Tag Archives: Rebecca Applin

84 Charing Cross Road

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 26 June

1949 can seem like an alien time in 2015, a dingy lapse between wartime heroics and the Swinging Sixties. Yet that’s when the correspondence between New York-based struggling writer Helene Hanff and London bookshop Marks & Co began.

Hanff’s book detailing her correspondence, first with manager Frank Doel and later with other staff members which lasted until the shop closed 20 years later was published in 1970. There have been several stage, radio and film adaptations; this Cambridge Arts Theatre production uses the James Roose-Evans text and is directed by Richard Beecham.

There is also music composed and arranged by Rebecca Applin. That may pull you up short, if you come to the theatre expecting a straight-forward staging. Norman Coates’ set is conventional enough – floor to ceiling books on dark shelves with a large wireless in the foreground and Hanff’s cluttered office cum living-room to one side.

Music makes itself heard before a word is spoken. For the Londoners, this is traditional and comes from two violins, a cello, an accordion and a flute. Hanff is heralded by a jazzy saxophone. The passing of the seasons is indicated by carols and folk songs; the quasi-sombre ending is marked by the hymn “Abide with me”.

In between these interludes, the story flows as postal friendships develop and the characters find themselves caught up with each other’s lives, from Hanff’s fledgling television scripts (thanks to John Donne) through the austerities and food rationing of postwar Britain which prompt gift parcels in one direction and reciprocal gifts in return.

Leading the cast is Clive Francis as Doel, beautifully poised between business rectitude and an underlying sense of generosity Stefanie Powers is every inch the savvy, slightly abrasive New Yorker, a nice contrast with Samantha Sutherland’s gentle Cecily Farr, Doel’s assistant, who first begins to broaden the transatlantic correspondence.

Loren O’Dair contributes a well-contrasted pair of cameos as the mousey Megan Wells and US leading lady Maxine Stuart. Ultimately, the story keeps our attention through the two leading performances, and in this we are not let down. Chris Warren’s sound and Chris Davey’s lighting designs are subtle, indeed clever, but I’m not convinced that this is the definitive way to stage this script.

Four star rating.

84 Charing Cross Road runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 30 June with matinées on 28 and 30 June as part of a national tour.

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The Invisible Man

reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 31 October

Some scientists are obsessed beyond reason with their research, often using the benefits that might accrue for their fellow-men as vindication. Of such are legends made, both in fact and fiction.

In the latter category one might place Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert L Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and HG Wells’ Griffin. His “scientific romances” are all rooted in technology which wouldn’t have seemed too far-fetched to their original consumers.

The Invisible Man with its late 19th century setting contrasts the academic world which is content to experiment – but only step by cautious, provable step – with the uncomprehending – and therefore less forgiving – countryside outside these ivory towers and well-equipped laboratories.

Putting this onstage requires more than a script, provided by Clem Garrity for this première production. It needs stage trickery of a high order and performances which take the serious parts of the story seriously. Ryan McBride’s production has a looming, dark set by Lily Arnold, cleverly lit by Nic Farman to allow John Bulleid’s magic to make its impact.

Rebecca Applin’s score alternates rough’n’ready street ballads with incidental music where the violins scratch away to echo the activity within Jack Griffin’s brain. Matthew Spencer’s performance in the part is a very fine one; he suggests the outsider, the loner right from the start as his driven need to prove his theories right alienate both Lucy (the girl who loves him) and his former tutor and friend Dr Kemp.

Both Eleanor Wyld, who doubles Lucy and her actress sister Amelia, and Paul McEwan as Kemp make the most of their parts. Griffin eventually rents a room in Iping, a small Sussex village, where his landlady Mrs Hall (Sophie Duval) accepts his money and his strange activities more readily than the other locals, notably Matthew Woodyatt’s Tommy and con=man thief Marvel (Phil Adèle).

