Category Archives: Plays

The Importance of Being Earnest

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 9 April

Wilde’s most popular comedy went through several changes before its 1895 première. The principal one was compressing four into three acts, though two characters seem also to have been eliminated – a gardener called Moulton and another person called Grimsby.

Moulton has re-emerged in Alastair Whatley’s production for the Original Theatre Company, but here as a parlour-maid, a non-speaking rôle for Judith Rae, who seems to be employed both by Thomas Howe’s Algernon Moncrieff and Peter Sandys-Clarke’s Jack Worthing.

Designer Gabrielle Slade has conjured a fretwork set of art nouveau curves against which the costume palette uses mainly browns and an eye-catching turquoise. Howes sports two outfits, which I’m afraid put me in mind of Mr Toad, in green. Neither man seems to possess formal town clothes for the Act One tea-party.

Comedy, even farce – which this is not for all its cascades of wisecracks and ludicrous situations – needs a featherweight touch if we are really to feel inside the joke and not just experiencing it at a remove. Everyone on stage comes over as trying just a bit too hard.

Hannah Louise Howell’s Gwendolyn is the most sophisticated of débutantes; her expressions as she follows her mother’s exchanges with Algy and Jack are an object lesson in reaction. Louise Coulthard’s Cecily suggests just the right amount of steel to dilute her apparent wholesome winsomeness.

Playing Miss Prism as a flask-swigging gorgon does Susan Penhaligon no favours while Simon Shackleton’s doubling of Lane and Merriman fails to differentiate between the two trusted retainers. Geoff Aymer’s Canon Chasuble doesn’t really fit comfortably into the second and third acts.

It’s only fair that most of the audience seemed to love it, laughing heartily at Algy’s insatiable appetite and Jack’s increasingly frantic to keep control of his rickety raft of contradictory situations. Gwen Taylor’s swoops to the forefront as Lady Bracknell, one with rather more of a sense of humour than is sometimes allowed, and the ability not to stumble over the “handbag” tripwire.

Three and a half-star rating.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 14 April with matinées on  12 and 14 April.

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Quartet

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 3 April

“If only youth knew, if only age could…” It’s as true in 2018 as 500 years ago. In many ways it sums up Peter Rowe’s touring production of Ronald Harwood’s “Quartet”, the story of four once-famous opera singers living their last years (until shunted off into specialist care) in a retirement home for retired musicians.

Three are reasonably long-term residents. Reginald Paget (Jeff Rawle) is an embittered tenor, who once itched to sing Wagner but whose career confined him to the 19th century Italian repertoire. Baritone Wilfred Bond (Paul Nicholas had been viewed as a plausible successor-rival to Gobbi.

Mezzo-soprano Cecily Robson – “Cissie” – played by Wendi Peters teeters on the brink of Alzheimer’s, much to the concern of the two men who recognise that their NSP motto (no self-pity) cannot stretch to the home’s requirement that residents must basically be able to lead independent lives.

They squabble, Bond fantasises about sexual adventures past but not present or future and look forward to the performance all are required to give on 10 October to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. Then new resident Jean Horton (Sue Holderness) arrives. She was a much-lauded soprano who quit at what seemed to be the height of her powers – and fame.

Rowe’s direction paints all this with a broad brush which at times has the peculiar effect of distancing the four characters from our understanding, and so our sympathies. Rawle’s real pain at now being forced to rub shoulders on a daily basis with his ex-wife does come over clearly but some of the humour still seems forced rather than natural.

Peters dodders amusingly enough as Cissie while Holderness radiates the crumbling arrogance of the diva clinging onto past glories. Nicholas is successful in showing us a performer able to step occasionally outside the personality he once inhabited to accept the realities of what is now and (inevitably) will have to be.

There’s an excellent set by Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick-Smith which gives the impression that the comforts afforded by the home are superficial rather than actual. The costumes donned by the quartet for the Verdi have an air of something salvaged from one of those cash-strapped touring companies I remember from the 1950s.

Broad brush-strokes may account for the awkwardness of the karaoke-style performance of the Rigoletto quartet with which the play ends. I don’t recall audience titters from either the 1999 London première or the 2010 tour which in Rowe’s production swamp the actual music. But memory is a fallible thing, especially as one grows older.

