Monday, 15 December 2008

Peter Pan

Milton Keynes Theatre
8 December 2008

No flash in the pan

Right. The first thing that I want to say before I start is that this is certainly not a bad production. It is slick, colourful and looks expensive. It has good voices, lively dance routines and some nice comedy. But it’s not a panto! It’s simply a family show taking place at Christmas. The second thing is that it stars Henry Winkler (aka The Fonz) and it is this that makes it all worthwhile!

What you need in a panto are the following elements. Good Fairy comes on from stage right, followed soon after by the villain stage left. Cue cheers and boos respectively, right from the start.

Then there’s an all singing all dancing village scene to set the story. The hero comes on, the comic comes on and then the dame, who appears in an ever more ludicrous costumes as the show goes on.

There’s a ghost scene and a slapstick scene with copious amounts of gunge. Then the hero gets the girl, the villain gets his come uppance and all’s right with the world. Cue big glitzy ending!
But Peter Pan is NOT a panto. It is actually very dark and, for a panto, there’s too much plot, so much so that some of the nuances of the original charming story are lost in trying to “panto it up”. For example the whole Tinkerbell poisoning / do you believe in fairies scenario takes seconds rather than bringing out the poignancy of the fairy’s jealousy throughout the show. And it takes a good 20 minutes for them all to get to Never Never Land in the first place, because we have to get through that tedious scene in the bedroom. As such, it takes an age before we can boo the villain Captain Hook.

And, while this production does all this admirably, for those expecting a traditional panto, it’s a bit of a let down, and to be honest, I got a bit bored at times.

Thankfully the presence of Henry Winkler as Captain Hook saves it, as you perk up whenever he appears. He is fantastic and, with great timing, knows how to work the audience. It is telling that the best part of the whole show is the few minutes when he “does the Fonz”. It is worth the ticket price along for those of an age who remember this iconic role. But the fact that this takes place in a short front of stage scene that has nothing to do with the actual plot speaks volumes for the suitability of the show as a pantomime.

I enjoyed Winkler’s performance so much that at the end I wanted him to win. I ended up cheering him not booing and would much rather have seen Peter Pan end up in the crocodile’s jaws. I mean, Louisa Lytton was a sweet Pan but she was just Louisa Lytton really, and I would have been more than happy for Hook to have been victorious.

There was of course the traditional sing-along near the end, led by Andy Ford’s hapless Smee, but this was followed by the end of the story back in the bedroom in London which brought everything down again.

In short, this is a big production which, if you treat it as a Christmas show, is absolutely fine but if you’re expecting a pantomime, then it is only Henry Winkler that will satisfy you.

Jack and the Beanstalk

Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage
5 December 2008

Is is good, oh yes it is?!

The Gordon Craig at Stevenage is renowned for its colourful and traditional pantos and Jack and the Beanstalk is no exception – it’s even got a genuinely funny script. I quite simply enjoyed it from beginning to end.

The legendary Paul Laidlaw, who plays Dame Trot, also directs and he has assembled an excellent cast to make the familiar story come alive. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again as he does it at Stevenage for about the 15th time - Paul Laidlaw is an absolutely fantastic dame. He knows exactly how to work an audience, is the perfect mix of comic turn and faded glamour and with the best legs in the business to boot, he can do no wrong!

In his first ever pantomime, David Spinx (Keith Miller in EastEnders) makes an excellent pantomime villain as Fleshcreep. In fact, he gets it just right – villainous enough to make you boo, but just a tad likeable as well so that his transformation is believable!

Ben Nicholas (Stingray in Neighbours) returns to Stevenage as Jack after his role as Buttons last year. He’s an extremely talented young chap – he sings and dances well and has good comedy skills. All in all he’s a very creditable hero!

Kate Burrell is charming as the slightly ditzy but feisty Fairy Sugar Snap, Paul Burling is excellent in the comedy role of Jack’s brother and his ability as an impressionist adds to the fun.
Completing the cast are the lovely Claire Huckle as Princess Tamara and the versatile Scott St Martyn as King Neil.

The audience always love local references, which of course this show included, but what they really enjoy are the jibes at neighbouring towns. Therefore the likening to the Giant’s land being a place that’s “desperate, desolate and dangerous”, just like Biggleswade, went down very well!
There are also lots of opportunities to shout out with cheering and booing a plenty. What I really liked though, was that instead of the usual song sheet before the final transformation scene, that usually entails four terrified looking kids being made fun of on the stage, Dame Trott and Billy led each side of the audience in a medley of snippets of popular sing along songs that everybody knew. The kids thing only works if you’ve got at least one hilarious child who hopefully doesn’t realise how funny he is and/or you are related to one of them! This way, by belting out tunes such as "Is this the Way to Amarillo?" and “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain”, we all had fun!

Best joke: Loads – but for me I loved: Jack: I’ve just been kissed by a fairy. Dame Trot: Welcome to showbusiness! Writer Paul Hendy also gets the absolute most out of the name of Princess Tamara such as “Will you marry Princess Tamara” – “No, I’ll marry her today” et al and ad infinitum


1.) David Spinx rendition of “I Predict a Riot”. He sang, he played the guitar and was surrounded by great dancers – this was real rock and roll and I loved it!

2.) Paul Burling’s impressions were really pretty good and his “supposed” 100 cartoon impressions in a minute was excellent – although there definitely weren’t 100. I won’t quibble though!

3.) Paul Laidlaw’s Dame.

Most importantly, Stevenage’s Jack and the Beanstalk is a real ensemble production where each actor makes sure this is one of the slickest and best panto productions around. So, is it good? Oh yes, it is!!

