Tag Archives: Salisbury Playhouse

Deathtrap

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 27 September

Envy is a prime reason for murder, at least on the stage. What gives Ira Levin’s Deathtrap the edge over many other thrillers is the particular context – a successful playwright who has apparently lost his winning streak and an eager young dramatist to may just have discovered his.

This new Salisbury Playhouse production directed by Adam Penford has its audience in its grip from the opening clap of sound (Ben and Max Ringham) which is guaranteed to put us all in full listening mode.

Morgan Large’s set has its own surprises as well are faced by Paul Bradley’s deceptively teddy-bear Sidney Bruhl and his understandably spiky wife Myra (Jessie Wallace).

Fresh-faced Clifford Anderson is soon on the scene, happy to listen to advice, though not necessarily to embrace it. The other two characters are émigrée  mystic Helga ten Dorp, with whom Beverley Klein has a great deal of over-the-top fun, and stuck-in-a-rut lawyer Porter Melgrim (Julien Ball).

As Sidney remarks in his first lines, a new play with one set, two acts, five characters and a fresh plot cannot help but be a success. What Penford and his cast bring out is some sense of the creative process where the goal is somehow just a revision or elision away, but never yet quite there.

That sense of something somehow missing is what keeps an audience focussed in its own quest for the elusive.

Four and a half-star rating.

Deathtrap continues at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 30 September with matinées on 28 and 30 September. It can also be seen at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 30 October and 4 November.

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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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Worst Wedding Ever
reviewed in Ipswich on 2 March

Weddings last for a few hours, usually involve a great many people and can cost a great deal more than a brand-new car. Marriages are something different, a compact of commitment between two indivduals. The drama of a wedding is a cumulative effect. The drama of a marriage is much more slow-burning.

Originally premiered at the Salisbury Playhouse three years ago, Chris Chibnall’s Worst Wedding Ever has been updated and is now given in a new production by Gareth Machin, the first fruit of a new partnership between the Playhouse, Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre and the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch. Rachel and Scott know what they want – a simple registry office ceremony with just a pub lunch for a few close friends and family.

After all, money will be tight until he finishes his teacher-training and there’s the mortgage on a flat to take into account. But Liz, Rachel’s mother, has other ideas; they involve wedding lists, a lavish church ceremony, a sit-down meal in a marquee, top-of-the-range photography and – of course – a gasp-eliciting wedding dress.

As with any comedy which threatens to tip over into farce (or perhaps even into tragedy), we meet membes of a somewhat disfunctional family. Julia Hills as Liz, the micro-managing mother in question, dominates the action, well contrasted with her husband Mel, to whom Derek Frood imparts a distinctly laid-back quality. Nav Sidhu’s Scott is a young man with principles – and he’s sticking to them.

Elisabeth Hopper’s Rachel is another credible character, knowing what she wants n her heart of hearts, but concerned not to wreck her family in the process. Wrecker in chief is her elder sister Alison (Elizabeth Cadwallader), going through a messy divorce process with Mike (Lloyd Gorman), and matter aren’t helped by Kiernan Hill’s Graeme, a vicar too trendy for anyone’s good. Then Andy (Ben Callon), the son of the family drifts in…

The garden set by James Button has its own surprises, with musicians materialising from some unusual places, not to mention a selection of projections. Machin keeps the action fast and suitably furious, though the script could perhaps be better for a little trimming. There’s a superb coup de théåtre towards the end with a repercussion with is equally unexpected.

Four and a half-star rating.

Worst Wedding Ever continues at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 11 March with matinées on 8 and 11 March. It then transfers to the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch between 15 March and 1 April.

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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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84 Charing Cross Road

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 5 September)

The antiquarian bookshop which provides the title for James Roose-Evans’ production of his own stage adptation is no more. The two-decade epistolary exchanges between New York client Helene Hanff and shopmanager Frank Doel also belongs to a vanished age, perhaps being more akin to those fictional letter eschanges which so many novels of the 18th and early 19th century used as their format.

It’s a gentle, mannerly adaptation, given a matching production with an excellent flexible set by Norman Coates, most of which (very properly) being the bookshop with its mountains of shelves; Hanff’s cramped bed-sitters take up only a fraction of the space. The outstanding performance, beautifully nuanced and thoroughly three-dimensional, is that of Clive Francis as Doel.

Stefanie Powers’ Hanff gives us the outline of the outsider scrambling a living as script-reader and -writer but somehow the necessary acerbic rasp is missing. Throughout, for me, her performance is too quietly spoken. We laugh at the succession of financial disasters (dentistry and apartment demolition among them) which impede Haff’s chance of visiting London, but somehow it’s at the suggestion of these, not a sense of their reality.

There are strong performances by the other cast members, notably by Rosie Jones as Cecily, who starts her own correspondence with Hanff, and Irene Rambota as Hanff’s actress friend Maxine, who visits the shop while in a play transferred from Brodway to London (with muted box-office success). Hayward B Morse plays Mr Martin, one of those shop fixtures only really appreciated when lost.

