Theatre reviews archive

————————————————————————-

2011

————————————————————————-

Reviews 2011

Plays are judged on the space, resources available, material, performance and overall artistic interpretation.

5 stars: Brilliant. Theatre at its best – hard to find anything to criticise but everything to praise.

4 stars: Above average production well worth going to see. Some excellent moments.

3 stars: The bench mark of theatre performance. Everything was done well.

2 stars: One or two aspects that let down an otherwise good production.

1 star: Various failings led to a disappointing production – but some positive points.

0 stars: Not yet good enough to be performed – either due to content, script, acting, production or direction.

—————————————————————————–

Bane 1+2. The Brewhouse Theatre & Art Centre, Taunton, Somerset, England

Joe Bone gives a remarkable performance in this salute to comic book heroes. A true professional of his art, what unfolds before you, as he races about the stage, is a parody of the American gangster movie genre, complete with shoot-outs, fist-fights, poisoning, revenge, and of course the obligatory female distractions.  Remarkable it is, because Joe is a solo performer who depicts over 50 characters with no props; using mime and voice alone.  His soundscape is outstanding as he voices everything, from the sound of lighting a ‘cigarette’ (so convincing I actually thought I saw smoke!), to an opera diva, to the giant raw of a…..now that would be telling too much. Atmosphere and tension is created with inserts of live guitar, courtesy of Ben Roe.

Writer and creator, Joe tells the story through the eyes of our anti-hero:  hard-boiled hired hand Bruce Bane, as he goes about his bloody crime with the fearless tenacity of those boyish comic book capers.

For those of you who might have already seen Bane 1 as a complete production, Bane 2 becomes an extension of the story, essentially the second act of the production. Over two hours of blood, sweat and tears is provided for our entertainment.  This is pure theatre: pacey, exhilarating, and raw.  In fact, the only thing lacking was a deservedly bigger audience.

Rating: Five stars

Reviewer: Diane Lukins

Date: Reviewed on Monday, September 19, 2011.

Running Times: Both plays 2hrs; curtain up 7.45pm, interval 8.45pm; restarted 9pm; ended at 10.00pm; 1hr first half, 1hr second half.

Audience: Less than 100 of the 352 seats occupied.

Company: Whitebone Productions. http://www.whiteboneproductions.com; http://www.brucebane.com

Cast:

Bane                       Joe Bone

Other characters    Joe Bone

Musician                 Ben Roe

Production:

Various guest directors have included Ben Roe, Christian Ebert, William Hartley and Dom Stone

Writer: Joe Bone (1984-)

Notes: Show started on time. No glitches.

Theatre company notes: Bane is a one-man show with a live guitar soundtrack. There are three Bane theatre shows, each follow anti-hero Bruce Bane.

Bane premiered in 2009, Bane 2 in 2010 and Bane 3 in 2011 as part of a Brighton Dome and International Festival commission. Bane was featured on Claudia Winkleman’s BBC Radio 2 Arts Show and BBC Radio 3’s The Verb in May 2011.

Heavily inspired by film and graphic novels, the performance uses mime, gesture and sound effects to conjure the setting, with multiple character switching to create a filmic tapestry on stage that is funny, engaging and at times moving.

Writer and creator Joe Bone plays all of the characters across the trilogy, bringing his comic antihero and tale of bloody revenge to life with just his body, his voice and a stunning live guitar soundtrack from Ben Roe. The shows can be seen separately, either way around, or one after another, and can be booked as stand alone shows or as part of a double bill or trilogy.

Tour Dates: Bane Part Three at Upstairs at Three and Ten, Brighton between Tue 15 November 2011 and Sat 19 November 2011.

———————————————————————————–

The Crucible. The Lyric Theatre, Belfast, Northern Ireland

The paranoia at the heart The Crucible rings as true today as when it was first performed in 1953. Dissent brings accusation, trial and injustice. From playwrights and actors caught up in a 50s hunt for reds under the bed, to those arrested for trying to tell the truth about The War on Terror, or peace campaigners in Northern Ireland silenced long before the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to The Troubles. When a society (or a society within a society) decides everyone must conform then truth and justice are casualties along with those who object to the madness.

Written at the height of hearings by the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee, Arthur Miller’s brilliant demolishment of the arguments of intolerance centres on the false accusations of witchcraft made by frightened and sexually frustrated teenage girls. These unreliable witnesses are believed by the power hungry clerics in the 17th century America settlement of Salem who wish to glorify themselves in the eyes of their God.

In the recreated Lyric Theatre’s opening production Conall Morrison directs a faithful and gripping version of Miller’s lengthy and at times preachy modern classic in Sabine Linehan’s symphony in wood panelling set. The new auditorium’s timber panelled interior merges into the claustrophobic setting of John Procter’s home, courtroom and prison.

The cast give the production its strength with the subtle and not so subtle human emotions that convincingly bind the relationships together. Patrick O’Kane as a darkly clad sexually attractive John Procter dominates proceedings as the farmer who is slowly drawn into the insanity of the witch hunt through his involvement with his family’s maid the sexually proactive Abigail (Aoife Duffin) as she tries to draw him away from his nice but dull wife Elizabeth (Catherine Cusack).

The black slave Tituba (Angela Phinnimore) is brilliantly unsettling as she desperately tries to wriggle out of the accusations of devilry, while there are further fine performances from Lalor Roddy as Giles Corey and Alan Stanford as Judge Danford adding humour, pathos and injustice in equal measure. Added theatricality is given by the dramatic scene changes incorporating music, sound and lighting as the back wall spins around to reveal another equally darkly timbered setting for the unfolding drama.

Ruairi Conaghan enjoyed himself as the evil witchfinder Rev Hale as he finds the devil’s work practically everywhere – and skilfully conveyed the 18th century biblical arguments that seem so ridiculous today. The firebrand evangelist coupled with a number of Ulster accents in the cast gave uncomfortable overtones of the politics of the last three decades of the province when tolerance of dissenting voices has not always been witnessed. These were perhaps the only reference Morrison makes to the theatre production’s backdrop.

The choice of the troubling story of paranoia in a religiously bigoted community is a pertinent one for the new Lyric Theatre, perched on its dramatic slope overlooking the River Lagan. With Martin Lynch’s Dockers and Janet Behan’s Brendan At The Chelsea to follow, the theatre looks set a successful opening season.

The Crucible continues until 5 June.

Rating: Three stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Audience: over 90 per cent full house

———————————————————————————–

Equus. The Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton, Somerset, England.

One fights and fornicates, the other analyses and agonises. One fits and swears, the other argues and articulates. Two protagonists: teenage horse mutilator Alan Strang and child psychiatrist Martin Dysart square up to each other in Peter Shaffer’s 1970s psychological drama and brutally deconstruct each other. Or rather the essential story lies in the one unpicking the other and then unpicking himself to a state of nervous collapse.

Michael Cabot’s production for the London Classic Theatre was marked by its ability to command the complete attention of the audience of a packed Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton. A striking amphitheatre set by Kerry Bradley of mock marble curved seating and horses’ heads brilliantly lit by Paul Green is set before a suspended circle of hay and vast crucifix while below are an ever present ensemble cast of eight, dressed in muted colours and casually appropriate costumes. They create a strangely hypnotic atmosphere with their downcast faces – an atmosphere that doesn’t let up until the interval.

Malcolm James as Martin Dysart is dry, direct and disarming as the doctor who attempts to unravel the complexities and contradictions of Alan Strang, played by Matthew Pattimore – a hyper tense knot of contorted teenage angst, constricted by his parents and by his inner sexual demons that mixed in unequal portions Christianity, sexuality and a passion for horses.

Exceptional performances came from Carole Dance as Heather – Dysart’s confidante – Steve Dineen as the bombastic father who bullies and misunderstands his son and Jamie Matthewman as Harry, while Anna Kirke as Alan’s mum added depth to  a woman who could have been two dimensional. Aidan Downing was brilliant at the horse Nugget while Helen Phillips as Jill brought a warmth and humanity to her role that so nearly rescued Alan.

It’s a stunning play, known for its nudity and its erotic equestrianism. It’s a modern classic. And in this production the powerful script is combined with a sense of theatre too infrequently experienced.

The production tours nationally until late November. For details and dates visit http://www.londonclassictheatre.co.uk

Rating: Five stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Date: Reviewed on Tuesday, October 18, 2011.

Running Times: 2hrs 5mins; curtain up 7.45pm, interval 8.50pm; restarted 9.20pm; ended at 10.05pm; 1hr 10mins first half, 45 mins second half.

Audience: Around 320 of the 352 seats occupied on its first night.

Company: London Classic Theatre. http://www.londonclassictheatre.co.uk

Cast:

Nugget                        Aidan Downing

Alan Strang                 Matthew Pattimore

Martin Dysart                         Malcolm James

Nurse                           Helen Phillips

Hesther Salomon        Carole Dance

Frank Strang                Steve Dineen

Dora Strang                 Anna Kirke

Young Horseman        Aidan Downing

Harry Dalton               Jamie Matthewman

Jill Mason                    Helen Phillips

 

Production:

Director                                   Michael Cabot

Designer                                  Kerry Bradley

Lighting Designer                    Paul Green

Costume Designer                  Katja Krzesinska

Horse Head Construction        Julia Jeulin, Fiona Gourlay

Production Manager               Kris Snaddon

Technical Stage Manager       Kate Wilcock

Assistant Stage Manager        Fiona McCulloch

Writer: Peter Shaffer (1926-)

Notes: Show started on time. No glitches.

Theatre company notes:

In a Hampshire stable, a youth blinds six horses with a metal spike.

Convicted of this appalling crime, seventeen-year-old Alan Strang is sent to a secure psychiatric hospital. Martin Dysart, the child psychiatrist assigned to him, begins to probe Alan’s past in an attempt to understand his motives. Initially the boy is silent and uncooperative, but as Dysart digs deeper, he gradually gains Alan’s trust and the truth begins to emerge.

As Alan struggles to be free of his demons, he must first relive the events of that terrible night.Inspired by a true story, Peter Shaffer’s unique psychological thriller explores the complex relationships between worship, myth and sexuality.

Following in the footsteps of the immense success enjoyed by the play’s West End revival in 2007, Shaffer’s powerful, absorbing drama will the tour the UK in autumn 2011, with a vibrant new ensemble breathing fresh life into his theatrical masterpiece.

Peter Shaffer was born in 1926. His award-winning plays include The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), Black Comedy (1965) and Amadeus (1979).  Equus won the Tony Award and New York Critics Circle Award for Best New Play in 1977.

DATE  VENUE/WEBSITE  BOX OFFICE  8-10 September  Gala Theatre Durham  0191 332 4041  13, 14 September  Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy  01592 583302  15, 16 September  Maltings, Berwick-upon-Tweed  01289 330999  17 September  Queen’s Hall, Hexham  01434 652477  20, 21 September  Norwich Playhouse  01603 598 598  22-24 September  Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield  01484 430528  26-28 September  Courtyard Theatre, Hereford   01432 340555  29 Sept – 1 Oct  Connaught Theatre, Worthing  01903 206206  4-8 October  Oldham Coliseum  0161 624 2829  10-12 October  Key Theatre, Peterborough  01733 207239  13-15 October  Harlow Playhouse  01279 431945  18, 19 October  Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton  01823 283244  20-22 October  Theatre Royal, Winchester  01962 840440  1-3 November  Lighthouse, Poole  0844 406 8666  4, 5 November  Landmark Theatre, Ilfracombe  01271 324242  8, 9 November  Buxton Opera House  0845 127 2190  10-12 November  Civic Theatre, Chelmsford   01245 606505  14-16 November  Central Theatre, Chatham  01634 338338  17-19 November  Lincoln Performing Arts Centre  01522 837600  22, 23 November  Hartlepool Town Hall Theatre  01429 890 000  26, 27 November  Marina Theatre, Lowestoft  01502 533200.

