Tag Archives: Stephen Cavanagh

Mother Courage and Her Children

(reviewed at the Harlow Playhouse on 28 September)

This is Contexture Theatre’s most ambition production in the three years the Bishop’s Stortford based-company has been in existence. It marks a new partnership with Harlow Playhouse and is intended to tour next year. Of all Brecht’s dramas, this 1941 epic of the Thirty Years War has its parallel in the contemporary conflict engulfing Europe; its bitter analysis of war’s effect on “the little people” is equally coruscating in David Hare’s 1995 translation.

Brecht’s characterisations of Anna, endlessly trudging with her cart full of muscellaneous goods (provenance not to be questioned), defeats his famous “alienation effect”. Mother Courage cannot help but evoke our understanding (and sympathies) and Gailie Pollock gives us the full measure of this natural survivor. She stabs at Laurence Aldridge’s score with the same intensity.

In the course of her journeying, Courage loses both her sons and her dumb daughter as she wheels and deals – not always to her benefit. Aldridge also plays the army officers’ Cook, another wheeler-dealer who will probably survive. Another of the type is camp follower Yvette, who Holly Ashton rounds out both vocally and histrionically. Stephen Cavanagh is the Swedish Army Chaplain, cowardly as well as self-serving.

Darcey James makes much of Kattrin, the girl left traumatised by an assault in childhood; her final act of defiance makes its full impact. Both her half-brothers misjudge the fluidity of battlefield fortunes – Dominic Gee Burgh’s Eilif dies from repeating the action which won him praise and then the firing quad when repeated in different circumstances. Jack Quarton’s Swiss Cheese makes a similar error, this time involving the regimental cash-box.

As suits the subject and the style, Amanda Stekly and Tom Cliff give us a bare stage with moveable screens and the cart itself indicating the changes of location. Pollock’s costumes are vaguely those of the First World War. Dave Thompson’s projections at the conclusion remind us that the world is still full of fighting with its inevitable victims. Simon Anderson’s production is suitably taut, though the sound balance for the all-important songs needs some attention.

Mother Courage and Her Children runs at the Harlow Playhouse until 1 October with a matinée on 29 September.

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Abigail’s Party

(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford on 7 October)

Mike Leigh’s searing dissection of 1977 England is now both a period piece and a play for all times, because its characters are truly people. Probably we all know go-getters, second careerists and socially ambitious neighbours. With luck, these don’t include a Beverly, in whose sitting-room the action of Abigail’s Party takes place.

Her guests for the evening include an established resident, Susan (Gailie Pollock) – whose teenage daughter is throwing the party of the title – and new neighbours nurse Angela (Natalie Caswell) and husband Tony (Matthew Bancroft). Former beautician Beverly is determined to be the queen bee in this particular hive; of course, queen bees have a lethal way with their mates.

Director Simon Anderson in this new Contexture production takes it all at a brisk pace with Tom Cliff’s extended set flanked on stage left by the pseudo-Georgian front door marked with its ominous number 13. Anderson is not afraid to put the sofa on which Angela, all girlish naïvité with a school-of-Laura-Ashley frock to match, and sensibly-clad Susan perch so uncomfortably facing the audience; we become flies on the fourth wall waiting for the inevitable to occur.

Charlotte Newton-John, sashaying around either the coffee-table or her guests in an ankle-length flame-coloured gown, her hair teased into a topknot of suspiciously bright curls, is an eye- and ear-riveting Beverly. Her “Don’t get me wrong” catch-phrase carries destruction every time she trills it. This is a performance to savour. It puts both Pollock and Caswell somewhat in the shade, however.

As monolithic and monosyllabic Tony, embarrassed by his wife’s gushing over Beverly’s taste in furnishings, Bancroft creates a realistic portrait of a man who will go his own way, regardless. Harassed estate-agent Laurence, juggling with clients’ demands and his wife’s constant commands so thinly veiled by a last-minute “please” gradually earns our sympathy as well as understanding. Stephen Cavanagh has the measure of the man as he finds something of a kindred spirit in Susan. By then, it’s all too late.

Abigail’s Party runs at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford until 13 October.

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Stones in His Pockets
(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford on Tuesday 21 April

Marie Jones’ Irish rural tragicomedy offers a superb opportunity to its two-man cast. Between them they play tens of different parts, including a female one. The setting is a rural village, suffering the usual unemployment and boredom malaises, and currently taken over by a Hollywood film-crew.

A bodice-ripping epic is in progress, with the heiress heroine taking the part of the down-trodden peasantry thanks to their school-of-Rhett-Butler spokesman – with whom (naturally) she has fallen with love. The locals have been roped in as extras, which at first seems a well-paid way to garner a little kudos, even though the four euros a day is more likely to be spent in the pub than saved.

The main two characters are Charlie (Richard Galloway) and Jake (Stephen Cavanagh). Charlie has written a screenplay and is desperate to use the opportunity of the film to get it accepted. Jake has itchy feet; he has tried to make a success in the USA but returned home disappointed and more than slightly disgruntled.

Charlie also has a teenage cousin, a lad without hope or prospects, who drinks too much and is now into drugs. Falling for Caroline Giovanni, the star of the film, he is strong-armed out of the pub where he accosted her and, all hope gone, drowns himself (hence the play’s title). It’s a tragedy for the close-knit village, but only a time-wasting nuisance for the film crew.

Director Gailie Pollock in this new Contexture production keeps the action on the move with low-level projections to indicate location and the main stage occupied by sloping green turf and a bench by a well. The design is by Pollock and Tom Cliff and works very well. But any production of Stones in His Pockets is only as good as the multi-cast two actors, and they don’t let Pollock down.

Whether it’s the camp Ashley and his opposite number cynical Simon, the winsome Caroline flattering Jake because she wants to copy his accent (he does eventually suss this out), Caroline’s security gorilla, the old man who was an extra in a John Wayne film many years ago or the priest who has buried too many of his former pupils, it would be hard to say whether Cavanagh or Galloway walks away with the acting honours. They are both equally good.

Stones in His Pockets runs at the Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop’s Stortford until 26 April.

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