympathises and, by extension, any similar houding under the guise of defence of a national interest.

Because it is now judged to be a lassic, productions veer from the straightforwardly realistic to the copletely deconstructed. Douglas Rintoul, abetted by his designer Anouk Schiltz, lighting designer Chris Davy and sound designer Adrienne Quartly, goes in for a variation of the Berliner Ensemble’s alienation effect. The setting is stark, the costumes are dust-bowl drab, the soundscape is almost cinematographic and we are never allowed to forget that we are watching actors on a stage set.

They can be seen preparing for their entrnces and, once off the scene, sitting at the sides waiting for their next cue. It’s all effective enough, but there’s a fine play with interesting dialogue and characters in wheom one can believe struggling to over-ride this staging. It’s not helped by the breakneck speed at which much of the early dialogue is taken and is not always completely audible.

The performances ar good, with Eoin Slattery making John Proctor into a fallible husband, well aware that his sexual lapse with Lucy Keirl’s flame-haired Abigail may well wreck not just his marriage with Elizabeth (Victoria Yeates) but the whole balance of his rual existence. Yeates suggests that John’s betrayal still rankles deep inside Elizabeth; not only does she also have the same red hair as Abigail, but perhaps the two women are more alike than either would care to acknowledge.

Augustina Seymour is a gentle Rebecca Nurse, albeit sporting the worst-fitting wig I’ve seen for a long time, and a suitably pliable Mary Waren. Charlie Condou suggests that the well-meaning Reverend Hale is never going to be a match for Cornelius Clarke’s ferocious Reverend Paris, let alone Jonathan Tafler’s Judge Danforth; both granite pillars of the overlapping establishments. David Delve, as Giles Corey – a man who prefers to beat out his own path – also offers a well-rounded characterisation.

If you’ve seen the play before, then you can very likely extricate its heart from the production. I am a good deal less sure whether someone unfamiliar with the text will succeed. Yes, witch-hunts of one sort or anoher are an unpalatable fact of life as much now as in the historic past and, regrettably, in the future. But – Miller’s message is surely one of hope; that good will eventaully triumph over evil. Rintoul, SellaDoor Productions and Les Théàtres de la Ville de Luxembourg suggest otherwise.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Crucible continues at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until 11 March with matinées on 23 February, 2, 9 and 11 March. The national and international tour continues to 18 June and includes the Mercury Theatre, Colchester 29 May-3 June.

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Gaslight
reviewed Cambridge Arts Theatre on 13 February

Torture is a chameleon. We think of it as mainly physical, but it can also be psychological, or these two facets can combine. Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight is what one would now define as a psychological thriller, with its story of three people all obsessed, though in very different ways.

The central character is young wife Bella Manningham (Kara Tointon), increasingly aware that her mother (who died lunatic in an asylum) may have left her a poisonous legacy. Her apparently concerned husband of seven years Jack (Rupert Young) has his own agenda, which may include his pert parlourmaid Nancy (Charlotte Blackledge).

Retired police sergeant Rough (Keith Allen) sees connexions to a horrific but unsolved murder several decades ago. He sees a chance to bring the case which still haunts him to its proper conclusion, but for that he needs a reliable ally.

Many of us will have seen this 1938 drama before, whether on stage (it was a repertory theatre favourite) or in one of its screen adaptations. The 2017 director has to allow his audience the chance to preen itself of seeing what is coming while maintaining the suspense and conveying theatrical conviction. In this Anthony Banks succeeds splendidly.

He’s assisted by David Woodhead’s box-set, cleverly lit by Howard Hudson, and by Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design, an eerie combination of the natural and the suggestively sinister. All the cast give committed performances with a many-nuanced and vocally inflected one by Tointon just having the edge on Allen’s apparently bluff policeman.

Blackledge’s Nancy is a study of a girl on the make, balanced by Helen Anderson’s portrait of the housekeeper Elizabeth. I think I would have liked Young to be just a trifle more the charming – as well as apparently concerned – husband in his early scenes with Tointon; it’s one nudge in the audience’s ribs too many.

If you’ve never sen Gaslight or have dismissed it as an old warhorse well passed it prime, then go to see this staging. It achieves balance – and that’s much rarer in the theatre these days than one might imagine.

Four and a half star rating

Gaslight continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 18 February with matinées on 15 and 18 February. The national tour continues until 18 March.

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Hysteria
reviewed at Chelmsford Civic on 7 February

Farce is the bright side of the tragic mask – and vice versa. Take Terry Johnson’s Hysteria, which postulates a meeting between the fathe of psychology Sigmund Freud and surreal painter and sculptor Salvador Dali. The one is Viennese old-school, formal – almost repressed, if that isn’t too much of a contradiction – coming to the end of his life with non-curable cancer, in exile, in Hampstead.

The other is as extrovert in his flamboyant lifestyle as on canvas or marble. He too is an exile, in just as many ways as Freud. Both try to shut out those aspects of the late 1930s which they knw they cannot ameliorate and which are therefore better left to simmer by themselves. But in farce, reality keeps on butting in; for Freud it is persnified by his doctor and friend Abraham Yahuda who sees all too clearly what Kristalinacht is heralding.

All good farces require doors to be locked or flung open at the author’s whim. There should also be a scantily-clad young woman and the development of a whole sequence of situations which the other characters always misunderstand. Enter Jessica, in search of a particular case notebook. The trouble for any director, here London Classic Theatre’s Michael Cabot, is that our perceptions of what are now historical characters and events have changed (I hesitate to say, matured) in the past 24 years.

