Tag Archives: Tim Luscombe

The Turn of the Screw

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 1 March

Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Henry James’ ghost mystery novella attempts to leave the questions it poses open to whatever interpretation each member of its audience chooses to place on the characters and situations.

Director Daniel Buckroyd is thus handed a difficult task, for any staging is by its very nature a matter of definition. What we see are flesh-and-blood actors, however insubstantial or even perverse the psychology of the characters they portray.

Sara Perks’ setting offers a sequence of arches stretching back to mirror the theatre’st own proscenium. Within these there are minimal furnishings – a table, chairs, a rocking-horse, a hat-stand. Across the back, projections and Matt Leventhall’s lighting take us outside the house at Bly.

Central to the action and never off-stage is Carli Norris as the Governess. We meet her first in middle-age, apparently being interviewed by Mrs Conray (Annabel Smith) for a new post. But it her first engagement, at Bly, about which she is most pressingly questioned. Why is revealed by the disclosure that Mrs Conray is the adult Flora.

That gives Smith the opportunity, which she takes, to show us the assured matron secure in society as well as the dissatisfied girl on the cusp of womanhood. Michael Hanratty plays the man-about-town who employs the Governess, turning her head with his attentions to her as a woman while off-loading responsibility.

Hanratty also plays Miles, the young boy with an angelic face who may – or may not – have been expelled from school for good reasons. He gives us another well-contrasted dual portrait. Housekeeper Mrs Grose is played by Maggie McCarthy as a woman who does her best but ultimately has limited authority.

Always in the background – literally so in this production – are the two dead former employees, the governess Miss Jessel and the valet Peter Quint. We see them mainly as shadows, ambiguously credited in the programme as Jen Holt and Tom Macqueen. Understudy here is a word which can be taken many ways.

It all holds together as a piece of theatre, but it’s one which never quite delivers as much as it promises thus leaving a sense of dissatisfaction. Or should that be seen as unfulfilment?

Three and a half-star rating.

The Turn of the Screw runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 10 March with matinées on 3, 8 and 10 March. It is then on national tour until 26 May.

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Emma

reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 4 July

Novels and plays both tell stories. However, they often do this in different ways. In his new Jane Austen adaption for The Production Exchange, Tim Luscombe chooses to make part of the action which make up the multi-layered plot of Emma happen before our eyes (and ears) rather than to be revealed as a sequence of dénouements.

So we follow Frank Churchill (George Kemp)’s secret engagement to Jane Fairfax (Georgie Oulton) with all his convolution of subterfuge – designed to ensure his legacy from his domineering aunt – before Austen allows us to understand it. It makes him much more of the villain of the piece and allows us to sympathise with Jane’s predicament from the beginning.

Both Oulton and Kemp make the most of this; Oulton’s portrait especially comes over as that of a young woman with a conscience torn between love and financial necessity rather than as a simple feminine victim. There’s another neat study of a certain kind of womanhood in Hannah Genesius’ Mrs Elton.

Miss Bates with her disconnected vocal ramblings is made sympathetic in Kate Copeland’s brown-sparrow characterisation. Polly Misch makes the rather dippy, easily influenced Harriet an excellent foil to Bethan Nash’s Emma, the heroine who loves matchmaking and being the queen bee of her small local society. One understands why Philip Edgerley’s Mr Knightley is so exasperated as well as charmed by her.

Selfishly hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse and self-important Mr Elton make an interesting double for Nicholas Tizzard. Colin Blumenau’s production uses two levels in Libby Watson’s setting. One is a tilted circle (a wedding-ring, perhaps?) and the other is the well inside it, furnished with a table, chairs and a keyboard. Mike Cassidy’s lighting is subtle and the choreography by Claire Cassidy thoroughly applause-worthy.

Four and a half- star rating.

Emma runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 8 July with matinées on 6 and 8 July.

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Northanger Abbey
reviewed at Bury St Edmunds on 3 Feb

in 2017 a teenage girl might well be fixated on manufactured “celebrity” figures as defined by social media or the latest boy-band’s lead heartthrob. Just over two hundred years ago, her thrills came through Gothic romance novels, such as Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho – full of crumbling ruins, chained skeletons in dungeons, walled-up wailing nuns and savage robber barons.

Jane Austen, herself only 23 when she began Northanger Abbey, pokes delicate fun at the genre – which she herself enjoyed reading, though rather more cynically than her heroine Catherine Morland. This eldest daughter of a loving but financially straitened gentry family is taken to Bath by her rich neighbours Mr and Mrs Allen. There she encounters her brother James, his university friend John Thorpe (and his sister Isabella) and the two childen of irascible General Tilney, Eleanor and Henry.

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, itself a Georgian playhouse, has built quite a reputation for stage adaptations of Austen’s novels. Directed by Karen Simpson, this Tim Luscombe adaptation again uses a small cast within Dawn Allsopp’s minimal set, so that the action flows from Bath to Northanger, from curricle travel to hilltop picnics. The first half is even so perhaps just a little too drawn-out. Eva Feiler makes a delightful heroine, deliciously gullible as she weaves her fantasies and grasps at the next excitement on offer until brought back to reality with the proverbial bump.

Neither Thorpe is a particularly pleasant person. Annabelle Terry gives us all Isabella’s selfishness, wiggling out of her engagement to James (Joseph Tweedale) when she finds that he is not due to inherit much money as though she was shrugging off an outdated chemise. Joe Parker is the self-inflated, ego-stroking oafish John. True affection and calm reason by contrast are personified by Harry Livingstone’s Henry Tilney; his is the quiet voice and unobtrusive presence which will finally resolve all to a proper conclusion.

Jonathan Hansler’s martinet of an authoritarian father (one winces for the junior officers he once commanded) lingers almost gloatingly on Catherine’s surname when he thinks she is a potential heiress; “more land!” lies behind the emphasis. There’s a touch of his steel in Emma Ballentine’s Eleanor when she herself manages to marry the man she loves (opposition fades when her bridegroom inherits a title) and pulls rank to allow Catherine a share in the nuptuals. Hilary Tones contrasts Mrs Allen and Mrs Morland quietly but effectively.

Rather than a choreographer as such, the dancing and general Regency-era deportment are by Julia Cave. Rather than a near-balletic sequence of steps, hers are dancing as performed by ordinary people, some better at it than others – just as in real life. Matt Bugg’s score occasionally suggests an ill-tuned fortepiano, again a realistic touch, but softens into something which is completely tuneful but never obtrusive.

Four star rating.

Northanger Abbey runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 11 February with matinées on 8 and 11 February. The national tour continues until 13 May and includes the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 2 and 6 May.

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