——————————————————————————————

The Fitzrovia Radio Hour. The Kings Theatre, Cheddar, Somerset.

With its cabbages, cups and colanders, The Fiztrovia Radio Hour is a delightfully dexterous piece of choreography of domestic objects and clipped accents. The objects in question being everyday household items employed to create sound effects for the quintet of spoof radio plays that lovingly send up the era of Special Agent Dick Barton and the Adventures of PC49. Set in the style of a 1940s radio station where dress code is black tie and the actors have plums in their mouths the hour is in fact nearer 85 minutes of high speed comedy.

Set in an On Air radio studio, the cast of five work with scripts in hand to keep the show on the road by speaking rapidly into vintage microphones whilst desperately preparing the next prop and sound effect. It’s highly entertaining for an hour so as the actors bring to life Nazi Firemen in London, The Four Minute Mystery and The House of Clocks amongst other mini dramas as well as adverts for tea and whisky in between.

And that’s it. It’s seamlessly put together with tip top performances from a suave pencil moustached Phil Mulryne, a demure Dorothea Myer-Bennett and a verbally athletic Dan Starkey. The facial expressions of Alex Ratcliffe and Fiona Sheehan particularly enhanced the stories – and more importantly added nuances to the characters’ relationships as they jostled to be on cue and on time. They were simply breath-taking in their comic complexity.

The audience immediately warmed to the pastiche of Empire and the BBC Home Service with its references to tiffin, tea and Johnny Foreigner. Germans are funny, the French even funnier, and as for working class northerners – well they are a hoot from start to finish. And although the show contained a certain amount of irony, implying these ancient stereotypes were ridiculous, the writers didn’t carry it through and debunk them completely. Instead we were only taken so far in the send up of 1940s attitudes.

The show didn’t have a narrative for the five actors who played all the roles. There was no story about the storytellers that could have freed it from the static drama where nothing happens other than the radio plays. This all may seem a little unfair considering the expertise amongst the cast but the Fitzrovia Radio Hour can’t move to another level unless it becomes a play about a play. Or rather plays. It’s essentially an extremely funny sketch that repeats itself for 85 minutes.

It’s warm, it’s affectionate and it’s brilliantly acted. It just needs a story.

The production tours nationally until November 15, 2011. For details and dates visit http://www.fitzroviaradio.com.

Rating: Three stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Date: Reviewed on Wednesday, November 2, 2011.

Running Time: 40mins first half. 20 min break. 50mins second half.

Times: curtain up 7.35pm, ended at 9.25pm

Audience: Approximately 75 per cent of the 180 seats occupied

Company: Fitzrovia Radio Hour

Cast included:  Phil Mulryne, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Alex Ratcliffe, Fiona Sheehan, Dan Starkey.

Director: Phoebe Barran

Writers: Phil Mulryne, Alex Ratcliffe, Martin Pengally, Tom Mallaburn, Jon Edgley Bond.

Script Editor: Martin Pengally

Notes: Show started on time after generous plugs for future shows by promoter.

———————————————————————————–

The House of Bernarda Alba. The Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter, Devon, England

It was hot, claustrophobic and intense. And I’m not talking about the brick-lined underground confines of Exeter’s Bike Shed Theatre. Sue Colverd’s take on Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba stressed the stifling clamminess and the suffocatingly oppressive rule of the family dictator Bernarda Alba (Jude Emmet).

Red Dog’s production centred on the complex rivalries and relationships between the sisters and their mother the dictatorial woman in black. From the opening scene the characters were strongly portrayed by a cast who gave committed and powerful performances despite there being no attempt to give any Hispanic nuances to their accents. The flavour of Iberia was conveyed by music, lighting, film, costume and props. The fans, the shawls and even the chairs were enough to suggest location while Colin Sell’s music and Corin Hayes’s lighting design added further texture to the home of the matriarch whose idea of bereavement was a collective punishment for her daughters and servants.

This was a thoughtfully textural production where the church bell chimed with the lives of those in the household, where singing and dancing blended with the drama to take the audience out of the theatre into the wider space of the Spanish countryside where freedom beckoned. Particularly effective were Barney Haywood’s films which made use of the back screen of Corin Hockley’s neat squared and arched set. Fields of corn*, crowds of cloaked villagers and gushing sea water combined to create the overall sensual atmosphere sought by the director in order to tell the tragic story.

Set in pre-civil war Spain, Lorca’s drama concerns the aftermath of the death of Bernarda’s husband. The widow emotionally punishes her daughters and servants with enforced mourning using violence and humiliation to assert her unreconstructed medieval views of how the world should run. Lorca laced the story with rich symbolism, creating a black and white world in which colour is seen as a sign of rebellion, where water and thirst become confused with repressed sexuality and a desire for personal freedom. It’s a statement against repressive authority; it’s about a backward looking society that fears change, reform and modernisation – a society where women are generally second class citizens kept in a state of servitude. Where marriage is seen as an escape, where female education is not considered; a world ruled by men – or in this case by a compliant widow.

Lace headed Jude Emmet was key in convincing as the dominant Bernardo Alba. She possessed a sense of arrogance in her manner and lizard like look as she snapped and slapped her way around stage, unrealistic in her determination that her daughters would conform to her archaic ideas of womanly duty. Emmet’s strong dry voice and steady look were enough to quash any rebellion.

Colverd used doubling to portray the play’s dozen or so characters with only five actors. Jude also played Magdalena as did Saskia Portway who was also a servant and the eldest daughter Angustias. Saskia as the frustrated and anguished big sister had the necessarily permanent look of someone who was about to be slapped in the face at any moment – eyes cast down from a flushed complexion from the face of a victim. If you could bottle female frustration – then Portway’s performance could be a source.

Kim Hicks spent much of the play scrubbing floors as Poncia – the duplicitous housekeeper. Part family confidant and part lethal informer the character demanded an earthiness that Hicks found with hobbling movement, gossipy voice and a deft ability to stuff food into her pockets as soon as her mistress’s back was turned. A first class performance.

Lorca peoples the play with the damaged and the unconfident. Kate Abraham as the brow beaten Martirio – literally martyr – is in love with the one character we never see – Pepe el Romano. Her portrayal as the grumpy and defensive sister was all twitches, nervous ticks and scratchings. An unlovely but genuine personality desperate for love but destined to disappointment in Abraham’s rustic rolling aproned folds was cringingly true to life.

Speaking of aprons and costumes the outfits were inventive – if a little understated. Choosing mainly black and white colours chimed with the play’s themes of mourning and tradition. Hockley introduced some lovely authentic accessories such as veils and shawls – and the sister’s neo obsession with fabric was strongly conveyed. However the specially printed patterns on the skirts to symbolise the sisters’ interests were perhaps too subtle to catch. The use of fabric on several occasions as physical theatre and as props was one of the show’s strengths.

The fifth member of the cast was Amy Enticknap who doubled up as a beggar woman and the sisters Amelia and Adela. Her main role however was as rebellious Adela, the youngest sister who shocks everyone by wearing a sleeveless green dress embellished with symbolic roses designed by Hockley. Enticknap’s Adela was fired by a combination of fiery temperament and youthful energy, flipping from tears of frustration to sensual lust as the hormonal moments that punctuate Lorca’s script projected her into one set-piece confrontation after another. One moment calm and unflustered, the next an emotionally charged tangle of hair and flaying limbs. Enticknap had the stroppy girl nailed.

Five extremely convincing performances, a director using all aspects of theatre to good effect and a long neglected play that still has something to say about the world. Should it have been updated to an Islamic family in London, a catholic matriarchy in Dublin or a Big Fat Gypsy Wedding extended family in Essex? Perhaps. It would certainly have grabbed more publicity. Instead, Red Dog Theatre chose to give a classical interpretation combined with contemporary performing arts skills to provide an accomplished and polished production in homage to the playwright murdered by fascists in 1936.

The production tours nationally until late November. For details and dates visit http://www.reddog.org.uk

Rating: Four stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Date: Reviewed on Wednesday, October 12, 2011.

Running Time: 1hr 15mins first half. 15 min break. 35mins second half.

Times: curtain up 7.30pm, ended at 9.35pm

Audience: Approximately half full on its second Night.

Company: Red Dog Theatre.

Cast included:  Jude Emmet, Kim Hicks, Saskia Portway, Kate Abraham, Amy Enticknap.

Director: Sue Colverd.

Writer: Federico García Lorca. 1898-1936. Spanish.

Notes: Show started on time. No glitches. See separate Q & A on blog. Translated from the Spanish by Kate Littlewood.

*On a technical note my companion on the evening pointed out the fields of corn shown in the film was a modern crop without any weeds. In 1930s Spain the corn would have had a mixture of other invading plants mixed with the corn he said.

—————————————————————————————

Julius Caesar. Boiling Wells, Bristol, England.

In a wooded valley near St Werburgh’s City Farm, Bristol, I heard the sound of distant screams. Was it some sinister assault on an urban Saturday night in the gathering gloom? Or was it the sound of something unimaginable in the wooden amphitheatre of Boiling Wells?

Suddenly, a large group of scantily-clad young women appeared shouting and screaming threats. Their faces were painted in tribal swirls and in their hands they carried spears. It was the entrance of the Amazons in the Bristol-based theatre group Thrice Three Muses’s production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Taking a gender flip, all the male parts of the tragic story of Rome’s first dictator were played by women, and the few female parts were acted by slightly timid looking chaps. But then so would you if you were surrounded in a forest by 20 nubile wenches bearing arms and bearing teeth. The testosterone-fuelled drama lost none of its bite in director Ben Hughes-Games’ hands, but instead had a new assertive female dynamic.

This was a fiery production with a series of fast paced tribal gatherings, arguments and confrontations between the famed protagonists. It was more Lord of the Flies than the swords and sandals clichéd versions, with female shrieks and Wimbledon grunts as the Amazonians battled for Rome.

All the main characters gave strong performances. Anna Baker as Julius Ceasar convinced as she dithered and hesitated in entering the senate to meet her killers. And there were excellent characterisations by Jasmine Smart as the tortured Mark Anthony, Sineidin O’Reilly-Nelson as a passionate Casca, and Leanne Everitt as Brutus – giving an impassioned speech in the market place.

Ella Gonzales as Octavius Caesar with her flame-coloured headdress and Sioux Indian feathers gave a wonderfully animated (if at times incomprehensible) performance while Lydia Elizabeth Wilde contrasted as the scheming wily Cassius.

It was refreshing to experience this new femme-friendly version and to see the male actors reduced to supporting roles –Martin Whatley in particular seemed vulnerable as Portia.

Although the fighting is well-choreographed, some of the fights didn’t seem vicious enough, and more violence is needed in the deaths and suicides for the show to live up to the screams and shrieks of the advancing Amazonians. With its hessian and cotton short tunics, dramatic tribal make-up, beaded and plated hairstyles and general leggy Amazon chic, this is a creative and thoughtful take on the fall of Julius Caesar.

The play is part of the Bristol Shakespeare Festival and continues until Saturday, July 30, before transferring to the Edinburgh Festival in August.

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Rating: Three stars.

————————————————————————————

Rosie Wilby. The Studio, Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton, Somerset, England

Vintage Champagne sipped from a chipped mug is the best way to describe the enjoyably eccentric Rosie Wilby. With her self-deprecation and spiteful bitchy asides Rosie Wilby’s Pop Diary blended delicious volumes of vocals and sparkling stand-up humour. The singer songwriter who achieved modest success for her reflective acoustic sounds at the height of 1990s Britpop, chatted, joked and sang her way through an hour long pre-Edinburgh set in the trendy studio in Taunton’s Brewhouse Theatre.

Rosie’s material is essentially her own life with its angsts, oddities and lesbian love affairs – with lots of local colour and modern cultural references from the decade of the Spice Girls, Oasis and Blur. Her voice is one part blackberry, one part honey and one part Burgundy – sharp, rich, emotive and slides over the audience with a spellbinding seductiveness.

