Category Archives: Plays

Things I Know To Be True

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 17 October

Plays usually depend on what is said and the actions natural to the dialogue. Frantic Assembly do things slightly differently. Words, yes, and intelligent, character-credible ones at that by Andrew Bovell – but also a species of physical version of onomatopoeia from co-directors Scott Graham and Geordie Brookman.

This takes the form of part-mime, part-dance where the three women in the story – mother Fran, elder daughter Pip and younger afterthought Rosie – are lifted and swirled around the stage by their menfolk, partly in control and partly passive. It all takes place on a stage with minimalist furnishings (Geoff Cobham).

Kirsty Oswald as Rosie opens the drama with a monologue explaining that her gap-year travels culminated in a romantic encounter in Berlin which has left her disillusioned and robbed.

Then we meet her over-protective parents, Fran (Cate Hamer) who works in a hospital and father Bob (John McArdle) who has retired from an assembly-line job and now tends his garden while worrying about his children.

Pip (Seline Hizli) has come to the end of her marriage. Ben (Arthur Wilson) is a salesman on the way up, and on the make. Mark (Matthew Barker) is uncomfortable in his skin, as he reveals to devastating effect on his family in the second act.

Bovell’s script is a realistic and adult one, which managed to lure a predominantly teenaged audience into complete involvement with his characters’ difficulties; perhaps there’s something of Pip, Rosie, Ben and Mark in most of us, however submerged.

It’s acted with immense conviction, which in turn communicates itself across the auditorium. So that Rosie’s painful experience of growing-up contrasts with Pip’s determination to grow into her own person, not just the roles of wife and mother.

Fran’s increasing desperation to keep her brood together and happy within her own context in turn holds the reverse side of the mirror to Bob’s ultimately futile attempts to protect his daughters and maintain his sons on what he sees as a normal, honest path. These make up the drama and its inherent heartbreak which we can all recognise.

Four and a half star rating.

Things I Know To Be True runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 21 October with matinées on 19 and 21 October.

 

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The Best Man

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 16 October

Politics are seldom a clean business wherever they are. Gore Vidal’s 1960 behind-the-scenes drama about an US Democratic Party convention to nominate a presidential candidate rings almost as many bells for a British audience in 2017 as it did for the American one when first staged.

Basically it’s a duel between the two main candidates, each with seconds as in the personal combat tradition. Both have display wives and devious behind-the-scenes manoeuvering campaign manager. There are also Party heavyweights, one a former President and the other a matriarch with her own power base, who are needed to endorse the front-runner – whichever he turns out to be.

Squeaky clean is the image to present to those all-important voters. Needless to say, a vast amount of energy is expended in digging up as much dirt to sling at the opposition and making it stick. Is Secretary of State William Russell subject to severe nervous breakdowns? How secure is his marriage? Does Senator Joseph Cantwell’s military past hold a story which would not merely damage but criminalise him?

Martin Shaw’s urbane Russell and his coolly elegant wife Alice (Glynis Barber) are the first couple we meet in their Philadelphia hotel suite (a design by Michael Taylor whose semi-transparent panels suggest that nothing a public figure says or does is ever completely private. His hit-man is Dick Jensen (Anthony Howell), a typical Washington (or Whitehall) apparatchik.

In contrast, Jeff Fahey’s Cantwell (a name which Sheridan would have relished) is a ramrod who still can relax in private with his blonde photo opportunity-seizing wife Mabel (Honeysuckle Weeks). the wives’  meet-the-Press scene shows Barber and Weeks as polar opposites and is very funny, particularly as is mediated by Gemma Jones’ grande dame Mrs Gamage.

Walking away with the acting prize is Jack Shepherd’s ex-President Hockstader, a man hiding a terminal disease who cannot be bamboozled into throwing his weight behind either candidate without good cause – and he has his own methods of ferreting out not just the truth but all its surroundings, past and present.

Evidence of a sort which might be Cantwell’s undoing is provided by David Tarkenter as Sheldon Marcus, a former Army officer now adrift in civilian life but determined to reveal what may – or may not – have happened in 1943. Jim Creighton’s Don Blades has to act quickly either to disprove the story or to suppress it.

Simon Evans’ direction keeps the action taut and also allows space for the characters to flourish as three-dimensional people through their speeches and other exchanges. We may be in the 1960s onstage, but the rumbles of that time are still around in our decade. And beyond it, almost certainly. Power is indeed a weapon.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Best Man continues at the Cambridge Arts theatre until 21 October with matinées on 19 and 21 October.

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Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick

reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford on 10 October

The Carry On... films and the team of actors involved with most of them in the 1960s and 70s have become embedded in the British consciousness. As with all such phenomena, myth has partly obscured fact – both for the films themselves and also for the actors.

