Tag Archives: Miri Birch

A Daughter’s A Daughter

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 23 July

Mother love. It’s unconditional, isn’t it? Daughterly devotion. That’s reciprocal, isn’t it? Agatha Christie’s play, set in the aftermath of the Second World War, is based on her original novel and cuts through layers of family gloss to reveal some very stark bones.

Sarah (Rosanna Miles) has just returned from war duties to her widowed mother’s London flat. She expects that nothing will have changed in four years – but it has. Ann (Naomi Evans) has found a new man, pleasant thoroughly dependable Richard (Rick Savery).

To say that Sarah resents him is to put it mildly (and politely, which of course she doesn’t do). She has a suitor herself, post-demob footloose Jerry (Tom Girvin), but all she wants is to have her mother exclusively to herself. Her godmother Laura (Tess Wojtczak) and housekeeper Edith (Laura Cox) can see how wrong this all is but can change nothing.

Some years later, and Sarah has made a disastrous marriage, to man-about-town Lawrence (Morgan Thrift. Richard has found a new life in the countryside with Doris (India Rushton-Dray). Mother and daughter are still together, but the cracks in their relationship are now more than surface ones.

The dialogue is intense and Evans has a tendency to take some of it too fast. Overall Phil Clark’s production, thanks to Tory Cobb’s set and Miri Birch’s costume sequences for Ann and Sarah – shades of those old West End productions with their programme notes that “couturier X… has designed Miss Y….’s wardrobe – have a good sense of period.

It’s a woman’s play, as far as dramatic tension goes. Miles strikes a fine balance in showing us both the selfishness and vulnerability of Sarah, and Cox is more than just a Cockney maid familiar from plays and films of the 1930s and 40s. All three men are slightly colourless in comparison, which is only to be expected.

Perhaps we are now sufficiently removed from those post-war years to put them and their people into proper perspective. I think Christie wrote this story from her heart, drawing on personal pains. Fashions change. Society changes. People don’t.

Four star rating.

A Daughter’s A Daughter runs at the Southwold Arts Centre until 28 Juy with a matinée on 24 July, early evening performances on 26 and 28 July and no performances on 27 July. It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 31 July and 11 August and returns to the Southwold Arts Centre from 3 to 15 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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Communicating Doors

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 5 July

Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors is on one level a farce with sociological bite, as expected from the modern master of that genre. On another, it plays with the notion of time, much as did JB Priestley in dramas such as Time and the Conways, Dangerous Corner and An Inspector Calls.

The action takes place in suite 647 of a London hotel owned by ruthless business-man Reece (James Morley) with his equally ferocious second-in-command Julian (Michael Shaw). We begin in 2037 with the arrival of a dominatrix called Poopay (real name Pheobe) played by Melissa Clements; her attentions are in response to Reece’s last wishes.

It transpires that both Reece’s wives have met untimely ends, first Jessica (Rosanna Miles) and then Ruella (Claire Jeater). In both cases Julian appears to have been the hit-man and he has no compunction about serving Poopay in the same way. Her escape through a door into a cupboard takes her into the same suite but, at different times, in 2017 and 1997.

Mark Sterling’s production keeps up a lively pace with the audience at times hard-pressed to follow at the same speed. Tory Cobb’s set and Miri Birch’s costumes work well in this context, as does the clever use of lighting (including laser shapes to indicate time changes) and shadow-play.

The cast brings commitment and a good understanding of both Ayckbourn’s words and the characters they define. Clements offers a rounded portrait of the girl from a children’s home who grits her teeth and gets on with earning a living. Miles and Jeater differentiate the two wives and the way their personalities develop over 40 years.

Bumbling in and out of the action is hotel security-man Harold, who Bob Dobson makes likeable even as the women manipulate him. Shaw has the lion’s share of the nastiness, and relishes every nuance of it. Morley’s role is in many ways a more difficult one, but his last scene with Pheobe has real heart.

Four star rating.

Communicating Doors runs at the Southwold Arts Centre as the opening production in the Suffolk Summer Theatres season until 15 July with matinées on 8, 13 and 15 July. It transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 20 and 29 July with matinées on 22 and 29 July.

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Murder By The Book

(reviewed at Suffolk Summer Theatres, Southwold on 19 July)

Writing is a solitary occupation; it can lead to depression and self-denigration. On the other hand, it has been known to develop into megalomania. The thriller by Duncan Greenwood and Robert King has as its central character a successful thriller writer whose lucrative part-time supplement to his earnings comes from writing vitriolic reviews of his competitors’ novels.

