Tag Archives: Westcliff Palace Theatre

The Habit of Art

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 8 October

When does a poet or composer know when he has come to the end  of his powers? Is it the brain or the body which dictates the time? Does he just lay down his pen and opt for garnered laurels in a comfortable semi-retirement?

That’s the issue in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, a play within a play focusing on poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten at the end of their days. The fictional playwright has made Humphrey Carpenter (biographer of both Auden and Britten) into a framing device.

We’re in a typically chaotic rehearsal room Adrian Linford is the designer) with the stage manager standing in for the absentee director and the intense young author of Caliban’s Day increasingly paranoid about what the actors are doing with his carefully honed script.

Not only is the elderly actor playing Auden missing cues and needing endless prompts, but a couple of the younger cast members feel that they can bring more, much more, to the characters they play.

You can see why this is not one of Bennett’s most revived plays, but it rewards attention, as much as to what is unspoken as to what is actually said. Neither poet nor composer feel that their long-term partners (Kallman and Pears respectively) are as supportive as they want (or indeed, need).

The actors taking these parts, as well as the satellite cast, are equally dissatisfied in their individual ways. So Matthew Kelly’s superb Auden accepts his comfortable sinecure at Christ Church, Oxford while Fitz (the actor playing him) settles for supermarket voice-overs.

Donald, who takes the Carpenter rôle (John Wark), wants to build up his part. Auden’s rent-boy Stuart (Benjamin Chandler) feels that he also can add something to the production. Robert Mountford’s Neil, the playwright, just wants his script to be performed uncut with the emphases which he, not the director, dictates.

Trying to hold it all together are no-nonsense company stage manager Kay, to whom Veronica Roberts gives precisely the right combination of sympathy and authority and ASM George, played by Alexandra Guelff as a dogsbody with yearning to perform.

In the background until the second act is David Yelland’s Henry, playing Britten. He knows that Death in Venice will be his swan-song in many ways, a paean to vanished youth and the brightness of expectations. It’s a remarkable, unselfish performance, suggesting layers of masking as well as built-up sadness.

Director Philip Franks makes all Bennett’s tiers of make-belief and sadness credible for an audience which is not necessarily fully conversant with Auden’s or Britten’s work. You do need to concentrate, but that’s a good thing in the theatre. After all, all life’s a stage.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Habit of Art runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 13 October with matinées on 10 and 13 October. The tour also includes the Cambridge Arts Theatre (29 October-3 November) and the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (19-24 November).

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Gallowglass

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 20 February

Gallowglass is one of the psychological crime novels which Ruth Rendell wrote under the name of Barbara Vine. It weaves numerous threads into the web of its story. It is a tale about the effect of the past on the present and adapter Margaret May Hobbs is skillful in the way she draws us into the mystery.

We begin on one of Paddington Station’s Underground platforms. Joe Herbert, a young drifter is about to thrown himself under an incoming train but is prevented by Sandor Wincanton. He’s a young man on the graft in more ways than one, with a moneyed as well as troubled background.

The developing relationship of dependency between these two opposites is well brought out by Joe Eyre (Sandor), all black-clad educated arrogance, and Dean Smith (Joe), one of life’s malleable nonentities. Smith has the more difficult of the two rôles to sustain and gathers our sympathy as Joe is swept ever deeper into Sandor’s plans.

Central to these is former model Nina Abbott (Florence Cady). Nina is now the wife of an older wealthy East Anglian landowner, the second such match she has made. In the course of her previous marriage she had suffered a horrendous kidnapping; the fear that history might repeat itself sears both herself and her husband Ralph Apsoland (Richard Walsh).

As protection for her he hires Paul Garnett (Paul Opacic), a man who has to make a stable home for his young daughter Jessica (Eva Sayer) while sorting out the fallout from his failed marriage. Then there’s another appointee to the Apsoland staff – Colombo (Matthew Wellman) who doesn’t quite to fit in.

Sandor’s doting mother Diana is also on the periphery; Karen Drury gives her gullibility pathos in her two scenes. Joe’s foster-sister Tilley is a far more lively and brash personality; Rachael Hart gives this young woman in a camper-van a sharp edge, of the sort born from experience.

Director-designer Michael Lunney sprawls the fast-moving action through fast-changing locations with a judicious use of scenes played in front of projected backgrounds with appropriate sound effects (White Tip Media) alternating with realistic room settings split across the stage.