Monday, 8 December 2008

The Nutcracker - Northern Ballet Theatre

Milton Keynes Theatre
25 November 2008

A cracking evening from NBT!

I don’t think you can beat seeing The Nutcracker around Christmas and I found the Northern Ballet Theatre’s production to be a wonderful start to the season, before having to launch myself into pantomime heaven – or is it hell?!

I’ve always loved Tchaikovsky’s ballet music and, as a homage, walked down the aisle to the Soldiers’ March from The Nutcracker so, for the second time in a just over a month, the MK Theatre played host to some of my wedding music (see Carousel below!) I was a thrown a bit when the Soldiers’ March wasn’t done by the soldiers, but incorporated into the Christmas Eve party instead but, as we seemed to get a lot more of it, I was more than happy with that!

The unforgettable Tchaikovsky score is of course the highlight of the evening, but it was all imaginatively interpreted and slickly executed by this popular company. I particularly enjoyed the Mouse King's battle and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, accompanied by dances from other countries including China, Spain, Arabia and Russia.

Done well, the whole piece has a dream-like quality and should convey a feeling of utter escapism and in this, the NBT doesn’t disappoint!

Now, you’ll hate me for this cliché but, on what was a very cold night, I left the theatre feeling very warm-hearted as The Nutcracker once again worked its magic on me!


Milton Keynes Theatre
13 October 2008

Carousel spins on and on and on ....

I was brought up on the film Carousel, and have seen and enjoyed it immensely quite a few times on the stage, but I can’t for the life of me remember it being this long!

Time Magazine called it "the best musical of the 20th century", and while I feel that this is going a bit far, I have always liked that fact that in dealing with the doomed attraction of Julie Jordan for Billy Bigelow, the story moves away from the frothy romantic comedy much loved at the time, and deals with issues like domestic violence, all set against a fabulous Rodgers and Hammerstein score and lyrics.

It may just have been a bad night, but in Lindsay Posner’s production I found myself shifting about in my seat very early on. Billy and Julie must have been sitting on a bench for a good 40 minutes falling in love – a short amount of time in real relationship terms, but in musical theatre ones, interminable! “If I Loved You” is a beautiful song, but I just wanted to shout “get on with it” and became convinced that either previous productions must have cut bits, or that these two were dragging it out unnecessarily.

I have to say though, that the singing and dancing in the show, with choreography by Adam Cooper, was top notch. Jeremiah James as Billy and Alexandra Silber as Julie had strong voices and of course you can’t fault Lesley Garrett - it was just the bits in between that seemed to drag!

Nevertheless up until Billy’s early demise, the plot is at least believable and in many ways timeless. It’s after the wonderful “You’ll Never Walk Alone” that things go awry. I never really understand why Billy does what he does and his return to earth seems pretty pointless. But it’s the dream-ballet that really grates. I know that they were de rigueur in films at that time, but it seemed to last for an eternity and I think that it really could be dropped in this day and age – even if it’s choreographed by Cooper - sacrilege I know!

The highlight of the show for me was Nettie singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. It’s long been a favourite for many reasons – not all of them footballing ones – and a soloist sang it at my wedding so I always look forward to this moment in the show. To have Lesley Garrett singing it was a bonus, my only criticism being that it was very short. I think they could have doubled it, and cut some of the ridiculous clam bake stuff instead!

Garrett herself pours her heart and soul into the role of Nettie, it’s just a shame that it’s such a small part. But it does have the best song, and you could tell that she also thoroughly enjoyed “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” with the accompanying chesty dance moves – possibly a homage to her Strictly Come Dancing days!

All in all, I’m really not too sure how to some up the production. The score is fab, the singing and dancing is great – it’s just about half an hour too long. But if you can handle that, then it’s absolutely fine!

Monday, 13 October 2008

Absent Friends

Watford Palace Theatre
7 October 2008

Absent Friends bring present laughter

Alan Ayckbourn is one of the most prolific and widely performed English language playwrights and this play is a great example of why this is.

Absent Friends takes place in real time and shows a group of friends who get together for tea one Saturday afternoon in order to cheer up one of their number who has just lost his partner. It turns into a tense afternoon as many things are revealed and the cracks in the various relationships begin to show.

Colin is the one whose fiancée accidentally drowned, but instead of being morose, in Ian Targett’s portrayal we see an almost constantly happy man who is delighted to have had such a good relationship, even though it was short lived.

By contrast, the other couples’ relationships are seemingly hanging together by very fine threads and it only takes the catalyst of Colin’s happiness to cut them.

Di (Abigail Thaw) is an archetypal seventies woman, a wife and mother who does what is expected of her and, by way of reward, is walked over by her erring husband Paul (Jonathan Guy Lewis).

Evelyn is a humourless and sullen young mother , superbly played by Clare Lamb, who barely speaks to her hyperactive husband John played by Dale Superville, who can neither sit still or switch off from work.

Meanwhile, the childless Marge, is there without her husband as he is ill in bed, as usual, but it soon becomes clear through a series of phone calls that he is not happy at all at being left alone. Sally Ann Triplett brilliantly portrays this character who, while being the funniest to watch is also the most tragic, and this encapsulates the ethos of the whole play.

As usual, Ayckbourn is capturing a slice of life, where people are making the best of things and great humour comes from their interaction as they try to relate to each other. But at the same time it is tense and painful and their underlying sadness is palpable. You laugh and cheer when Di tips a jug of cream over the odious Paul, but at the same time you know that she has come to the end of her tether. I was very aware of laughing and being aware of their pain at the same time – quite an uncomfortable feeling but the mark of true tragi-comedy.