His secretary goes along with all this; his even-wealthier actress and somewhat libidinous wife has had enough. Divorce has been mentioned, but this has financial implications. It’s all a neat set-up for role-playing of many sorts, though Phil Clark’s fast-paced production never manages to make the characters anything other than pasteboard puppets.

Leyla Holley plays Imogen, a woman whose histrionics spill over from stage to drawing-room. Costume designer Miri Birch places us firmly in the Mary Quant/Biba era. Amy Christina Murray makes a pert Christine with Joe Leat as the exceptionally nosy next-door neighbour whose “Hurray Henry” façade is not quite what it seems.

Selwyn Piper, the concocter of mysteries at the centre of the drama, is Simon Stanhope with Clive Flint as his publisher John Douglas. They all take it as seriously as this sort of comedy-thriller requires, but – for me at any rate – it never quite jells. Perhaps you should blame the weather.

Murder by the Book runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 30 July and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 2 and 6 August.

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Don’t Dress for Dinner

(reviewed at Southwold Summer Theatre on 6 July)

The Robin Hawdon adaptation of the modern French farce by Marc Camoletti proved to be a popular start to this year’s season of productions by Suffolk Summer Theatres. A last-minute substitution in the key role of Bernard due to illness aaw Darrell Brockis performing script-in-hand but still making the part his own.

Director Ron Aldridge and the season’s designer Maurice Rubens provide the necessary number of doors required by this fast-moving genre. Miri Birch’s costumes are clever, with a degree of satiny slink for Claire Jeater as Bernard’s wife Jacqueline (as set on an extra-marital affair as her husband) and a witty maid-to-mistress outfit for Imogen Slaughter as cook extraordinaire Suzette.

Slaughter provides one of the funniest characterisations of the evening, provoking a well-deserved exit round of applause. Michael Shaw bumbles engagingly as Robert, Bernard’s bachelor friend who arrives for a country-house weekend with possibilities – and finds himself overwhelmed by them.

The two men also sport an interesting collection of shirts and nightwear as three women on the warpath (poor Melissa Clements as Suzanne is something of a patsy in all this) find new uses for soda siphons and velouté sauce. I suspect that some momentary sags in the frenetic goings-on will be ironed out during the course of the run. As it stands, Brockis deserves a curtain-call all to himself.

Don’t Dress for Dinner runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 16 July and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh between 21 and 30 July.

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How the Other Half Loves

(reviewed at the Southwold Summer Theatre on 8 July)

You can never take an Ayckbourn play at its face value. How the Other Half Loves was his second major commercial success in 1070; David Harris’ production which opened this year’s Suffolk Summer Theatres season sensibly keeps the 1969 setting for this typical blend of sharp social satire, surreal elements and a wryly compassionate look at what motivates people to behave in certain ways in situations partly of their own making.

The emphasis, as Ayckbourn likes to place it, is very much on the female condition. We meet the Fosters – lady-who-lunches Fiona and company manager Frank – and the Phillips – company man-on-the-make and new mother Teresa – share Maurice Rubens simultaneous living rooms.

These characters have enough complications between them without really needing the Featherstones – country mouse Mary and Welsh new employee William. That’s when the sexual, social and work permutations really start to create their own momentum. If you know Southwold’s summer Theatre, you know that the stage is quite small, though Rubens’ ingenuity works a miracle of visual stretching.

Small is the last word you could use to describe the acting with the balance between over-the-top (OTT) and naturalism beautifully balanced. Rosanna Miles is in turns funny and pathetic as Mary, the mouse who does eventually unsheathe her well-concealed claws. Eliza McClelland flounces and pirouettes in her chiffon and high heels to hilarious effect (the costumes are by Miri Birch).

Then there’s Teresa (Terri to her husband and friends). Marriage hasn’t turned out to be the bed of roses she probably expected a year or so ago; her husband is an autocrat, her son is at the teething, sleepless and whimpering stage, so everyday chores like housework and cooking are being relegated to a secondary status. All of which Kate Middleton makes utterly credible.

Bob does not like what his fun-loving but acquiescent wife has becomes one tiny bit. As Chris Clarkson amply demonstrates, the man is selfish and a bully. Physically Bob may meet his match in Rick Savery’s Will – but in many ways each is as thoughtless and liable to jump to conclusions as the other. Thoughtless, in the other hand, is not an adjective you can apply to Michael Shaw’s Frank.

Yes, the man is so absent-minded and easy to distract that you wonder how on earth he has reached his senior professional level. But there’s a steel core under all that fluff and his tenacity both provides the comedy as he becomes helplessly involved in marital and social turmoil of which he was partly the cause. When he turns the tables… but you really ought to see for yourself how it ll works out.

How the Other Half Loves runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 18 July and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh from 23 July to 1 August.

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