Tag Archives: David Woodhead

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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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

Gaslight
reviewed Cambridge Arts Theatre on 13 February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a half star rating

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

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Night Must Fall

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswih on 17 October)

Most people, if they’re honest, admit to loving a good murder mystery. But what about the perpretator? There reactions are much more mixed. Do we simply shudder at the crime itself and the (often sordid and downright mercenary) motives behind it – or do we try to get into the murderer’s skull, analyse what drove him (or her) to the deed or even feel a fellow feeling. There but by the grace of God…

Emlyn Williams’ classic exploration of the dual personality of a murderer Night Must Fall takes us on just such a journey. We know that Dan (Will Featherstone) has killed at least once before he even sets foot on the stage. We sspect who will be his next target – the irasible wealthy widow Mrs Bramson (Gwen Taylor), tyrannising over her dependent niece Olivia (Niamh McGrady), her staff and most other regular visitors.

What we learn only gradually is how Dan’s chameleon-like personality dazzles even the most sceptical of the people with whom he comes into contact. From being a teenage bell-hop at a nearby hotel, he metamorphoses before our eyes into an all-purpose handyman and then an intimate of Mrs Bramson’s home in a remote Essex village, which is surrounded by forest. it’s a measure of the strength of Featherstone’s portrait that we can follow why he attracts at the same time as why he repels.

You need equally forceful performances to keep the balance. Dan’s comes-and-goes Welsh inflection is cut across by Taylor’s thoroughly npleasant if well-spoken grande dame. McGrady gives us Olivia’s unhappiness as well as the touch of steel which makes her refuse Hubert (Alasdair Buchan)’s sincere proposal of marriage. You can also see why she is attracted to Dan, perhaps sensing that he could be the missing part of her own torn personality.

Buchan has in many ways the most difficult part in the play; a well-meaning bumbler incapable of inspiring affection either in Olivia or us, that eavesdropping fourth-wall of the bungalow. Darach O’Malley’s Inspector Belsize has the right sort of seen-it-all-before authority. Director Luke Sheppard keeps the action fast-moving, sometime at the expense of vocal clarity on the part of the smaller roles. David Woodhead’s set is correctly realistic and in period, with costumes of the mid-1930s to match.

There’s a touch of the filmic about Howard Hudson’s lighting plots; the same is true of Harry Black’s soundscape whch heightens the tension at key moments with great subtlety. Williams was of course a performer as well as a writer, and he wrote himself a role which obviously played to his strengths. Given a revival such as this by Original Theatre, the Salisbury Playhouse and Eatbourne Theatres, you can enjoy the sheer theatrical craftsmanship of it all.

Night Must Fall runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 22 October with matinées on 19 and 22 October. It can also be seen at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 31 October and 5 November.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016

The Smallest Show on Earth

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 30 September)

Ah, but is it? I don’t think so. This stage version of the much-loved 1957 film has a total cast of 14 and a deceptively scaled-down set. But The Smallest Show on Earth integrates a host of Irving Berlin numbers, some ferociously energetic choreography by Lee Proud and a script and direction by Thom Southerland which captures the essence of the period without ever seeming to be a pastiche.

David Woodhead’s settings – complete with some highly ingenious location shifts, and costumes, beautifully detailed down to the seams in the stockings and skirt lengths – take us from London to provincial small-town in a fashion which mirrors the interior journey of the two main characters.

These are young husband and wife Matthew and Jean Spenser (Haydn Oakley and Laura Pitt-Pulford). He’s a would-be script-writer, she’s the rock for their relationship. The story concerns his inheritance from a dimly remembered great-uncle of the run-down Bijou Kinema, formerly a music-hall. Locally it’s usually referred to as “the fleapit”.

It is Pitt-Pulford who is the real star of the show, though she has a runner-up in the shape of Christina Bennington as Marlene Hardcastle, the thoroughly pleasant daughter of the thoroughly unpleasant Ethel and Albert Hardcastle (Ricky Butt and Philip Rham). Actually, she’s Mrs Hardcastle’s step-daughter, as this troublesome go-getter never ceases to remind everyone.

Then there’s Matthew Crow as the (very) junior solicitor Robin Carter, with twinkling toes and a delicious line in high camp and drag. The two other character parts are former silent-movie pianist, now box office “manager”, Mrs Fazackalee (Liza Goddard) and the cantankerous projectionist Percy Quill (Brian Capron). Capron grows Quill into a real human-being but, for me, there was an edge of eccentricity lacking in Goddard’s performance.

Mark Aspinall’s six-person band lurks right at the back of the stage, only to be revealed – and deservedly applauded – at the curtain-calls. The Mercury audience was genuinely enthusiastic. So, I suspect, will be audiences around the country when The Smallest Show on Earth launches itself on tour in 2016leaves Colchester for a national autumn tour.

The Smallest Show on Earth runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 10 October.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015