Much of this play is firmly of its time. Some of the attitudes in the play are firmly stuck in the seventies, such as how the men see their women, while on a lighter note, the décor and costumes provide a wonderfully nostalgic trip with enough static on the stage to light up Watford and enough swirly wallpaper to make your head spin!

But, unlike the wallpaper, other issues are timeless, such as the different ways that people grieve and the difficulties that others have in relating to them.

There’s also a strange kind of message in the play that Colin’s short lived but ultimately tragic relationship was extremely happy , while those in long term relationships are miserable. It’s almost as if he’s saying that long term relationships can never be happy and that familiarity breeds contempt.

But if you want a night that provides you with both a good laugh and a lot to think about - Absent Friends is for you.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Love's Labours Lost

Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
4 October 2008

Love's Labours win through!

Much as I love Autumn Saturdays in front of "Strictly" with a homemade curry, hen turning over to X-Factor just to talk about how contrived and rubbish it is, you really can't beat Stratford instead!

Love's Labours Lost is a weird one – as a play that is!

It many ways it is typical Shakespearean fayre with various characters having secret slash inappropriate loves, letters ending up with the wrong recipients and lovers donning disguises to woo the objects of their desire.

Basically the story is that the King of Navarre and the nobles of his court vow to study, fast, sleep little and see no ladies for three years. However, of course, this would make for a pretty boring play so of course the writer has to have the Princess of France arrives, together with three ladies in waiting – one for each nobleman. And guess what? The Lords discover their resolve is more difficult to keep than they first imagined.

In many ways it is predictable, until that is, things start to get wrapped up – or not! It is thought to be one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies which perhaps explains why it has an ending that begs a sequel. It doesn’t end up with everyone living happily ever after with the most appropriate partner like the majority of his comedies do. Instead, the females ask the men to wait a year for them. Playing rather unusually hard to get for a Shakespearean comedic woman! Maybe Shakespeare always meant to write a sequel – maybe he did pen one – maybe it’s lost! Questions, questions – the Bard never fails to get you talking!

Basically it’s an exuberant comedy which explores the power of love over reason and Gregory Doran’s witty and elegant production is certainly an enjoyable romp.

It is also certain to have good audiences, not necessarily because it’s a chance to see a rarely performed play, but because of one David Tennant in the cast. He plays Berowne, one of the charming and witty noblemen, in what must be quite a relief from the brooding of Hamlet! And he does so with style and panache delighting an audience packed with his fans who only know him as Dr Who and those who know that he was acting at the RSC well before he set foot in the tardis! But note to some Tennant fans: It is NOT necessary to laugh at absolutely everything he says, just because he has an amusing expression on his face! Although when he and his fellow noblemen, Sam Alexander (Dumaine), Tom Davey (Longaville) and Edward Bennett as Navarre dress up as Russian Cossacks to woo their ladies, they are all genuinely laugh out loud funny!

Tennant is delightful throughout, but this is most definitely not a one man show. The ensemble cast are just that, and look as though they are having a whale of a time to boot!

But special mention must go to Joe Dixon who brought the house down as the lovesick Armado and his servant Moth, played by Zoe Thorne. They were hilarious and, as Mr FB pointed out, as a duo they bore a striking resemblance to the Krankies, although after looks, the similarity ended. This pair were funny. The Krankies aren’t!

The elegance came from the ladies including Mariah Gale as a sophisticated Princess of France and a beautiful Nina Sosanya as Rosaline, who with an air of graceful feistiness proved the perfect partner for Tennant’s Berowne. It just felt weird that at the end they weren’t all matched up to live happily ever after. The characters are told to wait for one year – as an audience we have had to wait over 400! But that’s just the play. Shakespeare is not always perfect, but his comedies are a laugh when brought to life on stage like this and this one is fandabidozee! Well worth missing "Strictly" for - and we got home in time for Match of the Day!

Thursday, 2 October 2008


Milton Keynes Theatre
30 September 2008

You Must Love This!

Despite my best intentions in the past 30 years or so, I had only ever seen the film of Evita, in which Madonna played the title role. And I have to say that I think this is the only film that she ever showed an ounce of acting talent despite her whole life being a performance. But I digress. I knew I liked the music, so really wanted to see it on the stage – and I wasn’t disappointed!

Evita depicts the story of Eva Peron and her journey from poverty stricken rural Argentina to Buenos Aires where she pursued a career as a stage, radio, and film actress before becoming the second wife of President Juan Peron and serving as the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death in 1952.

The musical of her life shows Andrew Lloyd Webber in his hey day and this, I feel, is down to the fact that the genius that is Sir Tim Rice was the lyricist. Without Tim, I think it’s fair to say that ALW just does pretty tunes. The mix of humour and drama that Rice’s lyrics inject into all the musicals that the two of them produced together, make them some of the best shows we’ve ever had – and Evita is no exception.

The lyrics are packed with references to Eva being an actress and that her life is a show, one big pantomime. She was therefore the perfect person to have a show written about her, and this musical highlights her use of style and manipulation of image to the end.

The fact is that Eva Peron is not a person you can really feel for. Power hungry, manipulative and fiercely attention-seeking, she was not a woman’s woman and for all the good that she is supposed to have done, there is a strong suggestion that many of her dealings were somewhat shady. So why, at the end, as she did her last broadcast, did I find a tear trickling down my face? Well, it seems that the performer in her had seduced me as well as all those Argentinians many years before.