There’s an excellent set by James Perkins and a real sense of ensemble playing (a prerequisite for farce) from the cast. Ged McKenna is sympathetic, as well as deliberately infuriating, as Freud while John Dorney gives a nuancedly over-the-top portrait of Dali, a many who is not alays sure that he is entirely comfortable in the persona he has created for himself.

Moray Treadwell’s Dr Yahuda comes over as a man who has made a place for himself in this strange country while being actively concerned with the fate of those less fortunate than he. Summer Strallen is a soft-voiced Jessica, which may suit the young woman’s quiet determination to achieve what she so desperately wants, however embarrassingthe situations into which that leads her. But it does put a strain on the audience’s attention, particularly in the first scene.

Three and a half-star rating

Hysteria is at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 8 Febryary and tours nationally until 20 May, including the Key Theatre, Peterborough (7-8 March) and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (18-20 May).

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Northanger Abbey
reviewed at Bury St Edmunds on 3 Feb

in 2017 a teenage girl might well be fixated on manufactured “celebrity” figures as defined by social media or the latest boy-band’s lead heartthrob. Just over two hundred years ago, her thrills came through Gothic romance novels, such as Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho – full of crumbling ruins, chained skeletons in dungeons, walled-up wailing nuns and savage robber barons.

Jane Austen, herself only 23 when she began Northanger Abbey, pokes delicate fun at the genre – which she herself enjoyed reading, though rather more cynically than her heroine Catherine Morland. This eldest daughter of a loving but financially straitened gentry family is taken to Bath by her rich neighbours Mr and Mrs Allen. There she encounters her brother James, his university friend John Thorpe (and his sister Isabella) and the two childen of irascible General Tilney, Eleanor and Henry.

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, itself a Georgian playhouse, has built quite a reputation for stage adaptations of Austen’s novels. Directed by Karen Simpson, this Tim Luscombe adaptation again uses a small cast within Dawn Allsopp’s minimal set, so that the action flows from Bath to Northanger, from curricle travel to hilltop picnics. The first half is even so perhaps just a little too drawn-out. Eva Feiler makes a delightful heroine, deliciously gullible as she weaves her fantasies and grasps at the next excitement on offer until brought back to reality with the proverbial bump.

Neither Thorpe is a particularly pleasant person. Annabelle Terry gives us all Isabella’s selfishness, wiggling out of her engagement to James (Joseph Tweedale) when she finds that he is not due to inherit much money as though she was shrugging off an outdated chemise. Joe Parker is the self-inflated, ego-stroking oafish John. True affection and calm reason by contrast are personified by Harry Livingstone’s Henry Tilney; his is the quiet voice and unobtrusive presence which will finally resolve all to a proper conclusion.

Jonathan Hansler’s martinet of an authoritarian father (one winces for the junior officers he once commanded) lingers almost gloatingly on Catherine’s surname when he thinks she is a potential heiress; “more land!” lies behind the emphasis. There’s a touch of his steel in Emma Ballentine’s Eleanor when she herself manages to marry the man she loves (opposition fades when her bridegroom inherits a title) and pulls rank to allow Catherine a share in the nuptuals. Hilary Tones contrasts Mrs Allen and Mrs Morland quietly but effectively.

Rather than a choreographer as such, the dancing and general Regency-era deportment are by Julia Cave. Rather than a near-balletic sequence of steps, hers are dancing as performed by ordinary people, some better at it than others – just as in real life. Matt Bugg’s score occasionally suggests an ill-tuned fortepiano, again a realistic touch, but softens into something which is completely tuneful but never obtrusive.

Four star rating.

Northanger Abbey runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 11 February with matinées on 8 and 11 February. The national tour continues until 13 May and includes the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 2 and 6 May.

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The Winter’s Tale
reviewed in Cambridge on 31 January

Three words sum up this latest touring production from Cheek by Jowl – stylised, intelligent and stylish. Declan Donnellan’s direction with its contrasts of almost frenetic action and oases of calm is matched by Nick Ormerod’s bleak setting of a forbidding hinged white crate and near-black modern costumes.

Only Orlando James’ Leontes in his early scenes and the pastoral merrymaking of the fourth act relieve the intensity of the gloom. Nothing in James’ portrayal of the play’s anti-hero lets us forget that we’re in Sicily; it’s as though the king himself is a near-eruption volcano, desperately trying to recapture his boyhood escapades with Edward Sayer’s Polixenes and his own young son Mamillius (Tom Cawte)

Meanwhile his a wife and courth has accepted that time passes and inexorably brings change with it. It’s a marvellously well-fleshed portrait of a man one cannot either love or admire, but one who is recognisable and understandable. The weight of the feminine side of the drama is borne by Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s Hermione and Joy Richardson’s authoritative yet pragmatic Paulina.

That is, until we meet Perdita, Leontes’ discarded daughter Eleanor McLoughlin), not to mention the sympathetic old shepherd who found and reared her (Peter Moreton) and the disguised prince Florizel (Sam Woolf) who woos her. Radmall-Quirke offers us the maternal side of the queen, which spills across from her son to her husband and, to a lesser extent, to his friend. Only when her honour and her life are threatned do we see the steel concealed under the weight of her burgeoning body and her sense of responsibility for those who surround her.

The lighting by Judith Greenwood is clever; the fifth act statue scene is particularly effective. Paddy Cunneen’s music alternates with a great deal of loud noise – although the verse is articulated with a proper sense of both the words themselves and the multiple meanings behind many of the phrases, I did sometimes wonder how much travelled back further than the front rows of the stalls. But that is, perhaps, to quibble about a staging which carries conviction from beginning to end.

Four and a half star rating.

The Winter’s Tale runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 4 February with a matinée on 4 February. it can also be seen at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 14 and 18 March.

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