This production was premiered at the Salisbury Playhouse last year and marks a move towards reviving in-house produced drama for the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Lee Dean is the co-producer.

84 Charing Cross Road runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 17 September. There are matinées on 8, 10, 15 and 17 September.

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Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern

(reviewed on 25 September – preview)

The 1712 trial of an elderly widow living in the Hertfordshire village of Walkern is often seen as England’s last witchcraft trial. It’s not, but the story – as told in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play premièred at the Palace Theatre Watford before a national tour lasting into 2016 – remains a gripping one.

Lenkiewicz has taken a dramatist’s licence with her characters, though her fictional Rev Samuel Crane is just as fanatical and unpleasant as the real-life Rev Francis Bragge and mixed-up teenager Ann Thorn is as disturbed as her factual counterpart Anne. Designer James Button uses a suitably earth-colour palette, while director Ria Parry uses the flexibility of the settings to keep the story swirling as it should do.

We join the story just after Ann (Hannah Hutch) has seen her own mother hanged for witchcraft. the women of the village are sympathetic enough, but the older ones feel vulnerable. Ann is to be taken into the household of a bishop Francis Hutchinson (David Acton), suffering an enforced sabbatical from his Irish diocese, who is himself viewed with suspicion by the locals. This is acerbated by his housekeeper Kemi Martha (Cat Simmons) being a nubile negress.

If Hutchinson is the voice of enlightened Christianity, Crane (Tim Delap) is from the Matthew Hopkins mould; he is determined to root out witchcraft, country beliefs and pastimes. He has already successfully prosecuted Eleanor Thorn, now his sights are set on Jane Wenham (Amanda Bellamy) – who has already suffered interrogation under torture when accused some years earlier.

Jane is understandably bitter, trapped as she is in a backwoods rural location where her solitude, the leg which has never healed after the torture and her hard-learned skills with herbs is as feared as used by her neighbours. She finds Ann troubling as the girl veers from ingratiating herself where she sees a possible advantage and almost hysterical despair; this is very well portrayed by Hutch.

The most sympathetic characters, other than Hutchinson and itinerant farm labourer Fergal (Andrew Macklin), are the local inn-keeper Widow Higgins (Rachel Sanders) and Kemi. Sanders also doubles Bridget Hurst, a baby-farmer whose daughter Effie’s drowning sparks the full fury of the witch-hunt. Simmons plays an intriguing character, both caring for and resentful of her complex relationship with Hutchinson, whose hummed and softly sung settings of Donne poems (Max Pappenheim is the composer) act as a sort of Greek chorus for the action.

I suspect that most theatre-goers will find it difficult not to draw parallels with Miller’s The Crucible, also a play about suspected witchcraft and the savage hysteria it generates. Lenkiewicz’s play is perhaps more strident in its characterisation of the accused and the accusers, and there is a distinct 21st century air to it. But all writers of historical drama filter the past through their own contemporary lens. In some ways 1712 is distant. In others, it’s chipping away at our own sense of perhaps too complacent 2015 security.

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern plays at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 3 October and then tours Essex and Suffolk until 17 October. It also visits the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (21-24 October), the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool (27-31 October), the Tobacco Factory, Bristol (3-7 November), the Salisbury Playhouse (10-14 November) and the Arcola Theatre, London (5-30 January).

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Little Shop of Horrors

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 29 May)

“Don’t feed the plants!” warns director Gareth Machin in his introduction to this new staging of the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical, a shared production between the Mercury Theatre and Salisbury Playhouse. As Audrey II (made by Accord Stage Works and frighteningly well manipulated and voiced by Andrew London and Leon Craig respectively) swells to take over James Button’s set, one definitely takes the point.

It’s strongly cast as well. Ben Stott is the shy, be-spectacled flower-shop assistant Seymour who creates Audrey II, names it for his colleague (Frances McNamee), who is in an abusive relationship with leather-clad dentist Orin (Jez Unwin) and finds himself its slave – Audrey II being distinctly carnivorous.

You sympathise throughout with Stott as well as with McNamee, whose voice is admirably suited to the lyricism of her numbers, notably “Somewhere that’s green”. Unwin is thoroughly unpleasant as Orin, which is just as it should be. Simeon Truby seizes his school of Fiddler on the Roof moments, especially in “Mushnik and son” (the five-piece band is led by Richard Reeday).

There’s an effective trio of Skid Row street kids – Gbemisola Kumelo, Karis Jack and Carole Stennett – who act as a sort of chorus as the tragedy (which it fundamentally is, for all our laughter) reaches its climax. The finale, with the trio and Audrey II meal victims high above the acting area and transformed into clones, emphasises this. Game, set and match to Audrey II, I fear.

Little Shop of Horrors runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 13 June.

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