This of course was down to the performances of a strong ensemble cast and in particular that of Louise Dearman who plays Eva. It had been quite a leap for her from selling programmes and showing people to their seats when she worked front of house at the Milton Keynes Theatre to being on the stage. But she now has audiences on the edge of those seats as she brilliantly conveys Eva’s journey from ambitious 15-year-old to being first lady of her country, still ambitious but dying of cancer.

A huge voice comes from the tiny Louise and she superbly shows the real person behind the hard mask and touched the vulnerability in all of us. And small as she is against the more statuesque and hugely impressive Mark Heenehan’s Peron, the chemistry between the two was palpable in a way that the mismatched Tony and Maria wasn’t in West Side Story a fortnight ago.

Another star of the show is Seamus Cullen. He was the slightly unkempt looking one with bags of attitude in BBC TV’s Any Dream Will Do, but now that “edge” is being put to good use in his role as Che. And I have to say that I think he is far more suited to this role than that of the frankly rather annoying Joseph! His voice is pure and clear and in this narration role, he holds the whole thing together with humour, anger and panache.

Special mention must also go to Nikki Mae as the Mistress on her professional debut. The song “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” is a classic song and she performs it with feeling. I do feel that it’s odd that this character just appears, sings a fab song then both of them – her and the song – disappear again, apart from a couple of lines of tune later in the show. It’s as if Rice and Lloyd Webber wrote the song, thought it a good commercial piece so decided to shove it in one of their creations! I won’t complain though – it’s a great song!

And this is a great show, well-performed which touches the emotions and sends you off into the night thinking that maybe there is a human being behind even the most odious public figures!

Tuesday, 30 September 2008


Wyndham's Theatre
27 September 2008

Branagh's back - and it's magnificent

I always think that the best acting performances are when it doesn’t look like acting. Instead it’s as if you are peeking through a window and taking a sneaky look at a slice of someone else’s life. And this is exactly what I felt when watching Kenneth Branagh in the title role of Chekov’s Ivanov.

Tom Stoppard's new version of the Russian’s early play, directed by Michael Grandage is also a fine example of something that is not just your average revival of an old play, trotting out the words with no new insight or surprise. This is an eye-opening version that makes you realise that some 19th century problems still have resonance today and probably always will. It also shows the dual nature of life and how its tragedy and comedy do not just sit side by side, the co-exist.

And it wasn’t just the references to the financial situation that brought knowing laughter from the audience, it’s the portrayal of a man with problems that could easily be transferred to the 21st century.

Ivanov has been described as “Hamlet with a mid-life crisis” and indeed there are many references to the Dane throughout the play.

But instead of being paranoid about his mother’s new husband, this man is heavily in debt and has fallen out of love with his sick wife and is instead attracted to a younger woman.

Every night he escapes to his neighbours, the Lebedevs to whom he owes money. But this only makes him feel more guilty when Sasha (Andrea Riseborough), their 20-year-old daughter, throws herself at him.
The play deals with both his heroic and un-heroic struggle to do something about the mess his life has sunk into. He therefore has an “everyman” quality about him, having to deal with problems that are subjects that still have to be dealt with today.

Kenneth Branagh brilliantly deals with what is essentially the breakdown of a man in a performance that is both moving and hilarious at the same time. You really feel for him at the same time as wanting to shake him. However, you also know that he feels what he feels and there is nothing that anyone can do to get him out of and as such is an accurate portrayal of what is essentially a mental illness.

Basically, his dissatisfaction with life is shown to be more than just boredom. The real tedium and monotony of life are portrayed brilliantly by the other characters when they assemble in Zinaida’s (Sylvestra Le Touzel) living room to play cards, sip vodka, gossip and complain about the monotony of their lives. But against all this, Ivanov’s situation is clearly more serious and shows the difference between feeling a bit low and being depressed, something that can be very difficult to grasp.

He is also, for the most part, honest about his feelings although this doesn’t do him any good either. In fact, in the end he goes from hero to zero in a trice as when he fails in his efforts to do the right thing he ends up doing it wrong.
It all sounds a bit depressing doesn’t it? But the play is, in fact, hilarious and this is largely due to Tom Stoppard’s fantastic adaptation which brings the language right up to date while still setting it in the late 19th century. It is a lesson in how people’s problems don’t change but also shows the humour in Chekhov and as his aim was to “show life plain”, it shows the humour in life as well. It is a stark reminder that you can be utterly ludicrous but tragic at the same time – a nod towards today’s celebrity culture as well! Branagh’s Ivanov knows that he is being ridiculous, but his feelings of guilt and shame are still palpable.

And just like life and just like all the best plays, you can swing from laughter to despair in a second and there is no better example of this than the final scene. And Branagh does it all naturally with superb timing.
The play goes some way to answering the question of whether Chekhov’s plays are comedies. The answer to this, as Stoppard eloquently puts in the programme is, “Is life?” and what’s clear in this, is that in showing this particular slice of life, well then yes, life is!

Great as he is, this production isn’t all about Branagh though. It’s an excellent cast with fine performances from the aforementioned Sylvestra Le Touzel as the domineering Zinaida, Lorcan Cranitch as Borkin and Malcolm Sinclair as Shabelsky to name just three.

And what can you say about the lovely Gina McKee who plays his tubercular wife Anna Petrovna, a woman who in this portrayal is as forlorn as she is beautiful and I want to be as beautiful as Gina McKee. Mr FB says yes, she's beautiful but she’s a stick. I tell you - I really wouldn't mind being a beautiful stick. And I really, really wouldn’t mind seeing this fantastic production again! It’s the perfect example of everything that theatre should be.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

West Side Story

Milton Keynes Theatre
16 September 2008

50 years young!