Four star rating.

Quartet runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre as part of a national tour until 7 April with matinées on 5 and 7 April.

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Our Country’s Good

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 30 March

Ramps on the Moon is a collaboration between six national producing theatres and the Graeae Theatre Company, which is a pioneering company for disabled artists. Both Graeae and the New Wolsey Theatre have been forerunners in this movement for a number of years.

The latest touring production is of Our Country’s Good, the play by Timberlake Wertenbaker which she based on Thomas Keneally’s novel about the 18th century convict deportation settlement in Australia The Playmaker. It concerns a young officer’s staging of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer with a cast made up from the pickpockets, thieves and drabs.

If the convicts at first seem without hope, the Marines and soldiers who guard them have also found themselves beached up in an inhospitable terrain. Animosities on both sides flare as we watch Lieutenant Clark (Tim Pritchett) try to weld his cast into cohesion, and fall in love while doing so.

Director Fiona Buffini has integrated sign language and surtitles with the action to mirror the dialogue. It makes for a busy production, rather too much so when one is aware of three screens with the dialogue as well as constant signing by nearly all the cast and, of course, the actual spoken words and naturalistic action.

This multi-tasking on the part of the audience as well as the cast makes concentration difficult at times. There are some excellent performances, notably as guilt-haunted Harry Brewer by Garry Robson and Fergus Rattigan as the hangman Freeman, nicknamed “Ketch”.

Kieron Jecchinis is Arthur Phillip, the Governor whose vision includes redemption as well as punishment, an attitude which Colin Connor’s Major Ross finds both alien and misguided. Fifi Garfield plays Dabby, the oldest of the convict women while Emily Rose Salter’s Duckling, the girl acquired by Brewer, is also effective.

Mary Brenham is the young woman Clark casts as the play-within-a-play’s heroine Silvia and to whom he becomes attracted and Sapphire Joy suggests all her fragility as well as willingness to learn. Gbemisola Ikumelo’s Liz Morden is loud-mouthed and pugnacious, always ready to make a point with actions rather than words.

The set by Neil Murray, largely decking planks backed by the bushes and shrubs which  those early settlers must have found so strange, works well and allows for quick scene changes. Jon Nicholls’ soundtrack suggests the eerie noises of the outback and the sea so barrenly licking at the sandy shoreline.

Three and a half-star rating.

Our Country’s Good runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 7 April with matinées on 4 and 7 April.

 

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The Winslow Boy

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 26 March

Acting, preaching and speaking in Parliament or a court of law all require charismatic practitioners if they are to have their intended effect. Rachel Kavanaugh’s production of The Winslow Boy makes this point very clearly, reinforced by Michael Taylor’s deceptively realistic set.

Rattigan based his play on an actual event, the theft of a five-shilling postal order by a teenage Osborne naval cadet and his expulsion as a result. The drama centres on the aftermath, as Ronnie’s family is (more or less) prepared to sacrifice all the comforts and status of its Edwardian life to clear his name.

Most productions make the barrister who accepts the Winslow brief as the dominant character. Timothy Watson’s Robert Morton certainly commands from his first entrance and crucial examination of Ronnie, but Aden Gillett’s Arthur, the irascible and increasingly physically incapacitated father, challenges him for the pre-eminence.

Both portraits are fully fleshed, allowing us to see the vulnerabilities as well as the strengths of each man. It’s fine acting, but it does put Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Catherine, the suffragette daughter who sees that her stance must automatically negate her engagement to an Army lieutenant, into perhaps a more subordinate category than Rattigan may have intended.

Other rôles are nicely characterised, though the excellent actor Geff Francis is miscast as the lawyer Desmond Curry. Misha Butler as the younger son facing what could be the ruin of his future and Theo Bamber as the student brother whose enjoyment of Oxford’s social life is scuppering his chances of graduating suggest that they are two sides of a family coin.

Tessa Peake-Jones is suitably warm as Grace Winslow with Soo Drouet’s Violet as cuddly if stereotyped as servants almost always are in the well-made plays of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Alistair David has devised some authentic-looking dances to evoke the early jazz-age. I do think though that Taylor could have found something just a little more dashing for Catherine’s much-lauded hat.