Alone on stage, save for a few props, a projector and her guitar, Rosie lays bare the missed opportunities of her life and her various fractured relationships. It was just enough but with more plastic 90s props, slides of recognisable 90s icons and maybe more Dillie Keane-esque humour in her songs this could become a five star show. Wilby certainly has the potential for her Champagne of a show to be served in a flute.

Rosie’s Pop Diary continues its tour at the Rondo Theatre, Bath, on Saturday, 17 July.

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Rating: Two Stars.

———————————————————————————

Tom Jones. Redgrave Theatre, Bristol, England.

The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s romp through Henry Fielding’s comic 18th century novel is, fun, frenetic and a little confusing. Joan Macalpine’s adaption of the rambling narrative laces the bulging corset of a story into three acts. Act one is essentially a dramatised monologue, act two a bedroom farce and act three the concluding drama – which is fine but director Christopher Scott chose to cast three different Toms for the leading role as well as three Sophia Westerns – the love of his life.

The touring production is a showcase for emerging actors but this generosity of casting meant that inevitably the audience begin to compare one Tom with another rather than concentrating on the plot. For the record Mark Donald in act one has the charm and stage presence for the likeable rake. Isaac Stanmore (act two) has the most sex and comedy, while Jonathan Gibbon in act three is more matinee idol than lusty West Country lad – but then he drew the short straw as he faces the hangman’s noose.

Leigh Quinn as Susan seized the audience’s attention in her comic portrayal of the much put upon but much tipped maid in the coach house in act two. Also bursting with character was Daniel Quinn as the jealous and dangerous Captain Fitzpatrick as he hurled himself into one fight after another, while the disarmingly disheveled Francesca Cundy as Mrs Waters added the tumbled out of bed sex appeal to the socially critical story of illegitimacy, poverty and wealth.

Rebecca Rose’s shadow puppetry was as beautifully evocative as it was unexpected, and like the fights, music and dance sequences it left you wanting a bit more. With lots of local West County references, fabulous costumes and tomorrow’s bright young things, it’s impossible not to enjoy the youthful exuberance of a cast in full bodice-ripping form.

The show is on tour throughout the West Country until early July. For details visit www.oldvic.ac.uk.

Rating: Three stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

———————————————————————————-

Treasure Island. Bristol Old Vic Theatre, Bristol, England

There were buccaneers in the toilets, pirates in the bar and scurvy seamen buying ice creams. Some of them were only six years old. With tricorn hats in every row, it was clear the audience were up for a few sea shanties and a Yo-ho-ho and a Bottle of Rum or two.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre’s production of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th century novel was staged out in the open seagull-squawked-punctuated air of King Street – just an anchor rope length from the Llandoger Trow – the dockside tavern where old sea salts gave inspiration to many a boy’s own adventure story including Treasure Island.

Sally Cookson’s version strips away much of the narrative and instead stylishly dramatises the fabric and texture of the novel through costume, music, movement and Phil Eddols’ ship-shaped set. Gone are Long John Silver’s negress, the imperial overtones and the muscular Christianity. Instead dramaturg Mike Akers created a collaborative and textural story concentrating on the pirates and in particular the sinuous and salt-stained character of Long John Silver played by Tristan Sturrock.

Sturrock sways and rocks like a seasoned coastal ketch catching the tidal rip in the Bristol Channel. He swoops, he lollops, he spins round. One moment he’s arguing the toss with a glint of menace, the next he’s charming and full of warm words. Dumping the baggage of a century of pirate clichés overboard, Sturrock brings a new and street wise Silver to the stage complete with Cornish accent reminding us of his Knee High Theatre roots. And the director wasn’t afraid of Silver the killer. Twice we see him commit brutal murder – something that both shocked and grabbed the children in the audience. Sturrock is the show’s great success.

A slightly hesitant Jonny Weldon as Jim Hawkins failed to reach out to the children in the audience at first. It was only as his relationship with Silver developed that the children around me began to identify with him. And his meeting with Ben Gunn (plyed with suitable eccentricity by Saikat Ahamed) was a cross roads for his character with the realisation he was actually smarter than the adult Gunn – a feeling that all children experience sooner or later. By the end he was the young adventurer whose escapades have inspired many a childhood fantasy.

In an ensemble production Zara Ramm had a neo-balletic death as the suspicious Israel Hands, Howard Coggins was a wonderfully camp Squire Trelawny, while Craig Edwards was the earnest Dr Livesey and Ian Harris (Captain Smollet and Captain Flint) completed a strong cast with a schooner full of personas.

The lasting theme of this exciting production is the haunting and at times jolly blend of traditional and original music of Benji Bower. Fifteen men on a Dead Man’s Chest, Marry Me, Marry Me Rose, and I’ve Got A Secret That’s Never Been Told, were performed with such power and feeling, that the audience leaves the specially constructed theatre singing, humming and tapping the tunes. Not a bad endorsement.

It’s one of the best things the Bristol Old Vic has done in terms of children and family theatre in recent years – and something they must do again to make the most of the cobbled and gabled setting of King Street.

The show continues until 26 August.

Rating: Five stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

—————————————————————————-

2010

————————————————————————–

King Lear

(RSC)

Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Reviewed 3 March 2010. Rating: 5 stars

Run time: 3 hours 35 mins with 20 interval

Dates: until 26 August. Reviewer: Rupert Bridgwater

All kings need a fool, and in Kathryn Hunter, David Farr has found a fool for all time. Male and yet female, old and yet young, quirky but classically turned out – complete with jester’s hat. A fool’s fool. A fool of a fool. A fabulous fool. And with her rickett-riddled form, she neatly couples up with Greg Hicks as a raggedly robed King Lear to create a visually stunning rain soaked duo on the drenched heath of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

This is a sensuously rich production where sound, lighting and design combine to evoke the dark world of truth, lies, deceit and disguise. A set that revels in its grunge as it changes from earthy shabbiness to industrial harshness and decay.

Evocative crackling lighting and sharply defined sounds that matches the words, the speeches, the mood and the ebb and flow of the story, so precisely. This is a magnificent all round production.

To contrast the old and the new, the past and the future, King Lear’s contemporaries were dressed in early medieval garb of a mythical Albion, while the inheritors were clothed in early 20th century costumes ready for trench warfare or Edwardian drawing rooms. The three sisters wore medieval inspired romantic evening gowns that blended with both eras.

Greg Hicks’ fluent and emotive voice dominated the auditorium. A King Lear that reached the heights of self-loathing and the depths of base bile and vivid vindictiveness with a breath-taking range. Charles Aitken as Edgar transformed from jaunty jovial innocent to neo-naked Old Testament nakedness as Poor Tom. Gloucester (Geoffrey Freshwater) also seized attention in his vicious treatment at the hands of the sadistic Cornwall (Clarence Smith) and Goneril (Kelly Hunter) and his search for blind redemption on the cliffs of Dover.

Katy Stephens as Regan and Kelly Hunter as the ungrateful sisters established their characters with fearful clarity and an easy evil elegance. Their younger sister, the truthful Codelia whose refusal to flatter her father leads to the earth shattering fall-out was given a righteous dimension in her final scenes of battle and capture.

Here was a cast that told their stories with clarity – an ideal production for students and seasoned fans alike. From Hunter’s flipparty fool to the vocally muscular Darrell D’Silva as Kent, each actor played their part in this most epic and most complex of tragedies. A story well-told.

Cast list

BEN ADDIS – King of France
FRANCES BARBER – Goneril
ADAM BOOTH – 1st Knight
ZOE BOYLE – Goneril’s Lady in Waiting
RUSSELL BYRNE – Doctor
NAOMI CAPRON – Maid
MONICA DOLAN – Regan
ROMOLA GARAI – Cordelia
WILLIAM GAUNT – Gloucester
RICHARD GOULDING – Knight
JULIAN HARRIES – Albany
JOHN HEFFERNAN – Oswald
PETER HINTON – Duke of Burgundy
JONATHAN HYDE – Kent
MELANIE JESSOP – 2nd Gloucester Servant
GERALD KYD – Soldier
SEYMOUR MATTHEWS – Curan
SYLVESTER McCOY – Fool
IAN McKELLEN – King Lear
BEN MEYJES – Edgar
DAVID WESTON – Gentleman
GUY WILLIAMS – Cornwall
PHILIP WINCHESTER – Edmund
Creative team
Director TREVOR NUNN
Designer CHRISTOPHER ORAM
Lighting NEIL AUSTIN
Sound FERGUS O’HARE
Music STEVE EDIS
Fight Director MALCOLM RANSON

————————————————————————–

2009

————————————————————————–

We All Fall Down. Tobacco Factory, Bristol.

It’s a frightening tale of a child all alone in an adult world. A child called Simon who must outwit Lucifer himself and return to his village with a cure for the plague.

For a small child We All Fall Down may be a little bit too scary. The cast frequently shout out their lines and create threatening scenes of violence and death – all in the interests of a good story you understand. But there’s a lack of subtlety in the show’s structure where the many bangs, crashes and raised voices could have done with the quieter scenes being given greater length, depth and dialogue to provide contrast. Children may have short attention spans, but not as short as the director Amy Leach clearly feels.

Enmasse Theatre’s production style is exuberant and imaginative. Using basic props they tell the story at high speed and great gusto. Their movement and characterisation are brilliant. John Biddle as Simon and Alexandra Maher as Chino mesmerise, while the rest of the cast of Celia Adams, Oliver Birch, Christopher Doyle and Erica Guyatt give all they have: their ensemble and individual performances were outstanding. Live music, song, dance, physical theatre and puppetry are used to convey not only Simon’s journey, but numerous earthy in-jokes and running sub-plots that appeal to children and adults alike.

The dark scenes of Hell provide some of the memorable moments: all done with out anything more high tech than masks and cloaks.

The show is at The Egg Theatre, Bath, 12-17 October.

4/5

Harry Mottram

————————————————————————–

2008

————————————————————————

Blue/Orange. The Tobacco Factory, Bristol.

A trio of testosterone-powered protagonists. Humourless earnest Doctor Bruce who is convinced mental health patient Chris is a suicidal danger to society, and smoothy consultant Robert who wants to free up a bed by discharging Chris early.

Essentially, to quote Robert, Joe Penhall’s blistering argument of a drama “comes down to semantics”. It’s how the two white medics interpret vulnerable black fantasist Chris’s language and how he sees the world and himself, while he in turn fails to understand their banter, jokes and post colonial prejudices of the noughties. With just a water cooler for company, and some chairs, Danielle Bassett’s set looked like any office meeting room. A perfect stage for the 100 minute set too. Funny, witty and always to the point, director Sam Berger unleashed the cast and let them slug it out to the compulsive, gurgling, bubbling, blue-oranged sucking end.  Christopher Tester as Bruce was suitably unspeakable, Colin Dunkley as Chris was unsettling convincing as the sectioned patient, and Chris Bianchi enjoyed himself as the suave careerist Robert who had all the best lines and represented everything that’s wrong in the NHS.

The play continues until Saturday.

Harry Mottram. 8/10

Murder most cosy

Review by contributor Harry Mottram

And Then There Were None. Theatre Royal, Bath, March 10-15, 2008.

I knew who the murderer was. He was in the bar at the interval. His moustache and distinguished appearance were give-aways. Or was it the slightly over-excited lady having a coffee next to him? She looked a bit manic. I’m sure she knew how to use a dagger. And there was a gruff looking bloke standing on his own with a gin and tonic. Obviously a maniac with a penchant for using blunt instruments or piano wire to dispose of unwelcome guests.

It was quite alarming. All around there were suspects. I gripped my wife Linda’s arm and hoped none of them would think I should be bumped off. That’s the trouble with Agatha Christie, you end up suspecting everyone.