It’s been 50 years since West Side Story hit the stage, and I swear that, as a show, it just gets better and better with a soaring and emotional score that fills your heart and Jerome Robbins original choreography lovingly reproduced and truly standing the test of time.

It’s therefore always a worry, when you go and see a production of a show that you love, that it will live up to your expectations and thankfully, this anniversary show did – mostly!

It is essentially a very good production. The dancing is top notch, especially from the men. Robbins’ powerful balletic moves capture the mixture of youthful exuberance with underlying violence and this company’s troupe of men really do it justice.

And there are also excellent voices throughout, which made me bask in the wonderful music and yearn to get up on the stage and join in!

The set is versatile, if a little noisy at times, and the interaction between the Jets and the Sharks, and the animosity between incomers and “natives” made me really mindful that we face the same problems today.

My main bug bear with this production was that I didn’t really “get” Tony and Maria. The show itself doesn’t really give a lot of explanation as to why they fall for each other so quickly, you just have to accept that it is a lightening bolt/love at first sight moment, but it is possible to accept it – I’ve done it before! The fact is that it’s easier to accept if the chemistry between the two is so electric that you can’t fail to see why they were attracted to each other. The problem here was that there really wasn’t much of a connection between the two of them.

Daniel Koek as Tony has a beautiful singing voice, really powerful with a gorgeous tone that I could have listened to all night – but he looked much older than Maria and dressed a bit like an insurance clerk, or, as one audience member said more insightfully, a teacher. Now, I’m not saying that people can’t fall in love with insurance clerks and teachers instantly, I’m sure you can, but when your Maria looks about 13, the relationship looks and feels a little inappropriate!

Sofia Escobar as Maria also had a fantastic voice and looked really sweet, but I wasn’t convinced that she loved Tony. It wasn’t that she wasn’t trying, it just wasn’t there. Sometimes actors go well together, sometimes they don’t, it’s not their fault. I’m sure that individually they are a great Tony and Maria but together they were in their own little worlds and not each others.

But while I was a little disappointed by the main pairing, the show itself is a wonderful night with a young, exuberant and talented cast. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Jayde Westaby as Anita and, after seeing Clive Francis in The Dresser at the Watford Palace last week, was delighted to see that his young son Harry was following in his talented footsteps in the role of Baby John.

All in all, it’s a good production of a classic, and despite some casting deficiencies, it still shows West Side Story up as a show that makes many newer musicals look thin and uninspiring.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Dresser

Watford Palace
9 September 2008

The show must go on

I love backstage plays and plays within plays. From Kiss Me Kate and Noises Off to the more metadramatic Rosencrantz and Guildernstern and Travesties of Tom Stoppard, I enjoy the analysis of actors and their craft both with and without an audience and discissions about whether therefore, we are all acting in some way and as such are all audiences to someone.

Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser is a totally absorbing look at a slice of backstage life in a provincial World War II theatre as an actor/manager strives to take theatre the length and breadth of war torn Britain.

It focuses on an egocentric actor/manager known as Sir, although he clearly hasn’t been given a Knighthood as he constantly rails against those who have, and it looks at the relationships between him and his wife, the rest of the company and most importantly with his devoted dresser Norman.

As the play opens, Sir has been taken to hospital after apparently suffering some kind of breakdown. His wife, who is also the leading lady, and the stage manager Madge want to cancel that night’s performance of King Lear but Sir turns up having discharged himself and in a state of near collapse. The two women are even more determined to cancel but Norman is equally as determined that Sir should go on and we watch what happens as Norman persuades, cajoles and bullies his charge into making up, getting his costume on and making his way to the stage.

As Sir, Clive Francis brings the arrogant, infuriating and yet still likeable character alive in all its complexity. He mostly seems to be in a state of utter despair, driven by unknown forces and wallowing in it too. He can’t even remember his first line in Lear until the mere mention of a full house by Norman brings him to life. The whole play is based on Harwood’s own experiences as dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit and it does seem to be a classic portrayal of the acting profession, someone riddled with “issues” and uncertainty and needing an audience to truly exist.

Graham Turner is superb as a camp Norman who plays a submissive and protective role when dealing with Sir, although is clearly still in control. Then when coming between his boss and the rest of the company he turns spiteful and defensive. It’s clear that just as Sir needs an audience, Norman needs Sir to give meaning to his life and at the mere suggestion of this not continuing, his insecurities flow out in a bitchy tirade. I found it to be a very moving performance.

Sarah Burger, who plays his wife in the eyes of all but the law, gets the frustration of an ageing leading lady still playing Cordelia exactly right while the unrequited love of Stage Manager Madge for her boss is palpable - but this is really Sir and Norman’s play and it is their central bond that is most absorbing. Cleverly, Harwood mirrors elements of the association between Lear and The Fool in this relationship too which makes this an ultimate play within a play.

Director Di Trevis manages the balance between comedy and pathos and I liked the way that Ashley Martin-Davis’ set showed us what was happening in the wings while we could also see the action on the stage where Lear was taking place, although the scene changes between the two were a little clumsy.

But this is nit-picking in what is a good and thoughtful night out at the theatre.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

A Slight Ache

National Theatre
28 July 2008

A title which describes my post-show brain!

It may or may not have been appropriate for us to go and see a play about a married couple grown stagnant in their relationship on our first wedding anniversary! But as I would happily watch paint dry if SRB (Simon Russell Beale) was doing the painting and, through The Alchemist, Spamalot and Major Barbara, I have converted Mr FB into doing practically the same, going to see A Slight Ache at the National was the perfect thing for us to do!