It does keep the action – and therefore the tension – fast-flowing but perhaps inevitably never quite allows the fullness of the characterisations to mature. For example, Cady’s Nina seems almost a shadow in her own drama and Walsh’s Ralph remains a conventional two-dimensional country toff. Opacic and Eyre break out of this mist, perhaps because their parts have more of an extended edge.

Four star rating.

Gallowglass runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 24 February with matinées on 22 and 24 February. The Middle Ground Theatre Company tour is also at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (Southend) between 24 and 28 April.

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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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Out of Order

reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 10 July

Farce requires two masters. One to write it. Another to direct it. For the current Out of Order tour, Ray Cooney combines the two roles, aided by a well-balanced ensemble cast and a deceptively realistic set by Rebecca Brower. Stage management also took a thoroughly deserved curtain-call bow.

The ingredients for the perfect farce include a scantily clad nubile girl (or two), a pompous personage losing his trousers, an upright citizen who should know better being caught out in flagrante, usually by his spouse (who herself may not be completely blameless, a vast number of doors – and split-second timing by a straight-faced cast.

Cooney has updated his 1990 West End success to incorporate up-to-the-minute political references. Out ant-hero is junior Cabinet Minister Richard Willey (Jeffrey Harmer) who plans to spend the night of a vote-critical debate with Jane (Susie Amy) who just happens to be the secretary to the Leader of the Opposition.

Things go awry (of course they do) and gormless, mother-ridden bachelor PPS George Pigden (Shaun Williamson) only makes them worse. The action takes place in a hotel near the House of Commons and the quartet in the suite (did I mention an apparent corpse (David Warwick) tastefully draped over the windowsill?) have to cope with a hotel manager who knows his job (Arthur Bostrom) and a waiter who knows how to rake in tips (James Holmes).

Sue Holderness as Richard’s wife Pamela, Jules Brown as Jane’s firebrand husband Ronnie and Elizabeth Elvin as Nurse Gladys (not just a pillow-smoother) complete the cast. Yes, it’s formulaic. No, it’s probably not politically correct. But it is a thoroughly enjoyable laugh-out-loud evening of light-hearted theatre with just the right hint of a bite.

Four and a half-star rating.

Out of Order runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 15 July with matinées on 13 and 15 July.

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A Judgement in Stone
reviewed in Westcliff on 5 June

Ruth Rendell’s 1977 crime novel A Judgement in Stone is, like most of her work, a subtle in-depth exploration of what makes some people into murderers and how others react. Some thrillers translate well to the stage or film; others become blurred or somehow skew characterisation and motivation with over-simplification.

Simon Brett and Antony Lampard have written the script for this new touring production which is dircted by Roy Marsden, no slouch as far as the dramatised thriller genre is concerned. The excellent, almost dominating and realistic set is by Julie Godfrey.

There are four members of the Coverdale family in whose country house the story is set. They’re an urbane quartet – husband George (Mark Wynter) and wife Jacqueline (Rosie Thomson) who are both on their second marriages, his daughter Melinda (Jennifer Sims) and her student son Giles (Joshua Price). They have a long-term housemaid Eva Baalham (Shirley Anne Field) and a gadener-cum-handyman, the loose-fingered Rodger Meadows (Antony Costa).

As housekeeper they choose Eunice Parchman (Sophie Ward), a shuffling pent-up volcano weighed down by the proverbial shoulder chips. It’s a remarkably effective portrait of a sad, unlikeable woman whose illiteracy is only gradually revealed as th action progresses (Rendell tells us about it in the opening line of the novel). Melinda’s genuine offer to help will only rebound.

Almost rivalling Ward in the performance stakes is Deborah Grant as Joan Smith, a no-good girl turned into Bible-thumper in full blast-off revivalist mode. The story is told in flash-backs as Detective Superinendent Vetch (Andrew Lancel) and Detecive Sergeant Challoner (Ben Nealon) attempt to establish why the Coverdales were shot down while watching a telecast of Don Giovanni and who did it.

The detectives prowl on and off the stage as their enquiry progresses, or stalemates. The actual sequence of events as they unfold punctuates their investigation, which has a somewhat alienation effect, possibly intended but probably not. Wynter makes George and Sims Melinda into three-dimensional people while Price puts over the student with his mind on higher things very well.

Thomson tends to squeak rather than speak her lines. Neither detective comes over with any sense of authority until the end of the play when they home in on the murderer. Costa makes the most of his incursions into the manor-house; he is a recognisable type of the no-gooder who is always going to be a suspect – for one crime or anoher.

Three and a half-star rating.

A Judgement in Stone runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 10 June with matinées on 8 and 10 June.