Almost every member in the audience that night, seemed indistinguishable from the cast of And Then There Were None. I’ve never seen so many blazers, handlebar moustaches, twin-set and pearls, colonial safari jackets and evening gowns. It appeared the clock had been turned back and we were transported for an evening back to a more elegant age. A time when gentlemen dressed for dinner and women in silk gowns discharged revolvers with deadly accuracy, after a glass of sherry in the drawing room.

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company’s production of the eponymous author’s whodunnit played to a packed (if slightly elderly) audience in Bath’s Theatre Royal. The set was the elegant front room of a country house located on an island off the Devon coast. The simplicity of the story relies on the isolation of the island being cut off from civilisation, a single room as the set, and of a cast of ten people who are slowly bumped off one-by-one throughout the play. There’s no detective. The characters are left to try and work out who it is amongst them that is the murderer. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the director Joe Harmston failed to make use of all of the ingredients. This story should have gripped from the beginning, and with all the resources of the theatre available,  the play should have had us all on the edge of our seats from the off. It was only the final third of the drama that succeeded in producing the necessary tension. Up until then, I was not the only person to feel I was being lulled into an early evening sleep as the motionless cast outlined the complex plot. Not enough movement or action. It was all a little too cosy and comfortable. After all, we are supposed to be witnessing the deaths of nine people.

The cast were however (without exception) excellent. The distinctive creaking-door-type voice of Gerald Harper as Sir Lawrence Wargrave gave just the right edge to the sinister character’s stage persona, while Alex Ferns enjoyed himself immensely as the gung-ho Captain Philip Lombard. Denis Lill was enjoyably ridiculous as bent-detective William Blore, and Chloe Newsome relished her troubled-female-with-a-past as Vera Claythorne. Mark Wynter’s mad doctor was suitably unhinged, as was the dotty spinster played with clicking knitting needles and clipped vowels by prim Jennifer Wilson. The audience particularly liked the high tempo wizard-whizz voice and character of Bob Saul (who had all too short a role before being done-in), while Peter Byrne as an old codger, Micahel Gabe as the boatman, Gary Richards as the butler and Doris Zajer as the cook all convinced.

Simon Scullion’s set was particularly impressive. It’s an enormous space to fill at the Theatre Royal, and I have seen some unconvincing interiors designed for the stage there, but this one succeeded. Partly with help from Mark Howett’s lighting, the set didn’t overwhelm the cast, and made use of a large circular French window overlooking the sea. It somehow seemed to create the intimacy needed.

Agatha Christie’s novels suck you into their sinister world – all the more scary as they are set in such comfortable surroundings. But here, the comfiness got in the way. More shock, more horror and more blood were needed along with a bit more movement and pace – especially in the opening scenes.

—————————————————————————

2007

————————————————————————–

Asian Comedy Night, Tobacco Factory, Bristol.

Under rehearsed and underperformed. The Asian Comedy Night’s warm-up for Edinburgh was far too much like work in progress. It was taken as read that it would be a bit rough in places and lacking a little polish but with the annual fringe festival only days away, one hopes the three comedians on the bill will sparkle in Scotland rather more than they did in Southville.

First up was Jason Kavan whose came across as a likeable bloke-down-the-road character but who seemed completely hung up on race and women. Although he had a neat delivery of stories from his own life his set never really got going as his stories relied too much on accidental female put-downs. One really good story well told would have been preferable to various bits and pieces. He needed to give his set some structure and character as he didn’t give a clear impression of his stage persona.

Ayesha Hazarika was the second performer and she quickly told us she was a Glaswegian Moslem using her unusual upbringing for material. Like Kavan however, she kept apologising for her background which kept getting in the way of her material. Although she had a stronger stage presence and was more polished than her predecessor, she needed to move onto different subjects instead of harking on about racial prejudice in Scotland and her life as a racially abused school girl.

Paul Chowdry topped the bill with a patchy performance. At times he seemed to have got the audience on his side, whilst at others he alienated them. Why a comic feels he must pick on people in the audience for no reason I don’t know. It makes you feel on edge and embarrassed for them – and in Paul’s case it just didn’t work – killing the humour dead.

All three had a slightly patronising tone towards their Bristol audience. The Tobacco Factory’s patrons are sophisticated urban theatre goers who aren’t impressed by people who say they live in London. All they wanted was for the comedians to concentrate on their material and give polished performances. Instead we had three stand-ups who needed to work a lot harder if they want to crack the fringe.

Two stars.

Harry Mottram

————————————————————————————————————————–

Black Atlas. Kuumba Arts Centre, Bristol.

This is a black diamond of a show. And with a little TLC, marketing and more money it could and should be a worldwide hit. The writing is crisp, the presentation powerful, the acting is strong and the singing of Roger Dunklee is out of this world. It’s that rare and beautiful thing: a play about black male masculinity. Yes, it’s a play about slavery, racism and the brutality of 17th century society. But it’s more than that. It goes to the heart of what makes a man tick and how he can express himself through his body and mind.

Black Atlas is the story of the boxer Tom Molineaux, (Fabian Spencer) an American slave who wins his freedom in the ring. It charts his rise and fall as he moves to England where he eventually fights the champion boxer Tom Cribb. Adapted by Bruce Wall from the novel of the same name by George McDonald Fraser, the play is performed ensemble style with an all male cast of eight, supported by two musicians including the composer Tim Williams on electric piano. Performed by members of The London Shakespeare Workout, the cast wore the same black trousers and white t-shirts with a minimum of costumes and props relying on their voices and bodies to bring the numerous characters to life. The use of the cast to interchange and to add emphasis to particular words and phrases gave the production a power and an accent that kept the audience on its toes. Darren Raymond as Tom’s manager had presence, Bristol Old Vic Theatre school graduate Oliver Hume was on vowel crunching form as the rascally captain Buck and Peter Eastland as Tom’s trainer, hit the right tone as a the street wise, all knowing Paddington Jones.

Four stars

Harry Mottram

——————————————————————————————————————–

Cider with Rosie. Exeter, Rougemont Gardens.

The cast could have done with a little more cider such was the flatness of much of Steve Bennett’s production. Laurie Lee’s sojourn into the Gloucestershire poverty of his childhood may have been sentimental but it is filled with intoxicatingly evocative images of a lost rural age. But this pastoral and folklore filled world for long periods of the Northcott Community Company’s dramatisation of Cider with Rosie seemed to evaporate in the vast setting. Too many small voices and performances on a large set which evoked little of 1920s England. The set had been previously used by the Northcott’s production of Macbeth, and had not been altered enough to even give a hint of the Cotswolds, without a dry stone wall, hay bale or blade of grass in sight. We didn’t expect a thatched cottage, but the odd visual clue could have helped take us mentally to the Slad valley. Other disappointments included the lack of music and dance in a production that only really came alive during the few moments of ensemble work.

The recollections are seen through the eyes of the narrator under-played by Andrew Dean, who lacked the charisma and stage presence to pull off the central roll. Fortunately Tom Welch as Loll (the young Laurie) was strong and extremely energetic – a performance that just about saved the production from disaster. His two brothers, Jack (Peter James) and Tony (Noah Mosley) were also excellent, and together with the three sisters (Terry Charles, Lucy Townsend, Georgina Trevor) created some strong interaction in the many domestic scenes. However, Laurie’s mother played by Frankie Woodhams, simply didn’t have the volume to fill the outdoor arena, with many of her words disappearing behind the competing sounds of seagulls and magpies.

Claire Redwood as the eccentric singing baroness made the most of her moment, and Annabel Potter was consistently strong in her various roles as a school girl and Mrs Pimbury.

Steve Moore as Spadge Hopkins was good value although his death scene was directed with a limpness that took away the shock of the latent rustic violence of the villagers.

Highlights included the social duel between Granny Trill (Janet Hookway) and Granny Wallon (Gill Cree) with an excellent funeral scene using the entire cast to create the type of ensemble work one had had hoped for in the play. Other scenes that worked well included the day trip to Weston-super-Mare and the finale where the cast emerged out the beautifully lit backdrop of the garden’s arboreal canopy of trees.

Unfortunately not enough was made of Loll’s moment of fumbling lust with Rosie played by Liz Clark. Nothing wrong with the two actors, but the time and attention devoted to this the title scene, was like a jug of non-alcoholic cider: it need a bit of “oomph”. It’s a short scene but a pertinent one and it summed up this production. It promised much, but like so much rural teenage sex, didn’t quite live up to its billing.

Harry Mottram

Three stars

—————————————————————————————————————————

High farce or high fluff?

Review by contributor Harry Mottram

How The Other Half Loves at the Bath Theatre Royal. Directed by Paul Farnsworth.

Alan Ayckbourn’s swinging sixties farce is like those compilations of 60s hits. Fun, but ultimately nothing but fluff, without everything else that gave the decade its meaning.

In this, the last play in the Sir Peter Hall season at the Bath Theatre Royal, we get a rattling good production directed by Alan Strachan who has a cast you could stake your life on, such is their sublime skill. Nicholas le Prevost as dopey but upright Frank seemed born to the role of the cuckold who gets the wrong end of every stick. His wife Fiona played by a supremely elegantly dressed Marsha Fitzalan had vast depths of shallowness with which to serve up at her dinner party of embarrassments.

Ayckbourn hit on a brilliant idea. Take two households and have them share the same set but act in different time zones inter-twining the conversations because they centred in general on the hapless Featherstones. Paul Kemp and Amanda Kemp gave the required caricatures for this pathetic but hilarious couple, superbly illustrating a husband-rules-the-roost relationship that was all too common 30 years ago. It was often their expressions and movement which brought the biggest laughs.

The play reminded my of Schafer’s farce, Black Comedy, in the simplicity of its main theatrical conceit. Instead of a powercut we get a split set so we can see both homes at the same time. Designer Paul Farnsworth pulled off the us-and-them set, with slobby second-hand furniture for the Phillips and what passed for class in the decade that gave us plastic furniture in the Foster’s home.

Richard Stacey and Claudia Elmhirst as the Phillips, lent the drama a certain kitchen sink grittiness with much shouting and tea cup throwing, but their love-hate relationship was never allowed by the writer to let reality get much of a look in.

So what was it all about? Incredibly, the main plot is completely lost in the drama. Fiona has a one-night stand with Bob and they both come up with the same alibi: the social outcasts, the Featherstones. Unwittingly they choose people who have just been thrust into the limelight due to Mr Featherstone’s promotion at work. Fiona and Bob tell their separate partners they met up with either William or Mary for a drink and chat. They add for authenticity’s sake that they understood the Fetherstone’s relationship was on the rocks. Believing them, bungling Mr Foster and interfering Mrs Phillips, decide to invite the Fetherstones to dinner on different nights. The conniving lovers’ story quickly falls apart and we are taken along all manner of diversions in a comedy of manners and misunderstandings. Indeed, the complexities of the plot take precedence to the point that the original story is left undigested like Mrs Phillip’s chicken noodle soup.

The first half is fast and furious with so many laughs that you are left feeling exhausted by the interval. Then the play seemed about to really get going with randy Bob seemingly pursuing Mary the mouse. It never happens and soon we are back in the farcical comings and goings which require doors to be opened and shut to allow for the never-ending entrances and exits. It’s funny, but it kind of runs out of steam as you realise it’s only a farce and not a serious take on the sixties, just fluff.

————————————————————————————————————————–

Hoof. The Egg, Bath.

Clip, clop, clip, clop. Enter Niki McCretton as a pony with a problem. Her little girl owner has turned into a teenager and finds boys more interesting than ponies. She’s a neglected mare, who escapes from her wooden paddock and sets off to find a herd in America. McCretton is a polished, likable and versatile performer. Switching effortlessly between storyteller, puppeteer, dancer and actor with the swish of her tail.

Playing to a sell out audience of reception aged children and their parents, the show followed her previous one-woman show Muttnik, The First Dog In Space. Directed by Amit Lahav and Helen Baggett, the show didn’t quite have the versatility of Muttnik or the structure. However there was much to appreciate and the audience were entertained by the boundlessly energetic performer.

