Tag Archives: Tom Cornish

Don’t Look Now

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 26 October)

What sends shivers down the spine where tales of the supernatural are concerned is often less the visualised than the imagined. We all cast our demons from different moulds. Nell Leyshon’s stage adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story Don’t Look Now is given a production by Simon Jessop which knows when to make evil concrete – as little as possible.

It is the Venetian setting designed by Norman Coates with the visual effects projected onto its bridges, water and shuttered windows by Dan Crews and the trickling soundscape devised by Andy Smart which create the atmosphere. We begin by an open grave before which grief-striken mother Laura (Charlotte Powell) stands motionless. Hymns and part of the Requiem Mass are heard while we watch the image of Laura and John’s young daughter Christine drown.

John (Tom Cornish) whisks Laura away to Venice, where they spent their honeymoon. He’s prepared to move on – after all their son John is alive, well and safe at his boarding school. As one cannot help but empaphise with Laura, to whom Powell gives sincerity in her grief and inevitable feelings of guilt (“why didn’t I…?), Cornish balances this by showing John less as unfeeling but more as something of a pragmatist.

The hotel bedroom scene where his desire to make love with his wife at first meets resistance that (perhaps) melts into acceptance, is cleverly played on two levels with the live actors and their projected images. The mutual ground which constitutes terra firma for this husband and wife is quietly crumbling. Their encounters with two strange, identically dressed elderly women (Gillian Cally as the sister with explanations, Tina Gray as her blind mystic sibling) display brutally the gulf opening for Laura and John.

You probably know what happens next. Onlookers and participants in their own parallel civic drama are the police chief (Stuart Organ) hunting a serial killer, the hotel clerk (Callum Hughes) and the restaurant proprietor (Sam Pay). A mysterious beak-masked sacristan – a commedia dell’arte character or a plague doctor? – and a diminutive red-cloaked figure (Karen Anderson) haunt this winter Venice.

Don’t Look Now runs at the Quen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until14 November.

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The Elephant Man
(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 20 April)

Even after 38 years, the experience of reviewing Bernard Pomerance’s play about Joseph (commonly called John) Merrick is one which I’ve never completely forgotten. That production was at the Hampstead Theatre; a new staging by Simon Jessop for the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch has just started.

It’s intriguingly set within a dark-draped circular show-booth by Mark Walters, the sort of fairground venue which would have been familiar to Merrick in the late 19th century as his diseased appearance, then diagnosed as elephantiasis, was exploited for gain. Eventually he came under the care of Dr Treves at Whitechapel’s London Hospital.

Although Treves and his hospital superior Dr Gomm gave Merrick good care and a stable environment, Pomerance’s thesis suggests that exploitation (and its corollary, abuse) can develop from well-meaning as well as outwardly greedy intentions. Gomm’s publicising of Merrick’s case led to a spate of donations to the hospital for Merrick’s care and some socially prominent sponsorship.

Tom Cornish’s Merrick, as did David Schofield in 1977, uses mime and facial contortion to suggest the horror of the physical appearance rather than prosthetic make-up. It’s an intensely moving performance as the inner man – sensitive and in many ways creative – slowly emerges from its carapace. He’s matched by Fred Broom as Treves, a doctor with ambitions both medical and social and Stuart Organ’s hard-headed Gomm.

Fairground man Ross is suitably slimy (and dangerous with it) in James Earl Adair’s characterisation. This being the cut to the chase… company, Steven Markwick’s deceptively jolly score soon mutates in the hands of these actor-musicians into something altogether more discordant and sinister. Joanna Hickman is the cellist and also plays actress Margaret Kendall who undeatands Merrick’s secret longings as only a woman of many parts can. it’s a fine performance.

Ellie Ros Boswell and Megan Leigh Mason are th two fairground “beauties”, there to lure the naive audience into paying their tuppences for what were often fakes as well as freaks. I still think that the build-up to the end sits uneasily within the narrative framework, but the Passiontide parallels as Merrick faces up to the fact that he cannot live much longer and that his deepest longings will never find proper fulfilment are very moving.

This is a play which perhaps is an unusual choice for the Queen’s Theatre. But the opening night audience was a good-sized one and completely caught up in the drama – the tragic as well as the comic elements – as it proceeded. A taste now and then of vinegar or mustard always fire the appetite. What’s true for the palate is also true of the mind.

