Tag Archives: Red Rose Chain

The Importance of Being Earnest
reviewed Ipswich 24 March

Red Rose Chain’s spring production is a new one by artistic director Joanna Carrick of Oscar Wilde’s best-known comedy. Carrick has provided a framing induction(?) which involves the 1960s descendants of Wilde’s 1890s characters clearing out the old family country home – now too big and too expensive to maintain. Quite frankly, this adds nothing but an extra gloss of artificiality to the play proper, but I suppose such things are in fashion.

This is a theatre-in-the-round staging, which place a special load on the actors, especially when they’re required to engage directly with the audience. The design eam – Carrick, David Newborn, Jack Heydon and Leo George – circulate the prologue, the main play and the epilogue – around a couple of packing-cases, a chaise longue, a tea-trolley and a tin-toned upright piano.

Joanna Sawyer is the musical director and choreographer, and she keeps her cast on the move, notably in the case of Lawrence Russell’s whirlwind Jack (he also plays Chasuble and Frank in the framing scenes). Laurence Pears contrasts lankily as Algernon and a simpering Miss Prism. The men’s quick changes of costume, especially in scenes where both the characters they play are on-stage simultaneously, is a delight to watch.

Of the women, we first meet Sawyer as Frnk’s trendy fiancée, all Carnaby Street mini-skirt and high-boots – not to mention wielding an oversize demonstration banner with theories to match. Her Cecily has a similar sparkle, manipulating her young-girl flounced skirt to devasting effect as far as Algy is concerned. Leonie Spilsbury is the slightly repressed Eloise and the confident débutante Gwendolyn; one has a horrid feeling that she might indeed end up as her mother’s true daughter.

Butlers Merriman (a misnomer if ever there was one) and Lane are doubled by Antony Carrick. At the end, Lane’s nostalgia has something of the dying fall impact of Firs from The Cherry Orchard. Joanna Carrick’s Lady Bracknell tries too hard to make us “get the point”; by this stage in his career, Wilde knew precisely how to let a line work with its hearers, without over-pointing by the actor. Those bare arms for a society matron in daytime clothes also jar.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 9 April.

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Treasure Island

(reviewed at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich on 10 December)

Red Rose Chain likes to strike out on its own path for its Christmas show; this year it’s Joanna Carrick’s adaptation of the RL Stevenson adventure classic. Carrick’s script is faithful to the story, so her three-actor production might well be a trifle too violent and noisy for very young audience members.

We begin with Gideon (Ryan Penny), a hapless cleaner for a rehearsal space. Mandy (Claire Lloyd) soon puts him right. Considerable knockabout later, we’re into the story proper, as young Jim, the blustering Squire Trelawney and the pragmatic Dr Livesey set sail from Bristol in search of Captain Flinet’s treasure.

Of course, one of their major problems is that the seemingly helpful ship’s cook Long John Silver and his shipmates are on the same quest. Lloyd, Joel Macey and Penny swap roles and “improvise” locations at a bewildering rate, though much of the detail as well as the fast-moving narrative comes across clearly.

The ad-hoc elements of the design (steel drums, packing cases table-cloths for sails and so on) add to the illusion, as do Laura Norman’s sound effects and Jimmy Grimes’ puppets – Silver’s parrot is a particular audience favourite – but don’t get too close; he might bite!). David Newborn’s lighting adds considerable to the atmosphere, which is not an easy task given that the audience sits on three side of the acting area.

Treasure Island runs at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 2 January (check the theatre website (redrosechain.com) for performance times).

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

The Tempest

(reviewed at the Theatre in the Forest, Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead on 29 July)

“Ramshackle” and “shenanigans” are two words mentioned in the programme for Joanna Carrick’s production of The Tempest, this summer’s Shakespeare from the Red Rose Chain at the Theatre in the Forest.

They are apt, for the cast of five appear much more at home with the rough’n’tumble of the jester and the butler than with the poetry and multi-levels of treachery, betrayal and redemption which underpin the story of Prospero, his usurping brother and the equally disfunctional royal family of Naples.