The presentation was faultless but the story rambled and became too involved with a puppet called Inchhigh Cowboy Guy, and some flies. It was during Niki’s stumbling conversations with these characters that the audience of tinies became slightly restless. Their interest always picked up with any audience participation and became transfixed when the performer did what she is best at: dancing and telling the story through movement of a pony on a journey of self-discovery. .

7/10.

Harry Mottram

—————————————————————————————————————————

Little Nell. Bath Theatre Royal.

Harry Mottram saw Sir Peter Hall’s production at Bath’s Theatre Royal and wondered if a more intimate setting would have helped the adaption of Simon Gray’s radio play.

Simon Gray took 35 years to write Little Nell and frankly he shouldn’t have bothered if it was meant to be staged on this scale. There’s so little drama in the play, the story maybe perfect for radio but on the stage it becomes becalmed. It’s a play of looking back and of reflection and regrets – not action.

Partly inspired by Claire Tomalin’s book, The Invisible Woman, The story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. Sir Peter Hall’s production lacks movement and remains as confined and restricted as the Victorian’s whale bone stays that so confined and restricted the role of women in 19th century society.

Save for a couple of trees and a bit of park railing plonked in the middle, the set is a legal office complete with desk and chairs, oak panels and piles of leather bound books. It represents Sir Henry Dickens’ (Barry Stanton) office. Who the Dickens is he? Apparently he’s the son of the great novelist behind Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Christmas Carol and The Old Curiosity Shop. That’s the one that features Little Nell. She lives in a shop with her grandfather and the couple are persecuted by relatives and swindlers which eventually leads to Little Nell’s death. However, we mustn’t confuse this Little Nell with Little Nell of the title of Simon Gray’s play. She merely shares the same nickname.

The Little Nell in this play is Nelly Ternan (Loo Brealey), who in real life had a 13 year long hooped-petticoat-fumbling affair with Charles Dickens (Michael Pennington), mothering little Geoffrey (Charles’ wife had already given birth to several drawing rooms full of tiny Dickens) and remained his lover until his death.

Simon Gray’s drama concerns her relationship with the writer and her feelings of guilt and pre-liberated female frustration with her complex life. For after the writer died of a stroke in her arms he was whisked back home to officially snuff it in the bosom of his family. This tells you all you need to know about their relationship.

Victorian society was a hypocritical patriarchy in which women were denied a voice and a meaningful role. No vote, no property rights, not much influence. Today Nelly would have had control over her own fertility and a choice through education and employment opportunities through which to express herself as an actor or anything she wanted to be. She was a bright young thing. Instead she was caught in an impossible situation.

A smart, pretty and witty actor, she hooked up with the world’s most famous man. He was infatuated with her. Dickens was the father figure of safe and respectable families. It was a lie. Instead he was funding secret homes in Slough and Peckham where he could carry on his clandestine affair with Nelly. He was 45, married with a family, while Ellen was 19.

Set in Sir Henry Dickens’ office the narrative is a conversation between Henry (Dickens’ son) and Geoffrey (his illegitimate son from his affair with Ellen). Geoffrey (Tim Piggott-Smith) wants to know about his parent’s relationship, and Henry obliges by telling him the story of their affair. As he does so, a series of incidents from the past are acted out in front of them. They disappear into the gloom while other parts of the office are lit for the rest of the cast to bring the story to life. The acting is brilliant. Barry Stanton as Sir Henry and Tim Piggott-Smith as Geoffrey maintain a sensitive and revealing conversation, Michael Pennington manages to not send up Dickens and Loo Brealy as Nelly Ternan steers a course between coquettishness and genuine affection, coupled with soul searching later in the play.

I couldn’t help feeling the play needed a more intimate setting. A small studio theatre would have allowed this play of adult angst with little dramatic action to achieve greater resonance rather than in the grand setting of Bath’s Theatre Royal. It’s a thoughtful play which doesn’t really grip, despite the subject matter. And beware, the 90 minute drama doesn’t have an interval, you might find yourself nodding off or wishing you hadn’t had that second glass of wine.

The play continues in rep until July 28.

Harry Mottram

————————————————————————————————————————-

Othello. Tobacco Factory, Bristol.

Iago should make you shiver. One part charm, one part scheming and two parts evil, the manipulative and poisonous ensign should leave an audience with the feeling they are watching a premier division baddie at work. But Chris Donnelly’s Iago leaves one wondering why a group of seemingly intelligent Venicians could be so stupid to fall for his unconvincing plans. To fool the great warrior and charmer Othello the Moor into believing his wife was unfaithful takes some cunning. Perhaps I’m being harsh but unless you are close to the stage it is hard to see the actor’s facial expression. Seen from afar this Iago wouldn’t have convinced Othello that Desdemona cheated at cards.

Playing the part in the round, the actor’s face was clearly Iago but his body language was static and lacked expression. He really needed to put himself about a bit. And there’s plenty of space to do it on Chris Gylee’s simple patio set. In contrast Saskia Portway as Desdemona was the wronged woman from her toes to her lustrous Pre-Raphaelite hair. And as for her father Brabantio (Paul Nicholson), I’m quite convinced he was her dad such was his wrath at being awoken in the middle of the night to be told his daughter was “making the beast with two backs” by Iago.

Shakespeare In The Tobacco Factory’s production of the bard’s tragedy of jealousy and spite peppered with a toxic potion of racial tension is set in the late 19th century, complete with frock coats and high collars, corsets and bustles, and acres of facial hair. Director Andrew Hilton speeds the story on its way with efficiency, simplicity and a deft touch in utilising every inch of the space in The Tobacco Factory. The flagstone floor layout arrangement with an audience on four sides meant everyone could see most of the action – even if some of the most exciting sequences seemed to always take place behind a pillar.

And excitement was the word. The play has ample opportunity for action and Hilton didn’t miss a trick. Desdemona’s death scene was stunning in its horror. I knew Othello was going to strangle her but I still suddenly shrank back in my seat at the injustice and violence. And Kate Waters take a bow. The fight director designed one of the best sword fights you’ll see in a theatre – with tables and chairs flying and the clash of steel just inches away from the front row.

And what about the sexy lovers, black Othello and desirable Des? Well, they weren’t exactly trying to get into each other’s knickers but they made a handsome couple. Leo Wringer as Othello and Saskia Portway as Desdemona were first rate. In this production Othello was not so much a green-eyed monster, but a strutting, salivating one as he sprayed the cast with globules of spittal during his frequent outburts. It may not be good manners but it showed he cared.

Lucy Black as Iago’s wife Emilia, “the villainous whore” and Saskia, gave us some high octane moments of drama, especially the scene where they talk about adultery in act four. Girls, you didn’t let us down. They simply acted their hairpieces off.

Philip Buck was in fine form as the honourable lieutenant Cassio who pips Iago to promotion, while tubby new comer Bryon Mondahl was excellent as the twittish Roderigo who falls for every ruse Iago pulls. Alan Coveney’s face should be set in clay as the theatre’s mask emblems of tragedy and comedy, so deeply engrained are his smile and grimace lines. As the Duke and also Montano he only has to appear on stage to know there’s drama afoot. Phoebe Beacham as Bianca, would in the real world surely have no problem landing Cassio, but in this story he’s impervious to her honeyed charms. There was also strong support from John Walters as Gratiano, Russell Bright, Nicholas Gadd and Morgan Philpott as soldiers, and Paul Currier as Lodovico as the Venetician, who has to metaphorically wash the duvet of all the blood and spit at the end. A big job in Hilton’s audience pleasing production.

Harry Mottram

————————————————————————————————————————

The Play What I Wrote. Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton. Four Stars.

As brilliant as Kim Metcalf is at playing Kim Metcalf, I felt Anthony Hoggard did her better. The former Eastender (Sam Mitchell) and Andrew and Greg’s special guest was treated to a whole range of characterisations from the soap opera by Hoggard. Like all the celebrities who appeared in Morecambe and Wise’s shows she was teased, cheeked and generally treated like she was someone awful.

This play about a double act about a play about a double act was effectively an ode to the amazing ratings of 1970s comedy. In particular it celebrated Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, who dominated the Christmas viewing figures for the best part of decade, managing to notch up 28m viewers in 1977. The near sell-out audience of mainly 40 and 50 somethings lapped up the neo-Morecambe-and-Wise-isms in a drama about two men trying to find success and artistic integrity.

Andrew Cryer wants to do a tribute show about the famous duo while Greg Haiste wants to perform his Ernie Wise-type play about the French Revolution complete with a special guest. Anthony Hoggard kept the plot spinning along with a series of hilarious characterisations and asides. A witty script, as many of Morecambe and Wise’s most famous jokes and sketches that could be performed by four people and of course heart-warming songs like Bring Me Sunshine lit up the faces of the audience.

With such rich material, the 20th century’s most popular double act, many visual gags and a few surprises (the appearance of Kim Metcalf to name but one), this is a show that sends you out into the night laughing, and wondering what ever happened to that innocent age when there were only three television channels.

The Play What I Wrote, has been a smash hit since it was first penned by Hamish McColl and Sean Foley, using much of Eddie Braben’s TV material, gaining an Olivier Award and a run on Broadway. Kenneth Branagh was the original director. Michael Gyngell was the man at the helm in this production, and he maintained the spirit of Morecambe and Wise and the era they seemed to sum up with consummate ease.

Harry Mottram

———————————————————————————————————————–

Ramayana. Bristol Old Vic Theatre. April 11-28, 2007.

David Farr’s Ramayana goes about as far east as the white cliffs of Dover. The writer and director kept his production firmly planted in a familiar Anglo Saxon world complete with regional accents and earthy expletives. Stephen Ventura as the King of the monkeys, set an enjoyable and accessible style of language set several thousand miles away from the poet Valmiki’s 24,000 verses written more than 2,000 years ago. More mystery play than Hindu poetry, the story rattles along with much knock about humour, occasional mystic moments and the exotic mythical world of ten headed kings, loyal brothers and an incredibly stupid woman called Sita played by Vanessa Ackerman. Which is where this reviewer takes issue with the production. Only two female actors in a cast of seven? Women seemed under-represented giving the whole play a rather masculine feel. Sita was supposed to be the most beautiful woman in the world. When you think of all the possible amazing effects that make-up, hair and costume can produce, poor Vanessa Ackerman was under equipped for her role as siren of the forest. She simply didn’t convince us that she had starved herself for three months at one stage, when she clearly well fed. Eve Magyar was also strangely cast. As the stroppy Keikey, she seemed perfectly selfish and manic, but then was given the role of lusty old Ravana who is determined to rape Sita. Meanwhile, his sister Shurpanhaka was played by Stephen Ventura in a scene which defined the production. A pantomime dame attempting to seduce male members of the aristocracy. It was very funny, and took us away from any pretence of a purist ode to the works of Valmiki. To give us a feel of the original setting the director used music provided by Shrikanth Sririam and a set of bamboo poles representing a jungle.

So what’s Ramayana all about? It’s essentially several books of poetry the adventures of the noble moralist prince Rama in trying to liberate his wife beautiful Sita from the clutches of the evil Ravana who keeps her captive on an island. Without an army of his own, Rama enlists the help of Sugriva (Ventura) and his army of monkeys to do battle with Ravana’s soldiers. Eventually Sita is freed, but has to be burnt on a fire to prove her love for her husband – which is testing loyalty to extremes.

The monkeys really help to make this production come to life. Richard Simons, Nicholas Khan and Stephen Ventura had their monkey personas just right. Comical, physical and always ready to fall over the monkeys were the stars. They also provided an excellent battle scene involving the entire cast with some lovely knock about business.

What puzzled was that the rest of the characters had so little movement and physicality in comparison. When you consider the wonderful styles of dance and movement from India (just hink Bollywood) there was definitely a feeling of stiffness about much of the movement – except for the monkeys of course. Kolade agboke as Rama’s loyal brother Lakshman was the exception, as he angrily stomped around the stage condemning the foolishness of his blue-blooded piers.