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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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A Party to Murder

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 19 September)

A play within a play is one thing. A double play within a play is quite something else. Marcia Kash and Douglas E Hughes’ thriller A Party to Murder, currently revived in a new touring production by Talking Scarlet, is also a double (if not treble) hommage to Agatha Christie. Confused? That’s just what the playwrights and director Patric Kearns intend you to be.

So sit up at the back of the audiorium and pay close attention. We’re in the main room of a luxurious house in the middle of a lake. Remind you of a particular Chritsie story? Except that this lake is somewhere between Canada and the United states. The year is 1988.

A group of six Christie afficiendos have met to play out a murder scenario. They have all paid to be part of the game; whoever guesses the correct suspect can choose his or her own prize, which mustn’t amount to more than the total sum in the kitty.

If you don’t know the plot – and this is certainly one stage thriller I’ve no encountered before – then I won’t spoil your suspense by taking you furher. The designer is Geoff Gilder, who gives us a room with built-in surprises; David North’s lighting is as atmospheric as Kearns’ elaborate soundscape, but that all-important secret door needs to be better able to conceal what does on behind it when it’s shut.

Ben Roddy as Charles, the organiser of this somewhat macabre party, contrasts well wih Oliver Mellor’s wheel-chaired Willy. John Hester plays businessman Elwood with Michelle Morris as his posturing model wife McKenzie. The other two women as Natasha Gray and Claire Fisher as siblings Valerie and Henrietta, who have just as many secrets to hide as everyone else on stage.

The performances are good, and the cast knows how to alternate moments of frantic verbal or physical activity with slower, quiteer ones. They all sustain their north American accents impeccably throughout.

It all engages attention while it’s happening in fron of us, but is perhaps not a play to linger in the memory and make one yearn to see what other ways of staging it there might be. Pehaps it’s no surprise that it isn’t often revived.

A Party to Murder runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 24 September wih matinées on 22 and 24 September. It also play at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon on 27 and 28 September.

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Dead Sheep

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff on 13 September)

An alternative title for Jonathan Maitland’s slice of almost-recent history might be, as he expresses it in his programme note, The Mouse That Roared. The play’s actual title is of course Dead Sheep, a reference to Dennis Healey’s comment that being attacked in the Commons by Geoffrey Howe was like being “savaged by a dead sheep”.

After a successful London season, director Ian Talbot is taking his production on a national tour until December. The plot is simple enough; it revoves around the professional relationship between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Steve Nallon) and her former Foreign Secretary, later Chancellor of the Exchequer, Howe (Paul Bradley). The third important character – who in many ways is shown as the catalyst for the dénouement – is Elspeth Howe (Carol Royle), an independent woman but also one concerned to support her husband.

The other characters are various Government advisors, MPs and assorted Ministers. Between them they provide some brilliant character studies – Graham Seed’s Ian Gow, Chrstopher Villiers’ Alan Clark and John Wark’s television interviewer stand out here. Morgan Large’s set is dominated by the Cabinet photograph, that famous one where dark-suited men are minimised by blue-clad Thatcher, the queen bee of that particular hive.

While Royle is very good as Elspeth Howe, both when she’s acting (as she herself admits) almost like Lady Macbeth screwing her husband up to the murder of Duncan and in her waspish exchanges with the Prime Minister during distinctly awkward social events at 10 Downing Street, the focus inevitably falls on the protagonist and antagonist in this 20th century variation on Greek tragedy.

As Thatcher, Nallon gives us a spot-on impersonation, from vocal mannerisms to shoe-pinching gait and the hand-shakes offered with the head vulture-looming but the torso withdrawn, but it remains an impersonation, not a portrayal. The House of Commons scene, where we see her reactions on-screen as well as facing us from the front bench, though is a marvellous piece of theatre.

Bradley has the most difficult rôle of all. He has to give us a credible picture of a man with immense abilities, great integrity and absolutely no charisma or proficiency in self-projection. He builds his portrait of Howe slowly, with meticulous detailing, so that the famouse resignation speech makes its full impact without us ever feeling that this is out of character for the man.

Dead Sheep runs at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff until 17 September at the start of a national tour lasting to 3 December. There are matinées on 15 and 17 September.

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Flare Path

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 28 September)

Getting the on-stage nuances right for any historical period is a triple effort, shared between director (Justin Audibert in this case), designer (Hayley Grindle) and – above all – the cast. Rattigan’s 1942 drama Flare Path takes place in the lounge of a hotel near an airfield, from which bomber and fighter pilots take off for their nightly flights over Germany. It’s a mission from which far too many will never return.