Four star rating.

The Winslow Boy continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 31 March with matinées on 29 and 31 March.

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Guesthouse

reviewed at the Assembly Rooms, Dedham on 16 March

There’s a very interesting play embedded in the current version of Nicola Werenowska’s Guesthouse. It will take some further excavation, and the use of a very sharp scalpel, to disinter it.

East Anglia’s seaside towns are among those in the coastal areas of England affected by holiday-habit changes. Many find themselves unable to compensate economically with alternative employment and development prospects.

The guesthouse of the title is in Clacton. It’s owned by Val (Amanda Bellamy), who ran it in the town’s heyday with her late husband. Now she is recovering from a fall and wants to sell the house.

Her needy daughter Lisa (Clare Humphrey) – who has made quite a mess of her life so far – and Lisa’s daughter Chloe (Eleanor Jackson) – who has been brought up by her grandmother and is equally demanding in a different way – see the logic but aren’t prepared to act on it.

Tony Casement’s production drags out the first act, the one which is most in need of that scalpel, within a simplified domestic setting by Anna Kelsey. Chris Howcraft’s projections take us outside and into the past as well as the present but don’t quite make their intended effect.

You can sympathise with Val, who has done her best to swim with her personal tides of change. Bellamy delivers her soliloquies to engage the audience with the character’s history.

Lisa is a different matter. She’s not quite done with the past, as Humphrey makes clear, but has no stamina for the present, let along the future. Jackson’s Chloe is a spiky sort of young woman; she’s a possible survivor albeit a damaged one.

Touring any play to the variety of venues lined by for this spring Eastern Angles production presents its own set of problems. Audiences in one place may not – unless they find the characters and situations particularly engrossing –really enter into the playwright’s vision.

In its present form Guesthouse seems both a dramatised documentary and a family saga. The two strands may yet come properly together, but the scalpel needs to come into play before they knit together as they should.

Three and a half-star rating.

Guesthouse tours until 26 May. Venues include Southwold Arts Centre (22 March), the Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft (23 March), Rattlesden Pavilion (24 March), West Cliff Theatre, Clacton (27 March), St George’s Theatre, Great Yarmouth (6 April), Haverhill Arts Centre (10 April), Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford (17 April), Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh (20 April), Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (23-28 April), the Little Theatre, Sheringham (2 May), Diss Corn Hall (3 May), The Place, Bedford (9 May), Woodbridge Community Hall (16-17 May), The Undercroft, Peterborough (24 May) and The Cut, Halesworth (25 May).

 

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This House

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 13 March

How is it done? That’s an intriguing question for most people, whether the subject is cookery or politics, plays or cookery. James Graham’s play is based on and in the House of Commons between 1974 and 1979.

It shows us in fictionalised form what happens when Governments with small or no absolute majorities have leaders who fail to keep tight control of the slippery and fluid situations.

We hear about these Prime Ministers (actual or ambitiously waiting) but we are watching the backroom-boys (and occasional girl) of the Whips’ offices as they manipulate Members to achieve those all-important knife-edge majority votes.

Jeremy Herrin and Jonathan O’Boyle’s production emphasises the bear-garden aspect and associated callousness which underpin contentious votes. Acting as chorus is the Speaker (Miles Richardson in Act One, Orlando Wells in Act Two).

Designer Rae Smith uses various on-stage levels as well as the auditorium to draw us into the action. A rock band adds to the surreal effect, but the production’s impact has to rely on the main characters.

Giles Cooper is the eager new recruit to the Tory whips’ office, run with a certain degree of cynicism by old-school William Chubb and businessman Matthew Pidgeon. But it is with the Labour whips, frantically shoring up increasingly wafer-thin majorities, that the real drama lies.

Chief Whip Tony Turner and his energetic deputy Martin Marquez both give fully fleshed characterisations of men who never forget who put them into Parliament – and why. James Gaddas and David Hounslow give fine support while Natalie Grady shows us a young woman developing both confidence and authority.