The Elephant Man runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 9 May.

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Plays

Boeing! Boeing!
(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 9 March)

Comedy is as old as drama itself and the variation we call farce is probably its original manifestation. Farce in the UK is a well-established, well-loved genre which has developed in a peculiarly British way from Charley’s Aunt in the 1890s through the Aldwych (1930s) and the Whitehall seasons in the 1950s and 60s to Ayckbourn and Frayn in our own time.

Then there’s French farce, its sister – but not an identical twin. Many of the elements are identical – a multitude of doors revealing or concealing people (usually girls in a distinct state of undress) while at least one hapless man tries ever more frantically to control events of which he never really was the master in the first place.

Both the British and French versions rely on the actors’ split-second timing and sense of ensemble. It helps if at least the protagonist has a clown’s miming ability. Which brings me to Matt Devitt’s production of Marc Camoletti’s Boeing! Boeing! at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch.

The plot concerns a Parisian man-about-town in the early 1960s who is basking in the fly-by attentions of three air hostesses (remember that this was a time when to be an air stewardess was as high a profile job as that of model or television presenter is today). Each thinks she’s his only “fiancée” (the Beverley Cross translation is of its era), thanks to Bernard’s canny manipulation of timetables.

Enter Robert, an old school friend up from the country on business who – not unnaturally – is riveted by this boulevardier lifestyle. Fred Broom plays increasingly harassed Bernard and Tom Cornish is Robert, puppy-dog eager to be involved and whose well-meaning attempts to help only – of course – make matters worse.

Then there’s Bertha (Megan Leigh Mason), Bernard’s maid, who becomes increasingly frustrated as timetables go awry. Bridging the gap between what would have been the first two acts, she earned her round of applause. The three contrasted air hostesses are go-getting Gloria (Ellie Rose Boswell) from TWA, Lufthansa’s valkyrie Gretchen (Joanna Hickman) and spirited Gabriella of Air Italia (Sarah Mahony).

Norman Coates’ set is another excellent one with clever projections and animations before the performance to remind us of time and place. His costumes are also spot-on. What rather lets it all flag, for all the cast’s hard work, is that the production lacks both the slick lightness of classic French farce and the knowingness of the home-grown British variety.

I’ve seen other productions of Boeing! Boeing! in the last couple of years where, for me, this hasn’t been an issue. This time it was one.

Boeing! Boeing! runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 28 March.

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Reviews

Deadly Murder
(reviewed at the Queens Theatre, Hornchurch on 2 February)

This is a thriller for three actors by the American playwright David Foley, doubling as a type of hommage to the films of Tarantino. After the sort of disco music and light show which puts us firmly in the world of the glitterarti, we are in the living-room of the Manhattan apartment which belongs to Camille (Lucy Benjamin).

Camille is a (very) wealthy widow and a designer of the sort of show-off jewellery which one might describe as bling. She also has a penchant for bedding younger, personable men. In this case it’s Billy (Tom Cornish). But Billy doesn’t just want to be paid for his services; he has a hidden agenda.

What would a woman who owns not just the penthouse but the whole apartment block do when her one-night stand refuses to accept his dismissal? She calls the security man (Sam Pay) – and this is where the plot thickens into a positive peasouper of double-and triple-crossings.

Director Simon Jessop wisely keeps the action at boiling point with just enough space for the sort of half-nervous laughter with which an engrossed audience can relieve its tension. The pace is brisk; even with an interval it’s less than two hours, which is just about right.

All three actors are excellent; our sympathies and understanding veer wildly as each new revelation presents itself. Cornish has the sort of louche sexiness which suggests an inherent morality and Benjamin matches him as the woman who takes what she wants, and comes back for the next helping. In many ways Pay has the most difficult role as a man who isn’t quite as clued-up as he thinks he is.

Though one might query if the whole thing wouldn’t have worked even better without the intermission (silly me! I forgot about those vital bar takings…)

One of Rodney Ford’s excellent sets – all exposed brick walls, angular chrome furniture and off-white upholstery – locates us in place and time. And if anyone know how to stage a stage fight which has the audience wincing in sympathy, it’s Malcolm Ranson.

Deadly Murder runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 21 February.

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