Terry Johnson’s 1998 backstage comedy about three of the core performers and one other actress treads a fine line between impersonation and impression. The cast of this new Contexture Theatre production directed by Gailie Pollock for the most part manage this tightrope admirably, both in appearance and in sound.

As Kenneth Williams, Simon Kingsley manages the vocal and body mannerisms extremely well, having the audience on his side from the moment he steps into Sid James (Ray MacAllen)’s dilapidated former camper-van dressing-room – designed by Isobel Power Smith and giving stage management problems on the opening night.

His spiky yet underlying affectionate relationship with Chelsea Fitzgerald’s Barbara Windsor is delicately handled. Fitzgerald looks right and sounds right as the East End girl who knows which of her assets is marketable, even though she also knows that these are being exploited.

Her marriage with second-string gangster Ronnie Knight gives a twist to the plot when Eddie (Doug Shepherd), a sort of all-purpose hoodlum, intervenes. MacAllan’s Sid is another well-rounded portrait of a man who knows that time may well be running out for him without all he want – professionally, emotionally and sexually – ever remaining within his grasp.

Also involved are overworked dresser Sally (Hayley Thornton) and lissome actress Imogen Hassall Emma Denly), another performer whose aspirations were forced down a career path in which appearance mattered (as it still does) more than any dramatic talent. Both make you emphasise with their characters and their problems.

Four star rating.

Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick continues at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford until 15 October with matinées on 12, 14 and 15 October.

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Duet for One

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 9 October

“…that one talent which is death to hide lodged with me useless”. Milton was writing about his blindness, but his desperation is that of any creative or interpretive artist.

Since 1980, my own understanding, as well as that of most fellow critics and theatre- and film-goers understood that this play was based on cellist Jacqueline du Pré whose spectacular career was cut off when she developed multiple sclerosis in her mid-20s.

In a programme note for Robin Lefevre’s tour of his production for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, author Tom Kempinski denies that his violist protagonist Stephanie Abrahams is actually based on du Pré. Quite frankly, I’m not entirely convinced.

That is not to say that Lefevre’s excellent staging with its realistic set by Lez Brotherston cleverly lit by Ian Scott and with John Leonard’s never obtrusive use of sound isn’t effective. It is.

As Stephanie, Belinda Lang gives a superbly paced performance of a young woman in (quite natural) denial both of her early years and the bleakness of her present situation and lack of options for the future. On one level, this is indeed a duet for one person, her constant fiddling with hair and scarf mirroring her own insecurities.

Oliver Cotton’s Dr Feldmann provides much more than mere accompaniment and a soundboard as the psychiatrist she so unwillingly consults. Between them they people the stage with those who have affected Stephanie’s life.

These include the mother with her own frustrated musical ambitions who died young, the father intent on providing her with future security, the composer husband whose own ambitions don’t really include the care of an increasingly invalid wife.

On one level it’s a tragedy about wasted lives. But the two actors bring out the comedy in their exchanges and the ending is far more upbeat than I remember it from both the original production and subsequent revivals. As all good plays should do, this production leaves one thinking. And wondering.

Four and a half-star rating.

Duet for One continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 14 October with matinées on 12 and 14 October.

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Elton John’s Glasses

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 5 October

Obsessions damage people. Both the one obsessed and those with whom he or she comes into contact. David Farr’s savage comedy, revived in a new production by Psyche Stott  20 years after the Palace Theatre commissioned it, has as its central character Bill (Niall Costigan), a football fanatic.

More precisely, a Watford Football Club fanatic. His life revolves around the club’s catastrophic defeat in the 1984 Cup Final at Wembley – which he attributes to a mis-shot due to the sun glinting from John’s spectacles as he rose to his feet to encourage the team.

If you have minimal interest in football, as I do, then your interest in this play has to be in the interplay of the different characters to whom Farr introduces us.

First of all there’s Dan (Leon Williams), Bill’s younger brother who turns up after an absence of some years with the two other members of his unsuccessful group – taciturn bass guitarist Shaun (Thomas Richardson) and extremely short-sighted drummer Tim (Euan Kitson).

Amy, a teenage girl who just loves a kick around, is played by Leila Ayad. The other woman’s role is that of Julie (Joanna Croll) a middle-life wife and mother who drops in on Bill each Saturday for a couple of hours’ sex. The confrontation between Amy and Julie provides the half-time coup de foudre.

Designer Ruari Murchison has provided a stark set which throws the excellence of the performances into focus. Costigan and Kitson dominate in their two very different ways and there is overall a real sense of time and place. But it remains a somewhat detached experience for all that.