There are a succession of well-defined cameos and vignettes to remind us that politics at this level is a matter of priority juggling both within the House and outside it.Does a vote count for more than a life?

As befits a play and production of Chichester Festival Theatre, Headlong and National Theatre provenance, it is an object lesson in ensemble. One which has its audience as keyed up with tension as the drama onstage.

Four and a half-star rating.

This House runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 17 March with matinées on 15 and 17 March. it can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 8 and 12 May.

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Kindertransport

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 10 March

History is a plant with deep roots; it is impossible to eradicate it. Diane Samuels’ play Kindertransport made a deep impression on me when I saw it 25 years ago and this new production by Anne Simon, though very different, is also effective.

It’s an apparently simple story. Helga (Catherine Janke), a Jewish mother in Hamburg sends her daughter away just before 1939 blankets Europe in war’s lethal fog. The journey itself with its restrictions and policing guards is shown as frightening and Eva (Leila Schaus)’s arrival in England to be taken in by Lil (Jenny Lee) is also shown from the child’s point of view.

Haunting the action is the legend of the rat-catcher of Hamelin who led away all the town’s children in the 13th century, a much less benevolent figure than the pied piper of the sanitised version. Simon and designer Marie-Luce Theis conjure this nightmare figure (Matthew Brown) as a predatory mass of humps and tatters prowling around the periphery of the action.

This takes place on a central stage, basically the lumber room of the house now shared by Evelyn (Suzan Sylvester) and her about-to-leave-home daughter Faith (Hannah Bristow).  Faith is in two minds as to whether to go – though the house is already on the market – or to stay, which her mother finds both tiresome and unsettling.

Faith then starts looking into trunks and boxes, and the past suddenly enters the foreground. The three generations of women – Lil, Evelyn and Faith – each have to confront and come to terms with the past, the present and likely futures.

The performances are excellent with the contrasting facets of each woman’s characters sparking into focus as the drama unfolds. We’ve all been a frightened child and an adult doing the best that is possible in particular circumstances. Many of us have also been required to make life-changing decisions, often at very short notice.

For this production, the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch has joined with les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg in association with Selladoor Productions. The international tour reminds us that world changes have their own repeat cycle. Those refugee children of 80 years ago have their counterparts today.

Four and a half-star rating.

Kindertransport runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 24 March with matinées on 15, 17, 22 and 24 March. It can also be seen at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 17 and 21 April.

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Great Expectations

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 6 March

Plays and novels both tell us stories, though in different ways. The crucial thing for any adapter of a novel as a play is to be faithful to the sense of the source. S/he can use the novel’s dialogue to reinforce authenticity, but what to do with extended passages of description and lengthy recounting of events passed?

Ken Bentley’s version of Dickens’ Great Expectations for Tilted Wig in Sophie Boyce-Couzens production captures the atmosphere very well – with considerable aid from designers James Turner (set and costumes), and Richard Williamson (lighting). Ollie King’s music is appropriate and atmospheric.

Where adaptation and theatricality let the audience down are just those narrative passages; some seem interminable. The cast of eight, all with two exceptions playing several rôles, does its best to give them variety, but cannot help that overall feeling of sag.

Séan Aydon makes a credible Pip, giving us all the lad’s rough edges as he fumbles his way through to apparent fortune and maturity. Nichola McAuliffe’s Miss Haversham is a scintillation of white tatters, combining the pathos of the jilted woman’s dementia with an aura of sinister manipulation.

Two of the nicest people to whom Dickens and Bentley introduce us are blacksmith Joe Gargery and lawyer’s clerk Wemmick. Edward Ferrow does them proud. Both Eliza Collings’ Biddy and James Camp’s Herbert Pocket offer well-rounded portraits of simple goodness and honesty.

Daniel Goode’s Magwich is a properly frightening creation as is James Dinsmore’s Jaggers. Isla Carter doubles Molly, the murderess who Jaggers assists to cheat the gallows and Estella, that dangerous star flaring so brightly in both Pip’s and Miss Haversham’s colliding worlds.

Perhaps too many of us know Great Expectations too well; it has been dramatised and filmed many times. Dickens was persuaded to change the ending, potentially to satisfy his readers who would have originally read the novel in weekly installments. I’m not sure that these second thoughts were better ones; Bentley missed a trick here.