The addition of theatrical A-lister Claire Higgins added to the enjoyment. And then there’s the fact that it is only just over an hour long and starts at 6.00pm, which meant that we could enjoy to the full Mr FB’s surprise present of a night at The Howard plus a fantastic meal - the sum total of all these factors therefore made this something of a theatrical elixir!

Pinter’s play itself starts with middle class couple Edward and Flora (SRB and Higgins) at breakfast on a hot summer’s morning. They kill a wasp in the type of brilliantly timed and worked piece of business that SRB always carries off so well, and argue about which flower is which in the garden – trivial every day conversation that is frighteningly realistic.

They then invite a mysterious match seller (Jamie Beamish) into their house and talk to him, or rather at him, as he never makes a sound. I assumed that this figure was some kind of symbol of what was “rotten” in their marriage, and that his silent “dialogue” was the ultimate Pinteresque pause! But you’re never quite sure. I think that in this way, the play would probably work better on the radio, with the exception of course, of having this delicious duo on the stage!

They are, of course, excellent with SRB at his irascible best and a matronly but ultimately doting Higgins. Is she doting on the silent stranger in a way that she hasn’t been able to with her husband in their long marriage? And top marks to Jamie Beamish in the demanding silent role, challenging not least because under a balaclava and heavy coat on a humid July evening he must have practically melted away!

I was also pleased to see that the set (by Ciaran Bagnall) mostly consisted of different types of chairs. I felt vindicated! Some years ago whilst working on an amateur production of ‘Betrayal’ I made up some horribly pretentious argument (because I was studying English and no one else had, ergo I had to try and say something clever!) to do with the fact that Pinter was “all about the chairs”, and that characters behaved according to where they were sitting and the type of chair they were on. I left the National partly pleased, but mostly horrified, that the rubbish soft furnishings theory that I had made up “for a laugh” may have had some substance to it! But then again, you can get away with a whole load of cr*p when discussing Pinter!

I enjoyed this short play. It made me think, and I like to think, even if it does make my brain ache! We were also able to discuss, over our anniversary dinner, how we would do all in our power not to end up in that kind of relationship – and how we would never invite balaclava clad strangers with no conversational skills into our home!

Tuesday, 5 August 2008


Royal Shakespeare Company, Courtyard Theatre, Straford-upon-Avon
26 July 2008

I won’t do a predictable “to go or not to go” title!

When writing about my latest trip to the RSC, I do not feel the need to do my usual “did Shakespeare really write the plays?” pre-amble – I will just launch straight into it and say, unequivocably - David Tennant is an outstanding Hamlet!

The official press night isn't until 5 August, so my comments on Tennant's performance and the rest of Gregory Doran's new production may be premature, but I don't think that much will change – and a good job too!

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is considered to be THE role, the one that all actors want to test themselves with, and presenting him in a way that preserves its sparkle and potency is a challenge. But all too often though, he is portrayed as doing an awful lot of brooding, so much so that you just want to say “for goodness sake pull yourself together man”. In fact, very often the character is played as a certain “type”, princely, tormented, soldier-like etc.

But what Tennant does is find all his facets, all the different moments and plays them all to perfection. He makes Hamlet’s tormented soul highly likeable with a sense of comedy about his madness. It’s more of a personal struggle with how he feels rather than out and out insanity and one that you can totally understand and believe in. As a wronged son he almost reverts to being a petulant child who has had his Playstation taken out of bounds. But there’s also sensitivity, sadness and anguish. You are with him all the way, totally hooked by his emotional journey and as the character took his final breath I shed a tear. I’ve never felt like that about Hamlet before!

But it also must be said that while Tennant is superb, it’s not all about him. It’s a wonderful company and an excellent production. Hamlet is a great story. Compared to some of the history plays it’s easy to follow and when it’s well-told, as it is here, it’s an exciting thriller.

Oliver Ford Davies is a lovely old Polonious, often going off into a world of his own, saying the words as if for the first time and pondering over what he is saying. Patrick Stewart’s Claudius is firm and manipulative but gorgeous and together with Penny Downie’s beautiful Gertrude, you can easily see why the two of them got together! In fact, I want to be Penny Downie, beautiful in an ethereal way, elegant, poised and able to carry off gorgeous but unforgiving silk dresses. Moreover, I want to be Penny Downie in Hamlet as in the space of two minutes, David Tennant kisses her and Patrick Stewart massages her shoulders!

And I have to admit that I spent a good deal of the evening just thinking how blimming lucky the whole cast was to be in this production.

The set is quite simple, and mirrored to reflect the holding a mirror up to nature quote and indeed it’s a quote-tastic play, there are the very famous ones of course but also odd phrases such as “single spies”, “murder most foul” etc and so many more that you suddenly remember how influential Shakespeare was in the language that we speak today.

I also can’t write this post without mentioning the Dr Who posse which made for a very different audience and quite a lot of hysterical screaming at the end. You can’t get a ticket for love nor money and much of this is down to David Tennant’s role as the infamous TV time lord and people wanting to see their hero in anything. Add to this Patrick Stewart’s Star Trek fame and Oliver Ford Davies’ Star Wars background and it’s a sci-fi fans heaven!

I am NOT a sci-I fan, ergo there cannot be a sci-fi heaven, it is all hell in my book, and pointless to boot (What is the dark side when it’s at home anyway?!) so I was just excited and delighted to see some of our greatest stage actors doing their stuff. My husband on the other hand loves all that space slash fantasy rubbish so for him it was double bubble, great actors AND heroes, but we both recognise that the viewing public are lucky to be able to see actors like Tennant on prime time TV.

