Tag Archives: Alastair Whatley

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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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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Invincible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shadowlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flare Path

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 28 September)

Getting the on-stage nuances right for any historical period is a triple effort, shared between director (Justin Audibert in this case), designer (Hayley Grindle) and – above all – the cast. Rattigan’s 1942 drama Flare Path takes place in the lounge of a hotel near an airfield, from which bomber and fighter pilots take off for their nightly flights over Germany. It’s a mission from which far too many will never return.

The officers and senior crew members use it as a sort of club, an alternative to the cramped messes and briefing-rooms of the station. Wives also take up residence, both short- and long-term, to snatch a few precious days with their menfolk. Enter a film star, predatory cockerel in this hen-roost, though with his intentions aimed purely at one particular resident.

This is where the production lets itself down somewhat. Leon Ockenden fails to radiate the tinsel-town alpha male glamour of Peter Kyle – think Clark Gable or Errol Flynn – of the expatriate leading man who is seeing his studio’s reliance on his box-office drawing powers fading rapidly. The girl he wants is actress Patricia Warren (Olivia Hallinan), with whom he has had a passionate on-off affair and who is now married to Fl Teddy Graham (Alastair Whatley, the artistic director of production company Original Theatre).

Whatley makes much of his second-act admission to the terrible effect which the bombing raids are having on him, both for the physical danger he encounters and through the regular loss of men who have become more than usually close comrades. I was less convinced by Hallinan’s posturing; one never quite believed in the character as an actress or in her obvious appeal to two such very different men.

The smaller rôles are well taken, notably by Siobhan O’Kelly as Doris, the barmaid now married to a Polish count who lost his original family to the Nazis and is, understandably, focussed on revenge. Simon Darwen’s Sgt Miller, Philip Franks’ Sq Ldr Swanson and Adam Best’s Count Skriczevinsky are also well-rounded portraits of people as well as of types.

Hayley Grindle’s costumes look right for the clothes and uniforms of the period and her sts is an effective blend of naturalism and symbolism. The central acting area gives us the by now slightly battered lounge, backed by an enormous red-curtained window and with a realistic fire in the footlights-level hearth. But this isn’t a box set, such as Rattigan would have envisaged for the original prodction. Instead it’s flanked by a suggestion of twisted, blackened metal and a bare-branched tree. Dominic Bilkey’s soundscape is almost frighteningly three-dimensional as the aircraft take off – but don’t always land successfully.

Flare Path continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 3 October. It also plays at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 19 and 24 October and at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff from 16 to 21 November.

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