With such material and subject matter I was surprised to see such a low sari count in the audience. Considering Bristol’s large asian community I had expected a little more interest from residents with an Indian subcontinent heritage. There was strong applause at the end but it was slightly muted as the finish comes as a slight surpise. In such a rambling story, there is not the usual circular narrative shape that propels the story to a dramatic conclusion.

Harry Mottram

————————————————————————————————————————-

Riverdance. Bristol Hippodrome.

Two conflicting feelings. One was of disappointment at the tired formulaic nature of the show. The second was of complete awe at the brilliance of the dancers.

Contradictory and confusing, yes. With its over-hyphed iconic status in modern culture, not surprising.

Riverdance is undeniably a historic landmark in modern dance shows, of Irish culture’s global influence, and of how television and can change our perceptions of people and countries. I remember watching Eurovision in 1994, the night Riverdance was first screened as the interval entertainment during the televised competition. Ireland had won Eurovision and were hosting the finals live on TV. Instead of a safe and predictable piece of entertainment, Riverdance swept away conventions and made Celtic culture cool. It was dance, rythmn, different and subtely sexy. Led by Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, the dance performance was simply a sensation. I called out to my wife Linda who was making a cup of tea to come and watch the show. With the high kicking, enchanting mesmerising drum and fiddle music, the thighs and the flowing hair, the flat stomachs and the youthfulness of the dancers, the show had that X-factor: Celtic mysticism. It was intoxicating.

The rest is history. Michael and Jean became superstars. The stage show was born, and the Riverdance phenomenon has toured the world and has spawned all manner of offshoots and tribute shows.

And so it was with this heritage that I sat down in a sell-out (and slightly too warm) Hippodrome to watch the famous dance show.

This time there would be no Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, but a troupe led by Niamh Eustace and Alan Scariff.

Using graphics featuring the sun and the moon as linking motifs, the voice over narrative linked together a series of scenes stretching from Ireland to New York and from Spain to Russia.

————————————————————————————————————————

The Seed Carriers. Tobacco Factory.

Enter the strange world of Stephen Mottram’s puppetry and you enter into nightmarish vision of mankind. Eerie music and sound, gothic shadows and lighting, a sinister and threatening atmosphere, a world inspired by the plague masks of Medieval Europe and visions of a Dante-esque hell. Masked predators catch and consume human-like creatures and empty their bodies of life-giving contents. New creatures are created out of their body-parts: wading birds, hens, spiders. These in turn take their place in a cycle of life and death. And it’s all controlled by the puppet master and manipulator: Stephen Mottram. His deft touch, his pace and his subtlety of movement create the pace, the emotion and the darkness. Who is this black-clothed man who is seen throughout the production moving his puppets, adjusting the set and putting the Seed Carriers to work? Is he a darkly sinister manipulator of a hellish vision of the future? Somebody who you wouldn’t want to invite round after dark in case he snapped your body in two and turned you into an insect?

No. Afterwards, he gave a talk about what he described as puppets as sculpture. A charming and thoughtful artist who brings a new dimension to Bristol’s International Puppet Festival at the Tobacco Factory. An artist who reminds us that puppetry is an art form in its own right that can convey complex narratives and themes using traditional theatrical crafts.

8/10

Harry Mottram (no relation).

———————————————————————————————

Space 50. ICIA Theatre, Bath.

Niki McCretton got lost in space. With fellow performer Jamie Wood, the duo’s multi media exploration of man’s journeys into the cosmos became cut off from the mother ship of innovative theatre and floated aimlessly around in the weightless conditions of self-indulgence. Space 50 needs drastic editing and a director to give the show some focus as it is asking a lot for an audience to sit for two hours without a break to see a show where so little happens. Presented as a mixture of projections, animation, storytelling, dance, physical theatre and live installation the production is essentially a personal view of space travel by McCretton.

Having produced such brilliant shows in recent times such as Muttnik the First Dog in Space and Relative, her meander into the world of space travel was a crushing disappointment. Without a clearly defined central narrative the show didn’t grip and director Guy Dartnell’s lethargic and sloppy handling of the show’s action allowed plenty of  time for me to yawn and look at my watch and wonder how long it would last.

There were however many flashes of inspiration. The lighting by Phil Mead was creative and evocative, Paul Riordan’s music was excellent, Adam Vanner’s animation and Kathy Hinde’s video work were a huge plus and James Lewis’s set was full of surprises and neat ideas.

It is 50 years since the first manned space craft orbited the earth (hence the play’s title). Niki McCretton has had an enduring fascination with the subject collecting lunar craft models and space ship kits, and even writing a school project on Skylab, the first space station. She wove her feelings and recollections about the various Russian and American rockets and moonshots into the drama. With humorous asides, physical wit and visual jokes the Dorset-based performer produced a child-of-the-70s view of the masculine and high-tech world of space travel. But like space itself, the show had some fascinating details but was set within a vast emptiness.

Two stars.

Harry Mottram.

————————————————————————————————————————

Still. Alma Tavern, Bristol.

Relationships can be like watching England under 21s playing Romania at Ashton Gate. After two hours you want to kill yourself, such is the frustration and heartache they both engender. And suicide was the fate of one of the protagonists in Steve Lambert’s latest play at the Alma.

Max Theatre’s production of his new two-hander, Still, examined an unlikely relationship between middle-aged dull David (played by the playwright) and raunchy young Jo played by Rebecca Tantony.

David gives Jo a lift and they spend the first half of the drama playing out a slow but feisty courtship as Jo strips away the veneer of David’s conventional life. In part two, we’ve moved on ten years and now it’s time for bitter recrimination.

Two hours of two people arguing ending in tears. It’s very familiar, almost like being at home, except the duo kept the audience glued to the action as they slog it out. This was largely due to a brilliant performance by Rebecca Tantony who acted as though her life depended on it, which in a way it did. Director Nicola Ryan needed to coax rather more emotion from Steve Lambert who failed to convince initially, remaining too grey and wooden as he was outgunned by Rebecca. By part two he began to catch up, only becoming her equal in the last quarter.

Set in David’s secret hide-out by a river, the play has a beautiful set by designed by Stuart and Paula Bennett and lit by Sara Mercer. Staged upstairs in the Alma Tavern’s tiny studio theatre, Still, is a powerful and entertaining war of words between two consenting adults. It’ll ring bells with anyone who has loved, been dumped on or been unfaithful. Which is about everyone. It may drive you (like the England football team) to distraction.

The play runs until Saturday. Tickets, £6, available on 07825585733.

Three Stars.

Harry Mottram

————————————————————————————————————————–

The Unsinkable Clerk. Wedmore Village Hall, Somerset.

Like many of the audience I collected my decent house red wine and sat down ready to give The Unsinkable Clerk a positive reception. Jaunty retro music from a world of privet hedges in a forgotten surbia set the tone for the quirky comedy.

Mr Plumley wakes at seven everyday, breakfasts, performs his ablutions and goes to work. His clockwork existence is a reflection of everyone stuck in a hamster’s wheel of work and more work. Network of Stuff’s absurdist’s two hander about the repetitive nature of life was performed with huge vigour by Felix and Tom, directed by Chris George. Promoted by the rural arts scheme for Somerset, Take Art, the 90minute Waiting For Godot-esque play drew a near packed audience in the recently renovated 19th century hall of mostly 40 and 50-somethings.

The drama concerns the Python-esque Mr Plumley who is swept out of his commuter train into the stomach of a whale where he meets his opposite: the anarchic and uncouth Jonah. The duo eventually escape and meet a number of characters that the two perfomers brought to life with huge physical dexterity.

However, after 20 minutes of compulsive physical theatre of the highest quality I thought: “what’s this all about”, and “do I care?” Billed as a comedy, the audience were not really invited to laugh, rather than encouraged to admire the professional performance skills of the company. There was plenty of pauses and moments when the couple could have allowed the spectators to show their appreciation but these were passed over.

Felix and Tom (there was no programme on offer and the website only gave first names) gave strong characterisations of the various people who populated the circular story. Their range of voices and contortionist antics persuaded the viewer to enter their world. Music and lighting appeared to happen in unison to their performance, I presume there was someone else backstage supporting them.

The Unsinkable Clerk was slick, professional and convincing. It went down like good house red. Good but not vintage.

Harry Mottram. Three stars.

———————————————————————————————————————-

Victory. Review from Harry Mottram.

Blame it on the past – not the burglars

Review by contributor Harry Mottram

Victory by Athol Fugard. Directed by Cordelia Monsey. Bath Theatre Royal until 25 August 2007.

Victory’s a crime-driven story about three people who meet one night during a bungled burglary in a large house in a village in the Karoo Desert in South Africa. Athol Fugard’s confrontation between two extremes of wealth and race in Mandela’s rainbow nation is predictable, didactic and dated. There’s simply not enough tension in what should be a claustrophobic drama. Was it the fault of the cast, or the director Cordelia Monsey, and or the California-based ex-pat South African playwright? A bit of all three, although I feel the director could of upped the anti by making the violence (and the threat of violence) more believable.

As soon as Freddie (Reece Ritchie) started smashing things up in Paul Farnsworth’s stylishly cluttered set (which made the most of the stage’s height with soaring bookcases), we knew somebody had to die. Or at least the sixty minute play would end in tears because there was nowhere else for it to go.

Black teenage tearaways Freddie and Vicky (Pippa Bennett-Warner) break into the home of elderly widower Lionel’s home, in search of cash and anything of value. Despite Freddie urinating on a pile of discarded books, smashing family photos and throwing ornaments around somehow there was a lack of menace about him. He should have put the fear of God into the audience but didn’t. When he and Lionel (Richard Johnson) square up to each other the two adversaries’ body language didn’t contain enough edginess. And the drama over the hand gun was so unbelievable, I felt I could have jumped onto the stage and grabbed the weapon, such was the character’s lack of possession over the focal point of the action.

The play concerns a dialogue between the three as the theft goes wrong when the kids discover ex-English teacher Lionel hasn’t much to steal. The one surprise was the revelation that Lionel’s wife employed Vicky’s mother as a cleaner which gave Vicky an insight into the property. This act of betrayal by Vicky seemed to put her in the dock, letting the two men off the hook. (One was a thief and the other was rich – hardly get-out clauses – but that’s how it was presented.)

Vicky (born on the day Mandela was released from jail which gave the play its ironic title) later confesses to having been sexually abused as a child which apparently absolves her from all responsibility. Freddie’s behaviour is explained by poverty, being coloured and being disenfranchised. And Lionel was just white. It was all very unconvincing. Surely testosterone, teenage bravado and immaturity were as much to do with the teen’s behaviour rather than a century of racial segregation?

So what was it about? An explanation of the violence demonstrated by poor coloureds and blacks in the republic? A demonstration of how when mothers die their families fall apart? Or was it to reveal how disappointed people are in the new post-apartied South Africa?

My theory is: Fugard in real life was repeatedly burgurled by teenagers when he lived in South Africa. Like anyone who has had their home violated he was left in a state of disbelief and anger. Victory is how he articulated his feelings. This explains the somewhat bleak and unsatisfactory ending. Thus it is not so much a drama about the Nelson Mandela’s democracy, but rather a play about what it feels like to have your home broken into. It doesn’t make for uplifting theatre – instead I left the auditorium in fear of my life as every teenager I passed I was convinced was about to mug me.

————————————————————————–

2006 Reviews.

Eggshell Blues. Alma Tavern, Bristol, England.

Theatre West’s third production in their autumn season at the Alma Tavern saw another one of actor Julia Gwynne’s many personas in Sarah Curwen’s futuristic story of survival. In this Atwood-esque tale echoing some of the themes of the novel, the Handmaid’s Tale, Gwynne played Grace, a gaunt and feisty survivor of a global virus. Her hollowed face, manic expressions and survivalist body language were just right for Sarah Curwen’s lacklustre script. For the story was predictable and two-dimensional with no humour, little explanation and despite the publicity, less hope.