Four star rating.

Great Expectations runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St edmunds until 10 March with matinées on 7 and 10 March. The national tour includes the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 19 and 24 March.

 

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The Turn of the Screw

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 1 March

Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Henry James’ ghost mystery novella attempts to leave the questions it poses open to whatever interpretation each member of its audience chooses to place on the characters and situations.

Director Daniel Buckroyd is thus handed a difficult task, for any staging is by its very nature a matter of definition. What we see are flesh-and-blood actors, however insubstantial or even perverse the psychology of the characters they portray.

Sara Perks’ setting offers a sequence of arches stretching back to mirror the theatre’st own proscenium. Within these there are minimal furnishings – a table, chairs, a rocking-horse, a hat-stand. Across the back, projections and Matt Leventhall’s lighting take us outside the house at Bly.

Central to the action and never off-stage is Carli Norris as the Governess. We meet her first in middle-age, apparently being interviewed by Mrs Conray (Annabel Smith) for a new post. But it her first engagement, at Bly, about which she is most pressingly questioned. Why is revealed by the disclosure that Mrs Conray is the adult Flora.

That gives Smith the opportunity, which she takes, to show us the assured matron secure in society as well as the dissatisfied girl on the cusp of womanhood. Michael Hanratty plays the man-about-town who employs the Governess, turning her head with his attentions to her as a woman while off-loading responsibility.

Hanratty also plays Miles, the young boy with an angelic face who may – or may not – have been expelled from school for good reasons. He gives us another well-contrasted dual portrait. Housekeeper Mrs Grose is played by Maggie McCarthy as a woman who does her best but ultimately has limited authority.

Always in the background – literally so in this production – are the two dead former employees, the governess Miss Jessel and the valet Peter Quint. We see them mainly as shadows, ambiguously credited in the programme as Jen Holt and Tom Macqueen. Understudy here is a word which can be taken many ways.

It all holds together as a piece of theatre, but it’s one which never quite delivers as much as it promises thus leaving a sense of dissatisfaction. Or should that be seen as unfulfilment?

Three and a half-star rating.

The Turn of the Screw runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 10 March with matinées on 3, 8 and 10 March. It is then on national tour until 26 May.

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Strangers on a Train

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 26 February

It’s deservedly a classic of its genre. Craig Warner’s stage adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s first crime novel is literate and dramatically at ease in its multitudinous settings. Director Anthony Banks and designers David Woodhead (sets and costumes) and Duncan McLean (video and projections) have done it proud.

That also goes for the performances, led by Chris Harper as Charles Bruno and Jack Ashton as Guy Haines. Harper has the flamboyant measure of the footloose ne’er-do-well with an over-indulgent mother (the excellent Helen Anderson) and a father who keeps him on a tight financial rein.

Ashton as the visionary architect attempting to shed an unfaithful wife in favour of marriage to Anne Faulkner (Hannah Tointon) paces the moral disintegration of a man likely to lose career and marital happiness through one moment of weakness impeccably.

The tension builds as one crime begets another. Quietly knitting together the shreds of information he has painstakingly gathered is John Middleton’s Arthur Gerard, the investigator originally retained by Bruno senior and kept on by his (now) widow.

Good cameos of Haines’ colleague and the friend who offers him a chance to build his dream white bridge in Canada come from Owen Findlay and Sandy Bachelor. It’s a story without a hero – just two anti-heroes (one of whom so desperately tries to evade the rôle) – and the people swept up in their wake.

Overall, the heroes of this production are the designers’ visual ones. Stylised reality sometimes works better than a simulacrum. This is the case with this production.

Four star rating.

Strangers on a Train runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre as part of a national tour until 3 March with matinées on 1 and 3 March.

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Gallowglass

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 20 February

Gallowglass is one of the psychological crime novels which Ruth Rendell wrote under the name of Barbara Vine. It weaves numerous threads into the web of its story. It is a tale about the effect of the past on the present and adapter Margaret May Hobbs is skillful in the way she draws us into the mystery.