The officers and senior crew members use it as a sort of club, an alternative to the cramped messes and briefing-rooms of the station. Wives also take up residence, both short- and long-term, to snatch a few precious days with their menfolk. Enter a film star, predatory cockerel in this hen-roost, though with his intentions aimed purely at one particular resident.

This is where the production lets itself down somewhat. Leon Ockenden fails to radiate the tinsel-town alpha male glamour of Peter Kyle – think Clark Gable or Errol Flynn – of the expatriate leading man who is seeing his studio’s reliance on his box-office drawing powers fading rapidly. The girl he wants is actress Patricia Warren (Olivia Hallinan), with whom he has had a passionate on-off affair and who is now married to Fl Teddy Graham (Alastair Whatley, the artistic director of production company Original Theatre).

Whatley makes much of his second-act admission to the terrible effect which the bombing raids are having on him, both for the physical danger he encounters and through the regular loss of men who have become more than usually close comrades. I was less convinced by Hallinan’s posturing; one never quite believed in the character as an actress or in her obvious appeal to two such very different men.

The smaller rôles are well taken, notably by Siobhan O’Kelly as Doris, the barmaid now married to a Polish count who lost his original family to the Nazis and is, understandably, focussed on revenge. Simon Darwen’s Sgt Miller, Philip Franks’ Sq Ldr Swanson and Adam Best’s Count Skriczevinsky are also well-rounded portraits of people as well as of types.

Hayley Grindle’s costumes look right for the clothes and uniforms of the period and her sts is an effective blend of naturalism and symbolism. The central acting area gives us the by now slightly battered lounge, backed by an enormous red-curtained window and with a realistic fire in the footlights-level hearth. But this isn’t a box set, such as Rattigan would have envisaged for the original prodction. Instead it’s flanked by a suggestion of twisted, blackened metal and a bare-branched tree. Dominic Bilkey’s soundscape is almost frighteningly three-dimensional as the aircraft take off – but don’t always land successfully.

Flare Path continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 3 October. It also plays at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 19 and 24 October and at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff from 16 to 21 November.

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And Then There Were None

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 4 August)

Justice’s sword has always had two sharp edges, as Agatha Christie’s novels and plays wll demonstrate. None more so perhaps than And Then There Were None – both novel and self-dramatisation – which first appeared during the Second World War, and has had a variety of titles (depending on the shifting sands of political correctness) ever since.

We are in a palatial villa on a very small island just off the English coast in that febrile period between the two wars. Simon Scullion presents us with a stunning art déco set which wouldn’t disgrace Eltham Palace for this summer tour by Bill Kenwright and the Agatha Christie Theatre Company. The production is correctly given with two intervals, by the way.

As the apparently unconnected group of eight invited guests arrive on the island, to be greeted by resident houseman Rogers, his cook wife and the host’s secretary Vera Claythorne, it soon becomes apparent that the host and hostess are detained elsewhere and that the only thing to do is to wait in apparent isolation. Director Joe Harmston takes the opening sequences sufficiently leisurely to allow appreciation of the different characters to evolve.

By Act Two, the audience has been presented with a variety of clues as the tension builds after the revelation that all the characters have caused deaths and evaded the consequences. The question is, who wields justice’s sword? – Disguised ex-policeman Blore (Gary Mavers)? Retired general MacKenzie (Eric Carte) or former officer Lombard (Ben Nealon)? Or could it be Dr Armstrong (Mark Curry) or Mr or Mrs Rogers (Frazer Hines and Judith Rae)? Surely it cannot be either devout dowager Miss Brent (Deborah Grant) or stylish secretary Claythorne (Kezia Burrows)?

As lad-about-town Marston (Tom McCarron) is the fist victim of the “Ten little soldier-boys” riddle, it’s certainly not him. Why would it be former High Court judge Sir Lawrence Wargrave (Neil Stacey)? The only person not in the frame is local fishman and ferry owner Fred Narracott (Jan Knightley). Douglas Kuhrt’s lighting comes into its own at the start of the third act as the remaining guests wait for the next death by candlelight, which is brighter than the fading trust among them.

The cast is an excellent one, radiating that brittle mixture of confidence and uncertainties which one associates with the between-wars period. I’ve seen this thriller several times before but never with the ending offered here. Much discussion went on with the packed Bury St Edmunds audience in the intervals as to who the master-mind might be. Not one of my neighbours guessed correctly – and I refused to give the game away, then as now.

And Then There Were None runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 8 August, at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 24 and 29 August and at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff from 21 to 26 September.

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