It was set in the laundry room of a compound occupied by the survivors of a global virus that had reduced the outside world to chaos. An unseen governor rules the roost with his pick of the women. Evelyn (Dee Sadler) dressed as a sort of washed-up 1980s Madame, prepares and conditions the surly Grace for him to breed from. Suddenly wimpy ornithologist Rob (Paul Mundell) breaks up their routine of hanging out the smalls and mutters a great deal about breeds of birds and the importance of hatching an egg he has saved from the destruction outside.

Stunning lighting from Olly Hellis, great costumes by Penn O’Gara and a simple but effective set designed by Ann Stiddard were used to advantage by the director Caroline Hunt. It was a slick and professional production but somehow it remained locked in the confines of laundry room along with its story of a patriarchal society in which women must do what they must do to survive.

Rating: Two stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Date: October 28, 2006

Company: Theatre West

————————————————————————————————————————–

Fetch. Rondo Theatre, Bath, England

Barking, bewigged and bursting with ideas. Big State’s contribution to Bath’s Fringe Festival at the Rondo was like meeting a friend who had already downed two glasses of wine. They were well ahead of the evening before it had started. It took the audience a good quarter of an hour to catch up and tune into their seemingly insane theatrical style and the absurd storyline.

Set in a shortly to be demolished tower block the circular narrative concerns Lula the agency dog walker, played by Julie Black, who meets an eccentric group of residents. More importantly the skyscraper appears to be filled with zoo animals: that’s right, I said it was barking.

Mark Bishop and Ashley Christmas both had an ark full of polished voices and persona’s. At times the speed of their character changes confused but they always amused. Which of course is the point. Big State announced the devised work as a comedy. From my view there was a constant chuckle in the packed audience breaking into giggles at times hitting the heights of guffaws only occasionally. A young boy near the front was in constant fits of laughter while most people had regular outbreaks of sniggers. The performers moved so quickly from scene to scene that they didn’t always allow the audience to laugh. The certainly didn’t milk the laughs which was a pity as this is a very original and imaginative show. Using dialogue, film, slapstick, physical theatre and mime the show demonstrated the consummate theatrical skills of the cast of three.

Directed by John Nicholson of Peepolykus fame the beige and maroon costumes were a cross between the style of silent movies and cartoons. The set was like a backdrop to Top Cat with lots of little windows and doors to allow numerous interjections and surprises from the cast when they were off stage.

Julie Black had a wonderfully innocent set of expressions as she battle with the insanity of her client Mrs Thing, played by Ashley Christmas, while Ashley had a larger than life comic presence. This was a sharp and finely tuned performance by three gifted performers.

Rating: Three stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Date reviewed: Friday, June 9, 2006. Three stars.

————————————————————————————————————————-

Hedda Gabler. The New Theatre, Exeter, Devon, England.

Manic, manipulative and mysterious. Vicky-Jo Eva gave Ibsen’s feisty femme that unhinged quality that has made the name of Hedda Gabler an in-joke among divorced men. Her character is an enigma: rejecting the roles she is given by her male admirers but unable to create a positive liberated female life for herself in the socially stifling middle class world of late 19th century Scandinavia. Vicky-Jo had the presence and the menace, but perhaps needed more of the steely understated sexuality of the character who could make men do almost anything to be with her.

Paul Davies as Hedda’s bumbling husband Jorgen gave an accomplished and believable performance. Focused throughout, Davies retained the essential irritating fussiness of the character whose doomed relationship with Hedda is obvious to everyone but himself. Taran Wiseman gave a studied portrayal of Jorgen’s aunt Juliane with her grey wig and dowdy clothes. The body language was just right despite clearly being far younger than the character she was playing.

Particularly impressive for the same reasons was Kate Sharp as the maid. We believed in her persona – body language, demeanor and status were all well observed. This was a fine piece of work by Sharp.

For me David Lockwood as the hyper-sensitive writer Ejlert Lovborg wasn’t close enough to the edge. He was moody and jumpy, but it was more stroppy teenager than man on the brink of a break down. Lockwood’s sequences with Hedda and Mrs Elsved worked well – suggesting the actor would shine in relationship based dramas including comedy.

Judge Black played by Wesley Magee was oily and creepy but perhaps lacked some of the menace required. He looked the part despite his youth and convinced in his stalking of Hedda. Lizzy Dive shone as Mrs Elsted. Here is a performer who must make it professionally as a character actor. In the mode of Patricia Routledge or even Brenda Fricker, Lizzy has a seemless professionalism in her approach to her character that convinces you she is that person. Dive is one to watch in the future.

Directed by Alistair Ganley the production was clear and neatly presented. The set in particular worked well. Two small sofas at the front of the apron space set the scene with a small central table allowing the action to switch to this second area, with a partly draped smaller space to the rear suggesting another room. It was a lesson in how to present a play on a limited budget.

Ibsen’s drama explores the choices given to a woman by society, herself and those around her. In many ways it has become a period piece in the sense that women are now empowered to take control of their lives in a way Hedda Gabler seems uable or unwilling to do. The strength of the central character still however holds creedance. She is both repulsive and charming, a bubbling  schizophrenic cauldron of nerves, opinions, moods and impossibilities. The stunning conclusion of her dramatic suicide was the only finish Ibsen could give – and a triumph of the Cygnet Theatre’s special effects and make-up departments.

The company produced in Hedda Gabler not only a drama worthy of the professional stage but a clear and well-defined illustration of Ibsen’s social realism. A must for students of both drama and literature.

Rating: Three stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

Date reviewed: May 23, 2006.

—————————————————————————————————————–

The Keith Ashton Experience. The Alma Tavern, Bristol, England

Theatre West’s second play in their autumn season is a cringingly funny comedy featuring Alexei Sayle clone Simon Winkler. Keith Ashton is some sort of social guru who claims to sort out people’s lives. Is he unhinged, a nihilist or simply misguided? He apparently tricks two members of the audience into becoming his interviewees – of course they are not – they are members of the cast.

Using a bullying style of interrogation he uncovers the Totterdown lives of Jez (Paul Mundell) and Lisa ( Julia Gwynne). Branding them middle-class social climbers he castigates them for their snobbish views on Bedminster chavs and anyone considered working class. Instead of telling him to mind his own business the duo are drawn into an argument that finally ends in tears. Lisa attempts to leave the theatre, they both try to get the play stopped and finally Keith punches Jez to prevent him switching on the lights. In a manic deconstruction of Keith’s life and the lives of Jez and Lisa, the drama spirals towards a neat conclusion.

Although snooty Lisa and Jez have their lives put through the mincer by Keith Ashton, the main protagonist is not really given the verbal kicking he deserves by the writer Kark Breckon. I felt Keith was let off the hook too often. The couple turn on him on occasion but they never really put the boot in. His Ben Elton-type rants that date to somewhere in the coalminer’s strike of Thatcherite 80s Britain seem dated and tediously repetitive. Which is fine of course as Keith Ashton is supposed to be some sort of washed up social sage pointing out the error of our ways.

It would be hard to better Julia Gwynne’s performance as the arty, has-bagged-her-man-primary school teacher with one eye on her bio-clock and the other on moving to Cotham. With good body language, and excellent reactions throughout, she was entirely believable. Simon Winkler as Keith had a fluid patter and ease of delivery that carried the show and remained in control of his role as interviewer. Perhaps he could have been even more manic and weird, but this was the second night and I suspect he will turn into a monster by the end of the run. He was noticeably quick on the adlibs, as the show has several areas which allow the audience to chip in, and this aspect didn’t phase him. It could even be developed as Winkler was quick on his feet with the responses.

Likable Paul Mundell as Jez maintained the plausibility of the production with his portrayal of the want-to-be-loved accountant and frustrated musician. Directed by Pameli Benham the Keith Ashton Experience is a theatrical experience that will appeal to Bristolians with their roots in the first-time buyer world of Totterdown and Southville. The play runs until October 14.

Rating: Four Stars

Reviewer: Harry Mottram

———————————————————————————————————————-

The Rain Has Voices. Ruishton Village Hall

Outside it was a clear moonlight night, inside it was raining. With the constant drizzle on the back drop of the set of The Rain Has Voices, you could be forgiven for thinking the roof of Ruishton’s Village Hall was leaking. Shiona Morton’s drama was awash with stories that resonated with the audience. There was the run-away angry teenager Lizzie, played by Rebecca Hulbert, the Turgenev-esque father and son conflict between farmer Thomas Fear (Michael Strobel) and his high visibility jacket clad son Simon (William Bateman), and the confused old woman Sarah (Maggie Tagney) grieving for a lost child.

It’s an intense complex play with few laughs and a broken dream-like narrative that flits from one conversation to another. Each member of the cast played more than one character and worked as an ensemble by singing, providing sound effects and supporting voices in each scene. The strength of the play was the overall impression: people’s lives brought into focus by a flood on the Somerset Levels. Rarely is a title so apt: the rain really did have voices, with some believable West Country vowels wrung out of the cast. Performed in the round, the set consisted of a blue and white floor covering and a number of props such as chairs and baskets which were put to good use through out the story. There were also several strategically placed Perspex poles which symbolised the withies, measuring poles and even church pillars.

The audience remained mesmerised by five very strong performances including that of Maggie Tagney as Sarah who seemed to capture perfectly the universal persona of an elderly rural lady being confronted with her tragic past.

This is not an easy play to watch or even understand, but it is a thoughtful piece of writing stylishly brought to life by director Chris Fogg.

The play is at Under The Edge Arts, Wotton, Gloucestershire, tonight; Slimbridge Village Hall tomorrow; and the Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton, on Saturday night.

Harry Mottram

————————————————————————————————————————-

Treasure Island. Tobacco Factory, Bristol.

Dan Danson, cleared the decks unfurled the sails and brought Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate story to life with a brace of pistols and whole cellar full of rum. Richard da Costa (complete with charming talking parrot) was commanding as Long John Silver and Kate Blair did exceptionally well as a believable Jim Hawkins. Christina Lecker enjoyed herself as the always right Captain Smollett and Richard Cunningham was perfect as the pompous Squire. The cast was exceptionally strong and being the Tobacco Factory it is a joy to be so close to the performers. Dan Winter in particular excelled as Ben Gunn giving the eccentric castaway a personality that children related to.

Set partly in Bristol, the story concerns a search for treasure on a Caribbean island and a band of double-crossing pirates led by Silver. Young Jim Hawkins is the sober hero, who manages to stay ahead of the rum soaked pirates at every flash of a dagger. He’s a character that children will readily identify with: a child winning in an adult world without the help of mum or dad.

Treasure Island is a simple story that even younger children can follow, although adaptors da Costa and Danson had to discard much of Stevenson’s prose. The murky, misty set worked well for the onboard ship and pub scenes but didn’t adapt well for the brilliance of a Caribbean island with its tropical light and vegetation.

Malcolm Newton’s songs led by Harry Smith as Israel Hands and older Jim was a neat way to convey the spirit of the sea shanty times and added an unexpected dimension to a drama that could have got becalmed with too many “shiver me timbers”. A near sell-out audience (of approximately forty per cent children) remained transfixed as the pirates were out thought and out witted by a very earnest young Jim Hawkins.

With a shipload of pirates at the Hippodrome in Peter Pan and swashbuckling Musketeers at the Old Vic, Bristol is ringing to the sound of sword fights this Christmas. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

Harry Mottram

Four stars.