And, while I was able to scoff at all the people asking where the toilets were, he enjoyed watching the geeks in front of us when Patrick Stewart said something like “Let it be so” and they all started laughing and nudging each other. Apparently, this was half way to his famous Star Trek quote “make it so”, they were practically puce with excitement at the mere mention of the “so” word!

I have to say that while part of me felt like whipping out my programme collection to prove that I am at that theatre an awful lot, whether or not there’s a Saturday night TV star on show, most of me thought that if it gets more people at the theatre, that can only be a good thing. And when they are actually there to watch fine actors, rather than karaoke stars who have been voted into the role by the public (sorry, “I’d Do Anything”!), then so much the better!

If you’re going to see Hamlet, you know that you won’t be out of the theatre much before four hours but at about three hours, 45 minutes, this production flew by all too quickly. It was a real privilege to be in the theatre, made even more special by the fact that on this particular weekend, a year ago, we were married – despite my husband’s love of Dr Who!

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Millionairess

Shaw’s Corner
25 July 2008

It’s a Shaw thing!

We did it last year week before our wedding and we’ve just done it again to start off our anniversary weekend and I honestly don’t think that there’s a more perfect way to spend a summer’s evening. Watching a George Bernard Shaw play at Shaw’s Corner!

I love open air theatre and to see a play performed in the grounds of the house where the playwright lived and most probably wrote that same play is very special indeed.

Shaw’s Corner is the epitomy of this experience. Plays are only put on there a couple of weekends in a year and the late July showing always celebrates the anniversary of GBS’s birth – this year being the 152nd. This July’s offering was The Millionairess, one of Shaw's final plays, written in 1935 when he was 79, and turned into a film in 1962 with Peter Sellars and Sophia Loren, although it was drastically altered for the big screen. A good thing I think, as my husband said it was the worst Peter Sellars film ever!

In true Shaw style, the comedy is spekling, but the capitalist character in the story is portrayed as a monster. In this case it’s the flouncing Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga Fitzfassenden (Amanda Sterkenberg), who, when challenged by an Indian doctor to work and pay her way rather than live off her inheritance, gets her hands dirty for about a minute, before discovering a vocation for management rather than ordinary drudgery! Fair play to her I say!

Most of the heroine's problems are caused by her father fixation but the issue is hardly helped by a rather dim husband (Jonas Cemm) and opinionated would-be lover (Martin Durrant). But with both, she makes it clear to them who is boss, almost killing the non-lover with her martial arts skills. It is only when the penniless doctor (Stephen Chance) comes on the scene that she almost meets her match, but in the end, doesn’t quite lose. Is Shaw saying that ultimately the poor are onto a loser when faced with the rich bosses? Probably, and much as I love the work of Shaw, I also think it’s a bit rich that he bangs on about Socialism when he lived in such a nice big house. It’s easy to be a Socialist in those circumstances isn’t it - Tony Blair?!

In this setting you don’t really worry too much about the staging which is why this review is more about the event and the setting than the play. The actors perform on the long fairly narrow patio at the back of the house so there’s only room for a few chairs and a table and basic props and there are only a couple of doors that can be used as exits and entrances as the actors appear from the house itself. But it doesn’t matter, you just sit back, eat your picnic, enjoy your surroundings and listen to the words, which are of course, the all important thing.

I love the clientele there too. It’s quite funny watching people, I’d hazard a guess that many of the audience all read the Daily Mail and listen to Radio 2 and furthermore, many of these go to an event like this in the same way as they’d go to the village fete or the local pony club horse show. It’s an event that they do as part of their year, rather than because they have a great interest in theatre. Consequently, for some (and I stress for some) the picnic is the most important thing and much thought is put into the most trendy sandwich fillings, “posh” nibbles and the supermarket that does the best wine deals.

Meanwhile, those who are listening to the show demand absolute silence. The mere hint of a rustle of Rock Salt and Balsamic Vinegar oven baked hand-cooked crisps has heads spinning round like The Exorcist to see the offenders. And woe betide anyone who dares not to turn their phone off! And fair dos on that point by the way. At this particular performance, one woman spent a good deal of the second half popping Pringles tubes and fishing huge party sized packs of crisps from her ruck sack. I thought the woman in front of me was going to implode and I’m sure she’s suffering this week from the crick in her ever-spinning neck. Then, horror of horrors, crisp woman’s mobile rang. Now, if that was me I would be mortified and immediately fall on it and switch it right off. Unfortunately, the saturated fat queen’s fingers were a little clumsy (i.e. chubby) and it took an age. Then, she didn’t actually turn it off or put it on silent and of course, the person calling left a voice message. Durrrr!

But apart from this racket which, to be fair, didn’t last the entire evening, the only other thing to break the silence of a perfect summer’s evening was the words in the play. And when they have been penned by GBS, there’s absolutely nothing to complain about!

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Eurobeat: Almost Eurovision

Milton Keynes Theatre
14 July 2008

You can feel the beat!

With more man-made fibre than you could shake a stick at, more cheese than Tescos, an audience in an excited frenzy and some of the most irritatingly catchy tunes you will ever hear, Eurobeat is plainly and simply a “right laugh” from start to finish! It is utter nonsense, but a more brilliant piece of twaddle I haven’t seen in a long time!

Writers Craig Christie and Andrew Patterson have put together a wonderful homage to the love it or hate it institution that is the Eurovision Song Contest. The actual contest itself has now become so ridiculous that it is impossible for anyone to take it seriously, so the time is absolutely right for this glorious spoof!