Three and a half-star rating.

Elton John’s Glasses runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 21 September with matinées on 5, 7, 11, 14, 16, 18 and 21 September.

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Anglian Mist

reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 30 September

People, and places, are not always what they seem. Take the National Trust nature reserve at Orford Ness. Nowadays it’s home to all manner of wildlife; from the First World War to the height of the Cold War, it harboured military research and latterly Anglo-American radar development.

Time, place and people form the fabric of Tim Lane and Cordelia Spence’s Anglian Mist, Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company’s autumn tour. On one level it’s a spy story, one in which nobody is ever quite what he or she appears to be. On another, it’s a study in corrosion, personal as well as physical.

We begin with one of those over-prepared academic lectures. Matthew Barnes is Valentine Scarrow who delivers it until he is interrupted by an elderly member of his audience. Adrienne Grant plays Anna Rees and the flashback sequences which follow take us through the past history of the three main characters from the 1970s onwards.

As well as Rees and Scasrrow, this story has a third man. That is Yevgeny Markovich, Russian born and English educated. The lives first of  Rees and Markovich, then of Scarrow, entwine, separate and to a large degree strangle themselves, like some noxious but nearly non-eradicable bindweed.

it’s very well acted, particularly by Grant and Turner, in Spence’s production which slow-motions the scenes of violence and interrogation to good effect. Molly Barrett and Julia Pascoe Hook are the designers with music and sound by Lane. It’s a story stripped down to its bare bones and the look of the production reflects this.

Four star rating.

Anglian Mist tours East Anglia until 25 November including performances at the Public Hall, Beccles (4 October), the Fisher Theatre, Bungay (5 November), the Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft (14 October), at the Hostry Festival, Norwich (24 October) and the West Acre Theatre (3 November).

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Deathtrap

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 27 September

Envy is a prime reason for murder, at least on the stage. What gives Ira Levin’s Deathtrap the edge over many other thrillers is the particular context – a successful playwright who has apparently lost his winning streak and an eager young dramatist to may just have discovered his.

This new Salisbury Playhouse production directed by Adam Penford has its audience in its grip from the opening clap of sound (Ben and Max Ringham) which is guaranteed to put us all in full listening mode.

Morgan Large’s set has its own surprises as well are faced by Paul Bradley’s deceptively teddy-bear Sidney Bruhl and his understandably spiky wife Myra (Jessie Wallace).

Fresh-faced Clifford Anderson is soon on the scene, happy to listen to advice, though not necessarily to embrace it. The other two characters are émigrée  mystic Helga ten Dorp, with whom Beverley Klein has a great deal of over-the-top fun, and stuck-in-a-rut lawyer Porter Melgrim (Julien Ball).

As Sidney remarks in his first lines, a new play with one set, two acts, five characters and a fresh plot cannot help but be a success. What Penford and his cast bring out is some sense of the creative process where the goal is somehow just a revision or elision away, but never yet quite there.

That sense of something somehow missing is what keeps an audience focussed in its own quest for the elusive.

Four and a half-star rating.

Deathtrap continues at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 30 September with matinées on 28 and 30 September. It can also be seen at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 30 October and 4 November.

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The Weir

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 14 September

History is a patchwork of remembrance and imagination. Oral history and storytelling are also both factual and dream-weaving. The strength of Conor McPherson’s play The Weir is that it balances the two strands into one dramatic reality.

We’re in a small bar by the side of an Irish lake, which in the past has had a weir constructed to make use of the water to create electricity. The bar is a home-from-home for Jack (Sean Murray) and Jim (John O’Dowd), local middle-aged bachelors – nice country girls don’t and men don’t marry the ones who do.

Their current subject of conversation is Valerie (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), the English woman who is renting a house from Finbar (Louis Dempsey). Finbar brings her into the br, hoping to profit by introducing her to some “local colour”, and the men oblige first with spooky tales and then with equally troubling reminiscences.

Valerie must be the first woman to break into this male enclave, Christmas celebrations excepted. Slowly they start treating her as a sort of honorary man, and she returns the compliment of their storytelling with that of her own real-life tragedy.

Sensitively directed by Adele Thomas, this collaborative production between the Mercury Theatre and English Touring Theatre benefits from a set by Madeleine Girling which combines realism with a sense of displacement. Richard Hammarton’s score and sound design adds to the atmosphere and the sense of both the power and the impermanence of water, as does the lighting by Lee Curran and Dara Hoban.

The performances measure up both as character studies and as people. Radmall-Quirke is excellent as the woman who slots into this strange earthly masculine yet faery world and Dempsey has the right sort of wallet-flashing brashness. Sam O’Mahony plays Brendan, the youngish bar owner, a man who has settled down with his alloted fate.

