Tag Archives: Northampton Royal & Derngate

Love From a Stranger

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 22 May

“Beware an enemy bearing gifts” warned the Trojan. Agatha Christie and Frank Vosper’s psychological thriller Love From a Stranger might be summed up as: beware charismatic men with a camera offering an intriguing past and a rose-tinted future.

Cecily (Helen Bradbury) is letting her London flat as she prepares to marry Michael (Justin Avoth) on his return from a lengthy duty-stint in the Sudan. Her garrulous aunt Louise (Nicola Sanderson) is all for this sensible match. Cecily’s best friend and flat-mate Mavis (Alice Haig) is more ambivalent.

Enter a prospective tenant, newly arrived from North America – Bruce (Sam Frenchum). Cecily is swept off her feet (literally) with the inevitable consequences. However, Act Two – which sees the newly weds in a Sussex cottage – doesn’t go according to plan, or to the audience’s expectations.

Not for nothing has Christie been dubbed the queen of suspense. Lucy Bailey’s direction paces it accordingly, with Mike Britton’s shifting sets, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Richard Hammarton’s soundscape emphasising the instability of the relationships we see being played out.

The cast is very good throughout. Frenchum has the right blend of superficial charm, a projection of mystery and the scarcely-subdued ferocity which underpins it for Bruce. As Michael, Avoth makes what could be simply a caricature of a certain type of buttoned-up Englishman into a real human being who suffers.

Bradbury’s Cecily is another fine study of a woman conditioned to follow convention who then apparently acts upon impulse. We probably have the equivalent of Sanderson’s Aunt Lou-Lou, alternating as a figure of fun and a downright nuisance, in our family circle.

Mavis, in Haig’s portrayal, comes across as a career girl who knows that life doesn’t always shower long-term windfalls. Molly Logan provides an amusing sketch of Ethel, the daughter of gardener Hodgson (Gareth Williams) who comes to work at Philomel Cottage (remember, there’s more to that myth than a nightingale).

A doctor is often a key ingredient in a Christie plot cauldron. Crispin Redman here fulfils the role. And how does the cauldron mixture pour out? Ah, that may not be quite what you were expecting…

Four star rating

Love From a Stranger runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 26 May with matinées on 24 and 26 May.

 

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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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Hedda Gabler

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 7 November

Women usually find something to sympathise with in fictional woman characters. In the case of the title character of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, that’s difficult. Hedda, in Patrick Marber’s version,  stirs no empathy.

Ivo van Hove’s production abetted by Jan Versweyveld’s set and lighting is modern Scandi noir. it suggests a penthouse almost devoid of furniture and in which Hedda’s old-fashioned upright piano is so out-of-place that it becomes a doppelgänger for the woman herself. Threads of Tom Gibbons’ sounds drift through the miasma of the action.

At the performance I saw, Cate Cammack – who played the part when this National Theatre production went to the USA – was Hedda. Her movements, at times almost as disjointed as the character’s tormented inner being, occasionally seemed at odds with her gentle voice.

Annabel Bates’s Thea Elvsted contrasts well, her apparent fluffiness (which both infuriates and intrigues Hedda) underpinned by a level of determination only Adam Best’s unpleasant Judge Brack can equal. His is a man who knows only his own law.

The two men – Tesman who has taken this pretentious apartment partly to reflect his new wife’s status as the daughter of a general but mainly because he is initially sure that he will be awarded a well-paid professorship and researcher-writer Lovborg – appear almost like twins in Abhin Galeya and Richard Pyros’ characterisations.

Galeya is the eternal optimist, though a degree of uncertainty soon crumbles the façade. Pyros, the former alcoholic who is tempted to one disastrous relapse, comes over a this sort of distorted mirror image. Tesman may survive for the moment by reconstructing his friend and rival’s masterpiece, but his future looks bleak.

Tesman’s aunt Juliana is crisply delineated by Christine Kavanagh and the ever-present, no doubt ever-watchful maid Berthe becomes a brooding presence by Madlena Nedeva. It’s an effective staging, but at the end we are left in the cold of a winter without end.

Four star rating.

Hedda Gabler runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 11 November with matinées on 8, 9 and 11 November. It also tours to the Royal & Derngate Northampton (28 November-2 December) and the Milton Keynes Theatre (27 February-3 March 2018).

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King Lear

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 20 June)

This Max Webster Royal & Derngate production of Shakespeare’s tragedy emphasises its bleakness. Designer Adrian Linford presents us with a bare stage, backed by a greying wall, a window-piece which barely illuminates the world outside and is as much a restriction as an egress.

The play begins with Cordelia (Beth Cooke), waiting her moment to shine. A chandelier is lowered, a throne materialises – and the court bustles in. The costumes are timeless ones, which means that guns and duelling pistols supplement knives and short swords. Yu either accept this blurring, or you don’t. It’s up to you.

Dominating the play is Michael Pennington, not yielding an inch as either the absolute monarch, or the abdicated one – feeling himself for the first time not to be in command of anyone. Or anything. He times Lear’s decay into dementia so subtly that one is scarcely conscious of when irritation with the king’s arbitraryways melts into compassion for the man.

All the other characters, given a central performance of this strength, are satellites. Tom McGovern’s no-nonsense Kent metamorphoses well from the blunt senior army officer into the equally outspoken but infinitely more relaxed man of the people. Joshua Elliott’s Fool is an intriguing mixture of acute wisdom and apparently pointless nonsense. He’s the dark side of the glass to Gavin Fowler’s poor Tom as the fugitive Edgar desperately seeks to claw a future from his bleak prospects.

If Cooke’s Cordelia comes across as a spirited as well as principled princess, Catherine Bailey’s domineering Goneril an Sally Scott’s deceptively uxorious and motherly Regan offer contrasting essays in unpleasant ambition. Shane Attwooll’s Cornwall at first seems to have the edge on Adrian Irvine’s more contained Albany, but this is shown to be yet another layer in the interlocking web of deception.

Scott Karim’s Edmund is a plausible villain, though his initial soliloquy seemed to portray a cavalier approach to the verse. As his father the Earl of Gloucester, Pip Donaghy gives a somewhat muted performance, so that his terrible torture by Cornwall for his temerity in scouring his king is a piece f stagecraft rather than something to horrify us.

King Lear continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 25 June with matinées on 23 and 25 June..

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