We begin on one of Paddington Station’s Underground platforms. Joe Herbert, a young drifter is about to thrown himself under an incoming train but is prevented by Sandor Wincanton. He’s a young man on the graft in more ways than one, with a moneyed as well as troubled background.

The developing relationship of dependency between these two opposites is well brought out by Joe Eyre (Sandor), all black-clad educated arrogance, and Dean Smith (Joe), one of life’s malleable nonentities. Smith has the more difficult of the two rôles to sustain and gathers our sympathy as Joe is swept ever deeper into Sandor’s plans.

Central to these is former model Nina Abbott (Florence Cady). Nina is now the wife of an older wealthy East Anglian landowner, the second such match she has made. In the course of her previous marriage she had suffered a horrendous kidnapping; the fear that history might repeat itself sears both herself and her husband Ralph Apsoland (Richard Walsh).

As protection for her he hires Paul Garnett (Paul Opacic), a man who has to make a stable home for his young daughter Jessica (Eva Sayer) while sorting out the fallout from his failed marriage. Then there’s another appointee to the Apsoland staff – Colombo (Matthew Wellman) who doesn’t quite to fit in.

Sandor’s doting mother Diana is also on the periphery; Karen Drury gives her gullibility pathos in her two scenes. Joe’s foster-sister Tilley is a far more lively and brash personality; Rachael Hart gives this young woman in a camper-van a sharp edge, of the sort born from experience.

Director-designer Michael Lunney sprawls the fast-moving action through fast-changing locations with a judicious use of scenes played in front of projected backgrounds with appropriate sound effects (White Tip Media) alternating with realistic room settings split across the stage.

It does keep the action – and therefore the tension – fast-flowing but perhaps inevitably never quite allows the fullness of the characterisations to mature. For example, Cady’s Nina seems almost a shadow in her own drama and Walsh’s Ralph remains a conventional two-dimensional country toff. Opacic and Eyre break out of this mist, perhaps because their parts have more of an extended edge.

Four star rating.

Gallowglass runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 24 February with matinées on 22 and 24 February. The Middle Ground Theatre Company tour is also at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (Southend) between 24 and 28 April.

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Rope

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 17 February

Pride goes before a fall. Arrogance can lead to the long drop. This new production by Douglas Rintoul of Patrick Hamilton’s classic suspense drama Rope makes that very clear.

Mark Dymock’s lighting combines with the sense right from the opening sequence of the events onstage being played out in real-time combine to create an unnerving atmosphere. There are laughs generated by witty, almost akin to Wilde, dialogue as well as by some of the characterisations.

But we are never left in doubt that Bandon’s charm is precariously draped over a ruthless, immoral personality. George Kemp balances both aspects impeccably. His adversary is war-wounded Rupert Cadell, a man  left with a limp and a combat-induced sense of right and wrong.

Sam Jenkins-Shaw makes the man who is in many ways the author’s mouthpiece into something of an early 20th century equivalent of one of the 17th century’s Civil War Ironsides. He brings out that Cromwellian sense of justice as well as his impatience with the Bright Young Things living in and for the present.

They are personified in Fred Lancaster’s Raglan and Phoebe Sparrow’s Leila Arden. Lancaster brings out the innate decency of this apparently lightweight socialite while Sparrow’s portrait of a flapper also lets us see he good manners and helpfulness under the posturing.

Brandon’s weak link is his partner in crime. James Sutton’s Granillo is an excellent study in a weak man growing ever more desperate as the enormity of what he has been made to do increasingly weighs him down. There are also three well-contrasted cameo performances.

These come from Cara Chase as Lady Kentley, still ignorant mother of the victim, Nico Pimparé as the servant Sabot – his meticulous laying out of the supper is a joy to watch – and Janet Amsden as Mrs Debenham, Lady Kentley’s monosyllabic poor relation.

insidious throughout is Yvonne Gilbert’s soundscape with the muted telephone bell, the crackly wireless searched for dance music and the weather outside Brandon’s bachelor flat. Ruari Murchison has furnished this cleverly, from the up-to-date Art Deco sideboard and reproduction Renaissance chest to the Victorian chaise longue and chairs.

Four and a half-star rating.