O’Dowd gives a sympathetic portrait of a quiet, largely unemployed man who needs to keep an eye on how he spends his pennies while Murray’s apparently outgoing and contented Jack reveals his own sense of might-have-been wrapped in a shroud of all-for-the-best.

it builds slowly – the bar habitués have basically only time to spend, so they spin that out in their familiar fashions. Valerie is the catalyst who releases those pasts – actual and mythological – with something of the force of lightning.

Five star rating.

The Weir continues at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 16 September with a matinée on 16 September. The national tour continues until 25 November and resumes in 2018 with performances at the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 6 and 10 March.

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The Ladykillers

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 13 September

It by no means detracts from the excellent performances by the animated cast members to say that the runaway star of Graham Linehan’s stage version of the Ealing Studios 1955 hit The Ladykillers is Foxton’s set.

This is the beautifully detailed exterior (we are still mired in postwar scarred buildings with make-do interiors) of Mrs Wilberforce’s house in the noisy shadow of St Pancras railway station, complete with working signals and billowing clouds of steam.

Mrs Wilberforce (Ann Penfold) and Constable Macdonald (Marcus Houden) are solving what she thinks is a refugee Nazi problem and he knows is simply the local newsagent who has a strong North Country accent. It isn’t the first time he has had to correct her imagination. Her next visitor, hoping to rent the room she has advertised to let, is Professor Marcus (Steven Elliott).

Swathed in a serpentine college scarf (which provides a running joke throughout the play) he is, of course, the mastermind behind a planned bullion heist. His brain may have worked it out to the last detail and split second, but that’s to discount his motley crew of accomplices.

They include Graham Seed’s Major Courtney, a self-proclaimed war hero with a penchant for women’s clothes; this is a cleverly nuanced performance which shows the pain behind the necessary pretense of thorough-going masculinity. Then there’s Cockney spiv and wideboy Harry (Sam Lupton), who’s not as bright as he thinks he is.

Brain-damaged former boxer One-Round is played by Damien Williams as everybody’s stooge while Louis Harvey is that thoroughly nasty piece of flick-knife violence Louis Harvey. Director Peter Rowe keeps the action fast-moving while lighting designer Alexandra Stafford and composer-sound designer Rebecca Applin make notable contributions.

This is a co-production between the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch and the Salisbury Playhouse. I suspect it will be just as enthusiastically received in the other venues as by the Ipswich audience. We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Five star rating.

The Ladykillers runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 30 September with matinées on 16, 19, 20, 23, 27 and 30 September. It transfers to the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch between 3 and 17 October.

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Private Lives

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 12 September

Coward’s Private Lives is a deceptively simple play to stage, as director Michael Cabot acknowledges in his programme notes for London Classic Theatre’s new production. His designer Frankie Bradshaw has provided two sets which emphasise this.

The characters are caught in a sort of no-man’s-land, poised between two world wars. Their society is no longer that of the Bright Young Things of the 20s but it still has its own rules and restrictions as well as the dual concept of male and female sexuality.

Amanda is the character who perhaps recognises this most clearly; a double divorce will isolate her in a fashion which neither of her husbands is likely to experience. Sybil is the eternal, cosseted ingénue who only at the end of the play perhaps – and it’s a big perhaps – has a glimmering that standing up for yourself needs to start at the first step into adult society rather than at the church door.

One might say that all this subtext is communicated in spite of some of the actors, not through them. Helen Keeley looks and acts Amanda to the last flick of an eyelash but she speaks Coward’s staccato dialogue with a machine-gun delivery which reduces much of it to the spoken equivalent of one of WS Gilbert’s patter songs – “this particularly rapid unintelligible patter isn’t generally heard …”

Her Elyot is Jack Hardwick, who has the well-tailored measure of his part, as does Kieran Buckeridge’s buttoned-up Victor as he tries to cope first with a wife who’s just not on his wavelength and then with Sybil at her own point of no return.

Olivia Beardsley’s pastel, marcel-waved portrait of this secondary female role has its strengths as well as its sillinesses. Rachael Holmes-Brown plays the maid Louise, making her into less of a caricature than some I have seen lately. But it would all be so much better if three acts hadn’t been crammed into two hours, including the interval, and the dialogue allowed to breathe.

 

Four star rating.

Private Lives is at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 16 September with matinées on 13 and 16 September as part of a national tour to 25 November including Harlow Playhouse (19-21 October, the Alban Arena, St Albans (24-25 October), the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford (26-28 October) and the Key Theatre, Peterborough (13-15 November).