So Edward Day – who plays Prospero and Sebastien, the Milanese dukes – comes to life as clown-masked and wigged Trinculo; Prospero’s great speeches somehow seem to take second place. Rachael McCormick doubles Miranda (a typically stroppy teenager) and the pedantic but honourable councillor Gonzalo. Lawrence Russell is a boyish Ferdinand, the crown-ambitious Antonio and a literally knockabout Stephano.

This is a play, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the spirit and the mortal worlds meld. Kirsty Thorpe’s Caliban not only provides some of the production’s most intelligent speaking but makes Alonso’s grief at the apparent loss of both his daughter (to marriage) and his son (presumed drowned) credible. Jack Parker is an Ariel with an underpinning of Puck as he seeks to earn his freedom.

Carrick’s production makes much use of water, quite a lot of which finds its way among the audience; if you prefer to remain dry, don’t book for the foremost block of seats stage right. David Newborn and Carrick have created a set in sea shades peopled with oil drums and overhung by an enormous sail.

Costumes for the shipwrecked contingent run variations on hot orange; island dwellers sport greens and more sea-blue. Laura Norman’s soundscape has live additions from the farm donkeys, beautifully on cue at “The isle is full of noises”. McCormick is also the choreographer.

The Tempest continues at the Theatre in the Forest until 28 August with matinées on 6, 13, 20 and 27 August.

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Richard III

(reviewed at the Avenu Theatre, Ipswich on 10 May)

The Red Rose Chain is an Ipswich-based company which likes to provide an unusual slant for its productions. Take the most recent example, Joanna Carrick’s version of Shakespeare’s Richard III. She has a cast of just four actors with Lawrence Russell taking the title role and all the other parts played by Edward Day, Rachael McCormick and Kirsty Thorpe.

Carrick and David Newborn have set it in the immediate post-World War II years. Russell is on stage almost throughout the action, initially listening to his crackling wireless, leafing through a newspaper and contemplating his pin-board studded with photographs of those who must manipulate or die to ensure his translation from Duke of Gloucester to the throne. Hunchbacked and stiff-legged, he is a sartorial mismatch of checks and stripes.

It’s a mesmerising performance, ablaze with cackles as he admires his own dexterity and invites us to share his glee. A Richard in the comic vein rather than one to strike shivers down the spine. Unless, that is, you’re one of his victims. Torpe is two of these – Lady Anne and the initially conniving Buckingham – giving two well contrasted portraits of recognisable human beings.

Edward IV’s widow Elizabeth and the ultimately avenging Richmond are both played by Day. His Elizabeth is properly commanding; the Act IV Scene IV wooing scene in which Richard, just after the murder of her sons, proposes to marry her daughter turns out to be one of the production’s high points. McCormick doesn’t make quite enough of Clarence’s dream in Act I Scene IV but rants to good effect as Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York.

Keeping the running time, including the interval, down to a little under two hours has meant the elimination of a number of characters, including Hastings, the Woodville clan and Lord Stanley (whose last-minute intervention at Bosworth sealed the historic Richard’s fate). This does make the story much easier to follow for non-historians. Whether the two interpolated songs by Leon Sheppard contribute much is more of a moot point.

Richard III runs at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 4 June with matinées on 14 and 21 May and 4 June.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(reviewed at the Theatre in the Forest, Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead on 28 July)

As most of the action of Shakespeare’s comedy takes place in a forest, this would seem to be a logical choice for the Red Rose Chain’s third woodland production. The setting, framed by mature trees which incorporate perfectly in to human and fairy adventures, is indeed an effective one – especially when darkness allows stage lighting to play its part.

The trouble is that Joanna Carrick’s production only really takes off towards the end, when the mechanicals’ proffered burgomasque turns into a brilliantly lit, burlesque of dance devised by Rachel McCormick as a kaleidoscope of styles, from ballet and Irish through to chorus-line slickness. It’s long time to wait, though.