It’s all clever enough in staging, sound and performance to keep the audience’s attention focussed, though the explanations of optics and the refraction of light are perhaps over-long, if necessary to the plot. And it’s perfect fair for the darker, witching months.

Four star rating.

The Invisible Man continues at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 18 November with matinées on 2 and 11 November.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Plays, Reviews 2017

The Ladykillers

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 13 September

It by no means detracts from the excellent performances by the animated cast members to say that the runaway star of Graham Linehan’s stage version of the Ealing Studios 1955 hit The Ladykillers is Foxton’s set.

This is the beautifully detailed exterior (we are still mired in postwar scarred buildings with make-do interiors) of Mrs Wilberforce’s house in the noisy shadow of St Pancras railway station, complete with working signals and billowing clouds of steam.

Mrs Wilberforce (Ann Penfold) and Constable Macdonald (Marcus Houden) are solving what she thinks is a refugee Nazi problem and he knows is simply the local newsagent who has a strong North Country accent. It isn’t the first time he has had to correct her imagination. Her next visitor, hoping to rent the room she has advertised to let, is Professor Marcus (Steven Elliott).

Swathed in a serpentine college scarf (which provides a running joke throughout the play) he is, of course, the mastermind behind a planned bullion heist. His brain may have worked it out to the last detail and split second, but that’s to discount his motley crew of accomplices.

They include Graham Seed’s Major Courtney, a self-proclaimed war hero with a penchant for women’s clothes; this is a cleverly nuanced performance which shows the pain behind the necessary pretense of thorough-going masculinity. Then there’s Cockney spiv and wideboy Harry (Sam Lupton), who’s not as bright as he thinks he is.

Brain-damaged former boxer One-Round is played by Damien Williams as everybody’s stooge while Louis Harvey is that thoroughly nasty piece of flick-knife violence Louis Harvey. Director Peter Rowe keeps the action fast-moving while lighting designer Alexandra Stafford and composer-sound designer Rebecca Applin make notable contributions.

This is a co-production between the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch and the Salisbury Playhouse. I suspect it will be just as enthusiastically received in the other venues as by the Ipswich audience. We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Five star rating.

The Ladykillers runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 30 September with matinées on 16, 19, 20, 23, 27 and 30 September. It transfers to the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch between 3 and 17 October.

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Bully Boy

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester on 9 November)

We live in a conflicted world and time – though there’s nothing new or unusual about that. What perhaps is new is that we are being made aware of the mental as well as physical toll which combat levies on its participants. Not to mention on their friends and families and on (often innocent) bystanders.

Sandi Toksvig’s play Bully Boy confronts us with two soldiers. Oscar (Andrew French) is a wheelchair-confined major, investigating Eddie (Josh Collins) on behalf of the military police. A complaint has been made by Afghan villagers; it appears that a young boy was deliberately thrown into a well.

Close friends and comrades died as the effect of an improvised explosive device; Eddie is the sole surviver of the group, the Bully Boys. Bully, of course, has two distinct meanings – a jolly, dashing fellow is one. The other denotes someone who preys on weaker people. It is up to Oscar to establish just which one is significant in this context.

Dan Shearer’s production in the refurbished Mercury Studio Theatre has the audience steeply banked overlooking a wide but shallow acting area. Designer James Cotterill frames the action with dun-coloured fencing; both actors wear sand-camouflage combat gear. Rebecca Applin’s eerie music and Steve Mayo’s atmospheric soundscape drift across the action.

Of the two performers, it is Collins as the sparky, perky Eddie who has perhaps the easier task. he makes it apparent from the start that this is a façade, a mask which has become second nature; what is behind it is too raw for exposure. The British “stiff upper lip” propensity can conceal irremediable damage.

French plays a more complicated character; war hero (from the Falklands campaign), seeker after truth or a man in retreat from himself and his own past? He shows us someone for whom a desk-job and a wheelchair are no true compensation for what he has forfeited. In his own way, he too is engaged in a fight to survive.

Bully Boy runs at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester until 21 November.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015