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Shirley Valentine

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 5 September

Writing a play about women is one thing. Getting inside a woman’s psyche, mind and soul – her all-roundedness – is quite another. Willy Russell is one of the few playwright’s who accomplishes this feat, as the 2017 autumn touring revival of Shirley Valentine makes clear.

Jodie Prenger carries this story of the middle-aged housewife talking to herself and to a glass (or two) of wine while she prepares her husband’s evening meal. There have been few highlights in her marriage, and these are more likely to revolve around her children and the other women in her circle than her husband.

So she seizes the opportunity offered by her friend Grce to share a two-weeks Greek holiday – and to hell with responsibilities. Director Glen Walford, who commissioned the first production of the play, knows it inside out and has brought a woman’s intuition to its realisation.

Amy Yardley’s largely representational first-act set is tansformed into the cerulean skies and sea of a Greek island with dark rocks and crags. They suggest the headless remains of giant maternal goddess statues, all welcoming lap and enfolding embrace.

Prenger herself merits her standing ovation at the curtain-call. Shirley’s repressed personality bubbles over as she comes to her holiday-trip decision and finds its price-paid acceptance when she is finally in a place she can feel is a real home, not just someone else’s stomping ground.

My one niggle is that, for those audience members unaccustomed to the Merseyside area accent, not all the first-act dialogue is easy to follow – you miss the punch lines trying to work out wht was said in the preceding sentence. There were times when I yearned for surtitles…

Four and a half-star rating.

Shirley Valentine runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 9 September with matinées on 7 and 9 September.

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A Fox on the Fairway

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 29 August

Ken Ludwig’s programme note for the UK première of his A Fox on the Fairway contains a pointed reminder to critics in its audience that farce is a matter of joy, of catharsis through laughter. It is a specific theatrical genre and has to be accepted on its own terms.

The production by Philip Wilson should, when it has fully settled in, be seen in this context. The best farce stagings give a sense of effortless ensemble work, and this hasn’t yet quite jelled – though you can’t fault the timing of the proliferating sequences of entrance and exit through swing  and terrace doors.

We are in a golf clubhouse with a well-detailed set by Colin Falconer which transform smoothly into the course itself for the final scene, which culminates in a sort of Morris dance with golf-clubs choreographed by Sally Beck Wippman. The story concerns the rivalry between a visiting team and the resident one which comes to its head with a tournament.

There’s a pair of young lovers – Louise Hindbedder (Ottilie Mackintosh) and Justin Hicks (Romayne Andrews), both club employees but with hidden fairway talents. Henry Bingham (Damien Matthews) is the harassed Quail Valley club manager with Simon Lloyd as his more-than-brash opposite number Richard “Dickie” Bell.

Also involved in the romantic and sporting confusions are divorcée Pamela Peabody (Natalie Walter) and Henry’s battle-axe of a wife Muriel (Sarah Quist), a lady who packs a mean punch. With the possible exception of “Dickie” with his repertoire of gaudy sweaters and trousers, the audience finds itself firmly rooting for the well-acted characters to find happy solutions to their problems.

Which is just what happens. of course it does. It’s great fun while it lasts – even if you don’t begin to understand the finer nuances of the game.

Four and a half-star rating.

A Fox on the Fairway runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 16 September with matinées on 31 August and 9 September.

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The Man Upstairs

reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 26 August

A Patrick Hamilton psychological thriller is always good value; the twists and turns of the plot – given good direction and acting – make it something more than just a couple of hours’ theatrical entertainment. The Man Upstairs doesn’t disappoint.

It’s the final new production in the 2017 Suffolk Summer Theatres season and is directed by Phil Clark who balances the interleaved tension and comedic moments well. Tori Cobb’s set evokes the 1954 setting admirably and Miri Birch’s costumes are properly in period.

Quiet, reclusive bachelor George Longford (James Morley) plans an evening with his beloved books as his sole company. His flat is part of a house owned by Sir Charles Waterbury (Michael Shaw) who has rigged up an ingenious communication system between their two living spaces.

That quiet evening is interrupted dramatically. First on the scene is Darrell Brockis as Cyrus Armstrong, a gimlet-eyed ex-commando on the warpath in connexion with his sister’s virtue (or lack of it). Then his mother (Barbara Horne) intervenes, then Cyrus’ brother Henry and finally the wronged maiden Brenda (Naomi Evans).

And that title? it’s a word-play of course, with Sir Charles as one of its facets. Both Morley and Horne are excellent, playing off each other during their long exchanges while we in the audience concentrate on evaluating their characters. Brockis does tend to dominate, but villains always have the best lines…

Four star rating.