We are all used to a certain amount of double-casting; usually this takes the form of Theseus and Hippolyta also playing their other-world avatars Oberon and Titania. Carrick goes one better by triple-casting almost all her eight actors. There’s an amusing logic to both the by-the-book Egeus and the maverick (not to say anarchic) Puck being played by Adam Wilson and the two men who both think their talents are not sufficiently appreciated – Demetrius and Bottom – by Daniel Booroff. Both give excellent performances.

Robeet Dowdeswell radiates authority as Theseus, a man comfortably aware of his natural right to command and Oberon, the fairy kingdom ruler who gets his own way in the end. Kirsty Thorpe gives warrior queen Hippolyta a slight foreign accent and then is pleasantly feminine as the distinctly hippy Titania. I grew weary of Eleanor Cotton-Soares monotonous shouting as Hermia, though Joanna Brown’s beanpole Helena has her moments – and seizes them wholeheartedly.

The court characters are dressed by Carrick and David Newborn in black and white, while the mechanicals, as well as providing what you might call the town band, are straight out of Dad’s Army in khaki greatcoats. Once we’re in Fairyland, that turns out to be flower-power territory, all caftans and funny stockings; Puck emerges from a petal-painted beat-up Reliant Robin to take the audience by storm.

For the play scene, we are treated to bathing costumes in bright scarlet, some outlandish props and an unfortunate apparent inability to see that the comedy comes mainly from its bunch of inept actors taking themselves absolutely seriously. As I said, Act Five is a long time to wait for a play to take fire. This one proves to be something of a damp squib, and that’s a pity.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at the Theatre in the Forest until 30 August.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Plays

Different Buttons
(reviewed at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich on 12 March)

The Red Rose Chain may not be a theatre company whose name immediately springs to your mind. Yet it’s well-established in Ipswich for its community work as well as for its professional productions. it has also run a highly successful sequence of outdoor theatre productions called the Theatre in the Forest which has now found a home, along with the rare breeds, at Jimmy (Doherty)’s Farm near Wherstead.

Based at the elegant Gippeswyk Hall, the Red Rose Chain has just opened its adjacent modern Avenue Theatre, a flexible performance space which accommodates some 100 spectators. Joanna Carricks’ Different Buttons is a piece for five actors inspired by the former St Clement’s Hospital (aka lunatic asylum) which opened in 1870 and closed in 2011. Carricks’ research has been aided by Gordon Morris who worked at St Clement’s for over 40 years.

In the play we meet characters from different periods of the asylum’s 140-year history, people whose afflictions are common to all eras, though their diagnosis and treatment have changed unrecognisably over that period. There are caring staff and violent as well as sad patients.

The wife of one businessman of the 1870s is hospitalised as insane, though we might nowadays conclude that she was suffering from post-natal depression. Sons and daughters who had just become too difficult to handle in a cramped environment or were behaving in a fashion likely to embarrass their families (such as an unmarried girl’s pregancy) were also consigned to an asylum, also as a matter of routine.

Ruth (Lucy Telleck) is a modern patient; given a self-assessment form, she completes it with increasing annoyance. Bobby (Daniel Abbott) lives in a regressive world of his own, with no real understanding from the father who visits so reluctantly. Herbert (David Newborn) lashes out at anyone who won’t pander to his delusions.

Though Nora (Rachael McCormick) has come to accept that she’s likely to be in the asylum for life, she manages to rebel just a little (the buttons of the title are the ones she deliberately mis-matches when repairing other inmates’ clothing, just as she uses white cotton for all visible seams). Pompous Zacharia is played by Tom McCarron , who also takes on doctors who try to help their patients and one of those sufferers.

The action flows across a central acting area with chairs at one end and a bed at the other. It makes for an interesting piece of documentary theatre, probably more effective for not being site-specific as I understand the first version had been. Stepping back is one of those theatrical paradoxes – it brings people closer, and therefore more sympathetic, to the action.

Different Buttons runs at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 28 March.

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