Rope continues at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 3 March with matinées on 22, 24 February, 1 and 3 March. The co-production transfers to the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich from 7 to 17 March.

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Art

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 15 February

This new tour of Yasmina Reza’s play is directed by Ellie Jones with a starkly white set by Mark Thompson and intriguing lighting by Hugh Vanstone that suggest the timeless-placeless quality which is so cleverly brought out in Christopher Hampton’s translation.

Art is the story of three long-time friends in modern Paris whose relationship is suddenly tested when one of them, Serge (Nigel Havers), buys a contemporary painting which at first glance is simply a white canvas.

Neither fellow-professional Marc (Denis Lawson) not the third member of the trio, not-so-successful businessman Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson) can bring himself to approve.

Marc’s taste is conventional; Yvan’s appreciation of art is limited to his own father’s amateur efforts. Neither wish to offend their friend; neither can disguise that the acquisition not simply leaves him cold. Marc’s reaction is more confrontational; Yvan has his forthcoming wedding on his mind with the extended family disagreements this has brought to the surface.

It’s beautifully paced, with a snap-scond timing which never falters. Marc’s mounting frustration at being unable to convince Serge that he’s wasted his money and (what’s worse) damaged his standing with his closest friends as a result is beautifully nuanced by Lawson.

Havers communicates Serge’s equal sense of having his artistic judgement queried and belittled; urbanity can be only skin-deep in certain circumstances. Tompkinson makes the most of Yvan’s own frustration – this is not really to do with art of any kind. Rather it concerns his family tussles over the wording of the wedding invitation with his mother and stepmother battling for precedence.

His extended tirade (in the proper French sense of the word) deserves the round of applause is receives. The play’s quietly open ending is underlined by the final sequence, when the white painting, after its own adventures, is finally hung. You are left feeling that this is certainly not the end of the story.

Things swept temporarily under the carpet have a nasty habit of re-emerging at inopportune moments.

Five-star rating.

Art continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 24 February with matinées on 17, 22 and 24 February. The national tour runs until 9 June  and includes the Norwich Theatre Royal (23-28 April) and the Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton (14-19 May)

 

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Teechers

reviewed at the Norwich Playhouse on 6 February

The debate about education has long deep roots; they probably stretch back to the first lessons which passed on wisdom of various kinds from the experienced to their juniors.

John Godber’s 1987 play within a play Teechers is therefore as relevant to 2017 as at any previous time and, regrettably, likely to be so for the future. Adrian McDougall’s production for Blackeyed Theatre is energetic and admirably suited to school-age members of the audience.

Those of us with academics of various sorts in the family have heard this debate many times, and I have seen several previous productions. This one is loud and suitably brash with the three performers bringing clarity to the teenagers and adults they portray.

Scott Jenkins’ choreography is precision-sharp as three tables and chairs all-but take on a life of their own as scene intercuts with scene. Rosalind Seal obviously relishes the part of Mrs Parry, the head of a school in special measures who has taken care to send her children to a much grander establishment.

Then there’s Nicole Black as a collection of pupils with rampant hormones, and at least one teacher also in need of a mate. Between Seal and Black’s gallery of characterisations one understands why their view of the future is so bleak that they want to blot it out with the present.

A drama teacher fresh out of college Jeff Nixon is the lamb thrown to the wolf-packs of Whitehall High School. Jake Adley shows us how his ideals gradually blunt until he eventually accepts the superior post offered by the well-equipped, properly-funded dedicated-staff prospect offered by nearby St  George’s School.

So, what place have the arts in the average school curriculum when the emphasis is weighted towards “core” subjects and a school’s prosperity rests on its examination results in those subjects? If you’re reading this review of a dramatised debate about education, then I’m probably preaching to the converted.

The question remains, how do we convert the non-believers? School parties tends to be on the side of the arts already. Perhaps whole tranches of heads, administrators, school governors and funders at national, regional and local levels could be bussed in to Teechers – and then examined on the play and its messages…

Four star rating.