The Man Upstairs runs at the Southwold Arts Centre until 9 September with matinées on 31 August, 5 and 9 September.

 

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The Prisoner of Zenda

reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 7 August

Anthony Hope added a new word to the English language in  1894 – Ruritania – with The Prisoner of Zenda. The romantic adventure novel  was quickly adapted for the stage by Edward Rose (cast of thousands) and has been filmed countless times (likewise).

Mark Sterling’s version keeps the multiple settings, from palace and cathedral to forest hunting-lodge and gloomy castle dungeon but manages it all with a cast of seven. Tory Cobb has thrown in one of Suffolk Summer Theatre’s specialities (a train sequence) for good measure. Miri Birch’s costumes work better for the women than for the men.

The story concerns the disputed monarchy of one of those turbulent Balkan states sandwiched between two fading but still powerful empires – the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman – fiercely independent, proud of its traditions but wary of its neighbours. The about-to-be-crowned king is Rudolf V; his envious illegitimate half-brother Michael wants to take his place.

A proposed marriage between Rudolf and his cousin Flavia (who herself has a claim to the throne) is a further complication, as is Michael’s mistress Antoinette du Maubin. Then there’s Rudolf’s double, a folk-melody enthusiast from England, Rudolf Rassendyll. Not to mention Michael’s dashingly sinister wheeler-dealer factotum Rupert of Hentzau.

That hard-working cast take it all as seriously as it should do. Joe Leat’s double of the wine-addicted king and the English gentleman who takes his place at the behest of loyal Colonel Sapt and Fritz von Tarlenheim is very well contrasted, the one all sodden self-pity and the other reluctantly dashing.

Rick Savery is suitably sinister as Michael, though Saul Boyer didn’t (for me on the opening night) quite strike the right note for a man who takes such pleasure and pride in manipulating others. Clive Flint’s Sapt and Tom Slatter’s Fritz are stalwart in their military attempts to keep the monarchy in place, whatever their personal feelings about the incumbant.

In this version,  Amy Christina Murray as Princess Flavia has more to do than just be the decorative object of Rassendyll’s self-sacrificing love, an updating which works in the context. Sarah Ogley’s Antoinette is also more than her dark mirror image. Richard Blaine stages an excellent couple of sword fights, though the costume department could surely have provided sheathes for them when not in use.

Noisy scene changes will presumably quieten down and be slicker (too many glimpses of the people effecting them on the opening night) as the run and its transfers progress. One query – in the last meeting between restored king and his English saviour, why does Rasendyll have dark hair when he and the king have been much lighter throughout?

Four star rating.

The Prisoner of Zenda runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 12 August with matinées on 10 and 12 August. It transfers to the Southwold Arts Centre between 15 and 26 August and can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from 6 to 9 September.

 

 

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Tom, Dick and Harry

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 1 August

Twelve years ago, attitudes were – if not more generous – less chauvinistically entrenched than today. Tom, Dick and Harry, co-written by master farceur Ray Cooney and his son Michael, has the attitudes to migration from conflicted European and Mediterranean countries, adoption and to the disposal of body-parts after research of that time, not of ours.

Director David Janson has wisely kept the farce to the period of its original production. The situation set up at the beginning is simple. Linda (Rosanna Miles) and Tom (Darrell Brockis) are expecting a visit from an adoption agency which will determine that their home will be a suitable environment and that they will be responsible parents.

Tom’s basic problem is dual-faceted. He and Linda are short of the cash needed to buy their rented house outright and he has one of hs layabout brothers Dick (Rikki Lawton) “renting” the top of the house. The third sibling Harry (Bob Dobson) just about holds down a job as a porter at a teaching hospital while inventing pie-in-the-sky schemes for getting rich.

Having borrowed Dick’s van for a cross-channel “booze cruise”, Dick has returned not just with contraband amounts of brandy and cigarettes but also a brace of stowaway Kosovan refugees – Katerina (Melissa Clements) and her grandfather Andreas (James Morley). All of whom, together with some purloined human remains, are littering up the house.

Mrs Potter (Claire Jeater) from the adoption agency is due any minute now. You can guess the rest, even up to the intervention of the local PC (Michael Shaw) and the intrusion of the people-smuggling capo Boris (Richard Blaine). It’s all fast and furious with the brotherly trio earning applause when miming attempts to communicate with the non-English speaking Kosovans.

Tory Cobb has kept the setting simple, with the all-important doors – you can’t have a farce without them and they keep stage management busy – and a flight of stairs behind a simple(?) sofa and armchair. Jeater has a nice line in pursed-lip affrontedness and Morley thoroughly revels in Andreas’ trumpet-playing and weakness for the bottle. But the evening belongs to Tom, Dick and Harry.