————————————————————————————————————————-

We’re going on a bear hunt

Bristol Old Vic, Studio

You have to be a brave little person to go on a bear hunt. With determined and stoical faces Craig Edwards, Marc Parrett and Stevie Thompson donned dungarees and bowler hats and set off through long grass, water, snow and down a tunnel in search of the eponymous bear. The giant furry creature’s paw prints and growling were the only clues to the closeness of the mammal. Like over excited five year olds the cast used comic dance, movement, song, physical theatre and a range of emotions to connect the simplicity of the story to their equally excited young audience. Inventive and lively with a winning title song this is a show that knows its audience. The performers came down to the childrens’ level and held their attention throughout in this simple (but well told) story, set in the round. If the Three Musketeers is for older children, then this 50minute drama is ideal for tiny tots and reception years; and indeed anyone who has ever loved a teddy bear. The play based on Michael Rosen’s book aptly appeals to the senses. Touch, texture, sound and lighting were every bit important as the dialogue and songs, with some haunting moments. The snow scene in particular captured a neo-Slava Snow Show sequence while the water scene appealed to every child who has ever taken pleasure in spending a penny. Taking the play from start to bedtime was the music composed and played by Benji Bower (who also appeared in Papa, Please Get The Moon For Me). It was atmospheric, appropriate and plumb-on. In addition the musician enters into the action as an occasional extra member of the cast, while his array of traditional and adhoc instruments will fascinate those in love with sound. Grrr. Grrr.

Harry Mottram

Four Stars

———————————————————————————————————————–

Venice Monologues. Merlin Theatre, Frome.

Polished, professional and delivered with aplomb. Annette McLaughlin, Jan Shepherd and Laura Harvey gave voice to the monologues recorded by American playwright Eve Ensler a decade ago. The Venician Monologues is a series of stories about women and their attitudes to their venicians. Some are old, some are sex workers, some have been raped and others are simply relating their attitudes to the most untalked about organ. It was funny, feisty and very female. Indeed men were divided into those who were sympathetic shall we say, the Bobs of this world. Bob being a character in one of the stories, and non-Bobs: I guess the majority of men.

There was a certain triumphalism which the cast shared with the overwhelmingly female audience. Aparently the crete has twice as many nerve endings as the pencil – or was it blood capillaries? Who knows – but it seemed to be important for the near sell-out audience at the neat auditorium in Frome. Surely it’s not how many nerve endings you’ve got but what you do with them?

Having read the play I thought that I knew what stories I was in for. Some were harrowing, some were revealing, and some were frankly hilarious tales of the female ‘down there region’. The drama followed the text as I recalled, it but I was caught out by the connection the subject had with the audience. They identified with every revelation, emphathised with every secret, visualised each fantasy and laughed raucously with the numerous in-jokes. Much of this was a puzzle to me as I was in a tiny minority in the theatre: I was a man. It is the only time I’ve felt slightly uncomfortable, even exposed, at a production. Despite using my imagination and trying my hardest to understand Ensler’s world: I don’t have a venecian.

Laura Harvey’s precise Scottish vowels were a perfection of clarity and her enthusiasm and range of voices swept me away into the world of tampons, sanitary towels and six from a female point of view. Annette McLaughlin sat in the middle of the three actors and was the only one of the trio to wear trousers – mainly because of her energetic demonstrations of female climaxes. Hers was the most gutsy of the performances winning the audience over with a somewhat earthy style of delivery. Jan Harvey came across as the friendlier and most one-of-us type of person – even though she also had a range of voices and stories to portray.

The play was performed in a static style. There were three performers, three chatshow type stools, three spotlights and a glitzy backdrop and carpet. The actors remained seated for virtually the whole play.

This was never going to be a depressing or didactic drama. It was uplifting, even liberating, and for me revealing. To borrow from the play’s origins based on interviews with real women, the performers spoke into microphones as they made their confessions, used notes as props which they didn’t seem to use, and took it in turns to bring Ensler’s script to life. They never appeared to slip or have any wobbly moments. It was an impressive piece of theatre which attracted a wide range of women of all ages and seemingly social backgrounds – most of whom were dressed up for a girl’s night out. The few men (I counted about 15) appeared to be partners or husbands – I couldn’t imagine this play to be an idea for a lad’s night out despite the subject.

By the interval I decided I needed a drink. Downing a pint of strong cider I got talking to one of the few chaps there. We immediately bonded and found ourselves talking about the off-side rule in football, our ears closed, as all around women talked in earnest tones about their venecian experiences. Put it this way: the evening was an education.

The Venecian Monologues will be at Taunton’s Brewhouse Theatre, on December 5-6.

Harry Mottram

————————————————————————————————————————

Waiting For Godot. Theatre Royal Bath.

It was so quiet you could hear tummies rumbling, hearing aids pinging and legs crossing and uncrossing. There are long moments in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, when nothing happens. As someone once said, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.” Strictly speaking the tragic-comedy is not without form or even plot. It begins and ends with a certain symmetry allowing the audience to understand the basic premise: that life is beyond our control, we take part without knowing why or where life will take us. We are all waiting for Godot.

If the play is a metaphor for life’s absurdities then Beckett takes his time in revealing the simplicity of the idea. It starts and ends with two down and out men waiting for Godot – of whom we learn little. The main action is the conversations they have with each other and also with two bizarre characters they encounter during their vigil by a rock and a tree. Sir Peter Hall must know the text back to front and upside down as he has been directing the controversial play since 1955 when he made his name with it at The Arts Theatre in London. The critics were split: some thought it nonsense, while others felt it redefined theatre for a modern world. It now sits comfortably into the canon of contemporary drama as a classic piece of work – even if it’s viewed by many theatre goer’s like a difficult elative who is coming to stay the weekend. It’s part of our world but not necessarily cherished like a favourite aunt. It has not however (unlike Look Back In Anger) become a period piece.

The two tramps, Estragon (Alan Dobie) and Vladimir (James Laurenson) have all the best lines and moments. The duo were immensely watchable as a kind of absurd comic double act. They rage against each other, criticise each other but also help and care for each other in what at first appears to be a post nuclear war landscape. In fact it’s simply their space – with little attempt to make it look realistic. Milking every line, these two say everything you have ever thought about life – if you are prepared to listen to them for two hours. Witty and poetic, their language is the core of the play’s success and they were inch perfect for the parts.

Also impressive as Lucky (Richard Dormer) who is a kind of slave to Pozzo (Terence Rigby). He imposed his salivating soul upon us all with a powerful piece of physical theatre. When he spoke it was all the more extraordinary as he launched into a poetic rant about life – and it drew a round of applause for a play with few recognisable dramatic highlights or set pieces.

Terence Rigby’s portrayal as Lucky’s master Pozzo had perhaps too much bluster, making it difficult to catch all his dialogue at times. He perfectly illustrated the unspeakable ruling classes he symbolised and their total reliance and attachment to their workers.

You don’t come away thinking what a fantastic play – but you do depart to discuss what you’ve seen with friends in the vein of “what was that all about?” Reactions that Beckett was after in making us all wait in vain for Godot.

Harry Mottram

———————————————————–

Blue Remembered Hills. Axbridge, Town Hall.

Quite simply this was the most accomplished production Axbridge Community Theatre (ACT) has created in the six years of its life. It may not have been the most popular with the public, the most challenging for the director or even the most inclusive for ACT, and it is not an original script: but it is the most crafted piece of work to date by the production’s artistic supremo John Bailey.

Dennis Potter’s childhood tale has been seized upon by amateur drama groups for several reasons. The play lasts around an hour, it is a standard text for schools, it has a small cast with each character having a sizable role, its material resonates with all generations and there is the unusual and immediately comic aspect of adults portraying children. Its dark themes of bullying, pecking orders, savagery, prejudice and abuse are disguised by an innocent humour that is best underplayed to evoke the subtleties of Potter’s sub-text.

ACT’s artistic director John Bailey coaxed strong performances from the cast of seven and etched his trademark freezes into the drama. This was a very touchy-feely interpretation with the cast looking and behaving like a group of close friends rather than potentially evil adversaries. This bonding was a strength, the only problem with it was the cast’s wonderfully gormless personas accentuated the comic aspects of the play, sometimes at the expense of the violence. The death of the squirrel for instance, didn’t quite capture the Lord of the Flies savagery of that brutal moment.

The exception was Janie Gray who played the outcast misfit Donald Duck who liked to play with matches. She seemed to be in a different, rather darker production such was her style. Gray captured the bleakness of an abused and confused young life so skilfully that a gap opened up between her and the rest of the cast: a gulf that Potter had wanted, but not perhaps like this. As she lit match after match in the barn, there was a palpable feeling of danger in the air. It was one of the production’s finest moments. Another highlight was the ghastly girly duo of Angela and Audrey, played by Lorraine McKay and Cathy Plummer. They had no problem finding the vindictive and unpleasant child within themselves. Coquettish one moment, bitchy the next.

Tony Wilson too had the right energy and boyishness for his part as the not very bright bully Peter – and he injected a vibrancy the other boys lacked. Mike Day as Raymond and Phil Sweet as John looked the part but at times their natural body language came to the fore when more cringing personas were required. This was also partly true of Chris Jarman who played Willy, whose voice on occasion dipped, making it hard to catch the lines. There was again in places a conflict between what Jarman was saying and how his body conveyed this. These may be somewhat nitpicking points, but we know the play so well, are familiar with its themes and Potter’s group of seven-year-olds who spent an idle afternoon in the Forest of Dean one afternoon in 1943.

This is the third production I have seen of the play in the last 12 months and none have been able to capture successfully the horror of the play’s pen-ultimate scene: the barn fire. Indeed, I think it impossible to do so conventionally within the confines of a theatre if realism is sort. Remember, the play was written for television, a medium that lends itself to such action. However, Janie Gray delivered the required pathos of desperate Donald, the cast created a memorable freeze by the barn and the lighting technician Peter Homewood lit the moment perfectly.

The overall impression was of a cast who were enjoying telling the story, an audience who readily identified with the characters, and of a director who had broken the play neatly in a series of freezes and speedy action sequences making this interpretation very much his own.

To complete the play, A E Houseman’s lines (that lend their words to the play’s title) were delivered with style by Chris Jarman. He reappeared as an adult to place what we had just seen in context: we can all look back to the happy highways of our youth, but can only return there through memories.

Blue Remembered Hills was played in the round using a minimalist set designed by Roger Parker. The play transfers to Scotland for two performances on October 25-26.

Harry Mottram

————————————————————————————————————

Improbable Fiction. The Mission Theatre, Bath.

With it’s cosy bar and café, rustic stone stairs and cushioned seats, the Mission Theatre is an ideal space for the quintessentially English Alan Ayckbourn’s work to be staged. In this case, Ann Garner’s polished production of Improbable Fiction, takes us into the quirky world of creative writing. Arnold (Steve Leanaghan) writer of instruction manuals hosts the meeting where lesbian farmer Jess (Claire Rumball) has writer’s block, and grumpy teacher Brevis (George Gent) is turning Pilgrim’s Progress inappropriately into a musical. Meanwhile Vivvi (Jane Lawson) can’t get her detective novels published, Grace (Caroline Groom) can’t write but can draw and Clem (Richard Matthews) writes atrocious science fiction (or fact as he says).

The first act sees the writers bicker as the painfully silent Isla serves them tea and mince pies, but as they disappear into the night something strange happens. Ayckbourn produces a wild fantasy where all the stories of the underachieving writers come alive in a crazy second act where murder, seduction, intrigue and aliens are mixed up in a confusingly comic farce. The mayhem was helped by George Gent as Brevis hamming it up in various roles including a starched butler, and aided and abetted by Richard Matthews who enjoyed himself as the detective. Hayley was a worryingly convincing nutter, Caroline a brash American, Claire a believably frustrated romantic novelist and Jane convinced as a nymphomaniac. The one character who didn’t turn into a phantom of his fiction was the disarmingly mild and affable Arnold played with the familiarity of an old cardigan by Leanaghan.

Ayckbourn’s plays so often promise so much, with huge wit and skilful construction, but one is left feeling the characters don’t develop, but rather continually display various facets of their inner fantasies. But it is very enjoyableThe play continues until Saturday.

Four stars

Harry Mottram

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s