Teechers is at the Norwich Playhouse also on 7 February and then on national tour until 29 March including the Stantonbury Theatre, Milton Keynes (19-20 February, the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (26-28 February), the Key Theatre, Peterborough (5 March), the Towngate Theatre, Basildon (8-9 March), the Mumford Theatre, Cambridge (12-13 March) and the Broadway Theatre, Letchworth (14 March)

 

 

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Pressure

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 5 February

D-Day – 6 June 1944 – is one of those dates branded into the national consciousness. David Haig’s play Pressure takes a lesser-known aspect of the event, but arguably the most crucial. it concerns the accurate forecasting of the weather between 4 and 6 June.

As in all good conflict dramas, there are balanced opposing sides. General Eisenhower, as Allied Supreme Commander, had the responsibility for timing the Normandy invasion force with maximum effect and minimal life loss.

He relied on the forecasting skills of Colonel Irving P Krick, who had also worked for Hollywood, most notably with the timing of some of the most spectacular scenes in Gone With the Wind. The British specialist was Dr James Stagg. a dour Scots meteorologist with Group Captain status.

Krick, with his Clark Gable moustache, comes over as plausible, if pig-headed in Philip Cairns portrait of the man. One of the strengths of John Dove’s production is the way that Haig’s characterisation of Stagg never plays directly for our liking, let alone understanding, until the man’s innate integrity draws us into sympathy. Almost in spite of ourselves.

The fourth important character is the Irish driver and assistant Kay Summersby. Laura Rogers shows us a woman at war on more than one front. Her relationship with Eisenhower is something of a pipedream; she has been trailed in the wake of greatness, but that – as Rogers suggests – is a path with no defined ending.

All the drama – political, military, professional and personal – comes to a head in the second act when strain and both physical and mental fatigue allow the human sides of the three main characters to emerge. It’s superbly paced, notably by Malcolm Sinclair’s portrait of Eisenhower but also as Stagg clings on to his one certainty.

That’s his belief that there will be a ferocious storm in the Channel on the original D-Day date. As his wife goes into labour, we watch the cost of duty threaten to swamp his human need to be with his wife (her previous labour had also been difficult).

The past, in LP Hartley’s phrase, may be a foreign country where they do things differently. The skill of Haig’s play and Dove staging of it as that we, the audience, can step into that vanished world and for a time feel ourselves truly part of it.

Five star rating.

Pressure runs at the Cambridge Arts theatre until 10 February at the start of a national tour which continues to 24 March.

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Birdsong

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 1 February

A largely re-cast revival of Rachel Wagstaff’s revised stage version of Sebastian Faulks’ novel has just started a national tour. it’s the fourth , and we’re told, the final one. Tim Treloar returns in dominant form as Jack Firebrace, the First World War sapper recruited from his peacetime job as a tunneller for London’s underground network expansion.

Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters’ production uses Victoria Spearing’s two-level, multi-location set to take us from the grim reality of trench warfare along the Somme in 1916 to the apparently idyllic world of prewar Amiens. Only apparently – for industrialist René Azaire is a dictator alike to his children and his wife.

Madeleine Knight is Isabelle, the abused trophy wife who captures the heart of Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay), who is sent to Amiens by his guardian to learn about mechanical innovations in 1910 and who finds himself six years later newly commissioned and on the front line.

The worlds of Firebrace and his fellow Tommies and that of the learning-on-the-job officers who command them are both distant and close. Wraysford has lost Isabelle and Firebrace knows from his wife’s letters that their only son John is in hospital with diphtheria, a near death-sentence in those days before antibiotics. They clash before each man recognises part of himself in the other.

It is subtly staged as flashbacks illuminate the grim confined present. James Findlay’s violin and melodeon playing shadows the action as the miscellany of characters step momentarily out of the underground doom to reveal fragments of their past life and personalities.

Treloar and Kay dominate and are thoroughly convincing. Knight’s Isabelle is overly subdued, in contrast to her precocious daughter Lisette (Olivia Bernstone); she may be the nominal heroine of the story but seems reluctant to step fully into its limelight. Women of all the combatant countries at home suffered, and this Faulks emphasises. But it was their menfolk who paid an even heavier price for what we now know was a short-lived peace.

Four star rating.

Birdsong runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 3 February with matinées on 1 and 3 February. The tour also includes the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 14 and 19 May.

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