Four star rating.

Tom, Dick and Harry runs at the Southwold Arts Centre until 12 August with matinées on 3, 5, 10 and 12 August. It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 14 and 19 August with matinées on 17 and 19 August.

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The Railway Childen

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 31 July

How do you stage a family classic novel by E Nesbit which has already been filmed both for television and cinema many times? Particularly when the show on question is a touring one and the story involves trains and railway tunnels – not to mention London and remote country locations.

If you’re Paul Jepson, Exeter’s Northcott Theatre director, you call in a designer who knows how to combine realistic stage settings with clever projections – Timothy Bird in this instance – and let Dave Simpson’s script find its own space in this turn of the 19th into 20th century story.

It works excellently, thanks to some strong performances delivered with just the right sort of conviction to make 21st century children and teenagers accept the manners and conventions of more than 100 years ago.

Millie’s Turner as Roberta (known as Bobbie) and Joy Brook as her mother, coping with her husband’s mysterious arrest, a total loss of London-based income and the necessity of living as cheaply and low-profile as possible in the countryside, are both thoroughly credible, as is Katherine Carlton has sister Phyllis. Turner is particularly good as showing a teenager on the cusp of womanhood and learning to cope with unexpected responsibilities.

As the old gentleman who acts as a kind of deus ex machina to the family, Neil Savage gives an object lesson in how to make every line tell, with the aid of miking. Younger actors, please take note. Stewart Wright as station-master Perks, Will Richards and Andrew Joshi give stalwart support. The backdrops are well-lit by Dominic Jeffrey and the train and tunnel sequences make their own applause-worthy impact.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Railway Children runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 5 August with matinées on 2 and 5 August. it can also be seen at the Derngate Theatre, Northampton between 19 and 24 September.

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Emma

reviewed at the Empire Theatre, Halstead on 22 July

Jane Austen’s novels are multi-faceted gems and not always as simple to bring to the stage as the surface story-line might initially suggest. DOT Productions, with outdoor venues as well as small theatres and arts centres to consider, have however taken a sledge-hammer approach to Emma. It doesn’t really work.

Yes, Emma is a comedy, a comedy of misunderstandings as well as of manners and delicate social nuances. What it is not is a knockabout farce, which is how Michelle Shortland’s production and Non Vaughan-Thomas’ script presents it. The idea of having Serle, the Woodhouses’ housekeeper, as narrator is a good one, but Vaughan-Thomas plays her as a cross between a doddery old retainer and a feather-duster waving maid.

The caricature of Robert Martin further muddies the balance. I know that Emma describes him as “clownish” in the novel, but this is surely meant as a description of an ordinary country-man, not a straw-chewing half-wit (even though she’s trying hard to put Harriet Smith against him as a potential suitor). Frank Churchill is a selfish young man, happy to twist situations for his own amusement, but he’s not a pop-star poseur.

As far as the (mainly doubled-up) performances are concerned, Clara Power makes an attractive Emma and Andrew Lindfield manages to play Mr Knightley straight, which is more than you can say for his Martin or Churchill. Sarita Plowman simpers her way through Harriet and Jane Fairfax; the former is surely naïve but mannerly and the latter cultured, accomplished and elegant – which is why Emma’s attitude to her is so spiky and brittle.

Leigh Stevenson is the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse, the self-esteeming Mr Elton and his matching bride of arrogance and vulgarity, Augusta. Some of the staging is clever – the fireplace reversing to become a carriage, the use of empty picture-frames and the like – but the overall impression, not helped by much of the costuming, remains that of a picture slap-dashed by a decorator’s roller rather than a miniaturist’s fine sable brush.

Three star rating.

Emma tours mainly in East Anglia but also to  Isleworth, Enfield, Abingdon,Brighton, London and Eastbourne until 27 September.

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Murder Weapon

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 20 July

A weapon is usually something concrete. It can also be animal. Brain Clemens’ last thriller plays on this, with the story of a Paul (Clive Flint) found shot by his wife Diane (Amy Christina Murray) and her friend Jessica Bligh (Sarah Ogley), the county’s chief constable, as they return after a concert.

Under arrest is Charlie Mirren (Tom Slatter), found at the scene of the crime with a gun in his hand. An open-and-shut case, thinks Inspector Fremont (Rick Savery), especially as Mirren has recently been released from prison following conviction for the murder of his wife and children. No so, maintains Bligh, as she forces her colleague to re-evaluate the whole sequence of events and the people connected to them.

For instance, there’s psychiatrist Hugo (Joe Leat) who quickly establishes a rapport with Charlie on a scheduled visit to his consulting-rooms. The gun is obviously important, but what precisely was the context in which it was fired? The tension builds nicely in Andy Powrie’s production with the professional duel between Ogley and Savery well nuanced.

The set by Tory Cobb, brown with stained-glass window details, plays an important part in the action. Slatter’s portrait of a man struggling with his and his family’s past as well as his need for emotional support in his uncertain present and future is excellent. Leat has just the right combination of professional and personal arrogance.

Murray does suffer from the current fashion to whisper rather than enunciate. Modern theatre training and television have a lot to answer for in that respect Even small theatres when filled with an audience have a different acoustic to the same auditorium under rehearsal conditions.

Three and a half-star rating.

Murder Weapon runs at the Southwold Arts Centre as part of the Suffolk Summer Theatres season until 29 July with matinées on 20, 22, 27 and 29 July. It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 1 and 5 August.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 18 July

Mark Haddon’s book about a teenage boy with Asperger Syndrome has been adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens. The National Theatre production by Marianne Elliott is currently on the second leg of its UK tour. Elliott may be the director, but Bunny Christie’s graph-paper design concentrated on a cube, Paule Constable’s complex lighting plot and Finn Ross’ video certainly don’t take second billing.

It’s not a comfortable story. Christopher Boone (Scott Reid), caught in a neighbour’s garden with the pitchforked body of her dog, is a central character with whom at first we struggle to find any degree of empathy, just as his parents and those around him do. If you’ve ever had anything to do with a friend or family member with autism, you will find yourself in familiar territory.

Reid’s portrait of a brilliant, logical and gifted mathematical youth trapped in a world whose lack of sequential reasoning seems so incomprehensible to him is a searing one. Siobhan (Lucianne McEvoy), one of his teachers,  comes closest to understanding his wavelength; McEvoy’s study of a woman who tries to comprehend – and to accept – is equally fine.

The other three main characters are Mrs Alexander (Debra Michaels), an elderly neighbour  who doesn’t condemn Chris out-of-hand, his uncomprehending father Ed (David Michaels) and Judy (Emma Beattie), the mother he was told had died but in fact who left her husband for a lover, Roger Shears. There is also a large ensemble.

Movement is an important part of this hypnotic production. Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett use the players in angular, often formal, groupings which echo Chris’ inner turmoil. This is a staging where what we hear – spoken dialogue apart – chimes in with the movement; Adrian Sutton’s score and Ian Dickinson’s sound design provides this. It’s akin to the incidental music familiar from films and, increasingly, television drams and documentaries.

What matters in the end is that it’s Christopher’s story, seen largely through his eyes and filtered through his off-kilter mental processes. Stand ing ovations are becoming a bit of a curtain-call cliché these days. The one for Reid (and, by inference, for the whole staging concept) was thoroughly merited.

Five star rating.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 22 July with matinées on 19 and 22 July.

 

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Jane Eyre

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 17 July

You can’t keep a good story down, especially when it’s Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This version, now on a national tour, is a co-production between the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre, devised by the company but with a firm directorial hand provided by Sally Cookson.

Jane’s progress from a stroppy child, taken in unwillingly by her dead mother’s family and eagerly dumped into the unhealthy surroundings of Lowood School, to an independent woman who makes her own life through being true to her individual values is in any case a gripping story. It’s taken at a considerable pace.

Designers Michael Vale (set), Katie Sykes (costumes) and Aideen Malone (lighting) present us with a platformed set and a number of ladders. Ten actors play all the parts, as well as acting as a sort of Greek chorus, articulating Jane’s thoughts an fears. Nadia Clifford is a feisty Jane, crinkle-haired with eyes which glare as readily as they glance.

Melanie Marshall, clad in blood-red and with a fantastic vocal range plays Bertha Mason and provides a musical commentary spanning everything from Negro melody to Coward. The incidental music – there’s a lot of it and it sometimes drowns the dialogue – is by Benji Bower.

It’s always difficult to warm to any of the men who litter Jane’s path to self-knowledge. Paul Mundell has a well-contrasted double as authoritarian schoolmaster Brocklehurst and tail-wagging dog Pilot. Tim Delap’s Rochester is more of a typical North Country squire of the early 19th century than a much-travelled cosmopolitan.

Evelyn Miller, in a bit of gender-blind casting, is fervent missionary St John Rivers. She also plays Bessie, the one servant who takes Jane’s side in the Reed household. Hannah Bristow is consumptive Helen Burns and Rochester’s pert French ward Adèle while Lynda Rooke contrasts aunt Mrs Reed and housekeeper Mrs Fairfax.

Four and a half-star rating.

Jane Eyre runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 22 July with matinées on 19 and 22 July.

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