From wooden hosts with strange caught-in-the-headlights looks in their eyes who make totally unfunny jokes, to glittering costumes, literal dance routines, nonsensical lyrics and predictable tunes, it is camper than Butlins and incorporates everything that we know and love (or hate) about the competition! And what’s the biggest seal of approval this show can have – well it’s all introduced via a special video message by Mr Eurovision himself – Terry Wogan.

Mel Geidroyc and Les Dennis play the hosts for the evening, in the guise of former pole-vaulter Boyka and wig-bearing children's TV host Sergei. And they got douze pwan (sp) from me! With chemistry as glittering as their spangly outfits, they were clearly enjoying themselves as much as we were. Their comedy backgrounds served them both well as they made the non-humorous quips hilarious in their un-funniness with well-timed one-liners and saucy double-entendres.

And what got the biggest cheer of the night? Boyka, while whipping the crowd into a frenzy of cheering said, “imagine you’re watching Britain’s Got Talent and Simon Cowell has just strangled Amanda Holden”! The audience erupted whilst looking fondly at her lovable ex-husband. “Amanda who?” said Les, with perfect timing! What a man? What a legend!

The ten acts they introduced included every Eurovision cliché you could think of and the fire-hazard quota increased with every number as the nylon crackled off the stage! Some of the highlights were Estonia with their scantily clad boy band whose man-kinis left very little to the imagination, the UK’s warbling duet who were not always in perfect harmony, Russia’s Lycra-clad KG Boyz and Germany’s lyric-less electronic dance number.

The audience are a key part of the show in this interactive extravaganza as it really is a competition! Right from the moment you walk in you can feel the excitement building as you are given a badge which shows which country you will be supporting. After that you can buy (at reasonable prices) a flag to wave and clackers to clack to help you cheer your song on, and then when you’ve heard all the songs, you text (at no more than the normal cost of a text) your top three songs to a special number so that the crowd, just like the real thing, actually play a part in who wins the evening!

You really can’t help but get sucked into it all! I am normally the one who sits, arms folded, as everyone around me claps along to the music and gets up and dances at the end. I normally hate that kind of involvement but something overtook me during this show and there I was, clacking my clackers and cheering on Sweden, my chosen country for all I was worth – cheering anything that moved - in fact as it turned out. I honestly don’t know what happened – it just did!

The second half of the show includes the now standard mid-show Eurovision entertainment with Mel Geidroyc inexplicably dressed as a turnip, followed by the results from the juries, who appear on a big screen just like the real thing and seem just as hapless!

The show perfectly captures the sheer madness of this competition as it shows restraint, never taking the lunacy too far. It’s camp and corny with lashings of bonhomie.

It was a huge hit in Edinburgh last year and is now on its way to the West End where it is set to enjoy cult status. Don’t spend time Making Your Mind Up – get a ticket now!

Brief Encounter

The Cinema, Haymarket, London
13 July 2008

A pleasing encounter

Staged in a West End cinema on London’s Haymarket, and therefore boasting the comfiest theatre seats in the capital with a slot on the arm of your chair to hold your drink to boot, Brief Encounter is an imaginative, inventive and rather charming theatrical experience.

The iconic 1945 movie was based on a Noel Coward one-act play, Still Life. Now the two have been melded by Emma Rice and the Kneehigh Theatre Company in a multimedia show which is an interesting and inventive hybrid of the two!

The basic story is still there. Laura is a respectable suburban wife, and Alec is a married doctor. They meet at a station buffet, and fall in love over the course of a few meetings but their relationship is doomed never to last.

But enhancing the story in this production is back projection which articulates the characters’ hidden emotions and front projection that in a practical sense allows the characters to get on and off of trains. Both of these imaginatively add to the feeling of being in a cinema.

There are also other relationships in the buffet, brasher, humorous and more relaxed ones which provide a good contrast to the central coupling and highlights a middle class stifling of emotions. And the action is also interspersed with Coward songs which are played in front of the curtain in a music hall style.

Before the production there is a band and singing in the aisles and company members dressed as period usherettes guide you to your seats. During the interval there is more entertainment and spoof cinema adverts from the period selling products such as La-di-dah's Lard! I guess this is to give you a feel of what Laura and Alec might have experienced on one of their illicit meetings at the flicks. Indeed, as the play opens, the couple are watching from the front row.

They argue that the relationship can no longer continue whilst on the screen Laura’s dependable husband pleads with her to return. She then seamlessly walks “through” the screen to appear with her husband. And this sets the scene for the whole production, a mix of media that holds your attention throughout.

And if you can’t get David Lean’s film and Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard out of your head, you will after a couple of minutes as Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock make the parts their own.

To reproduce Brief Encounter as a straight theatre adaptation or to perform Still Life, there is a real danger that it would appear dated and completely irrelevant to today.

By switching between live action and film footage, and between emotional pain and music-hall exuberance, Kneehigh highlight the passion beneath the self-control and using up-to-date theatre techniques gives it all a more modern feel. Besides, everyone knows what happens so you may as well have a bit of fun with it! This has the best of all worlds – and comfy seats as well!

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Mary Poppins

Birmingham Hippodrome
10 July 2008

Mary Poppins flies!

What would Mary Poppins do? That’s the new mantra of myself and my husband when looking after our young nieces after going to the first night in the national tour of this wonderful and heartwarming show!

I really cannot fault this stage version of Mary Poppins! In this production, the story of the outwardly prim and proper nanny who turns a pair of rather annoying middle-class kids into something more palatable is colourful, spectacular, fun and just completely joyful, from her first appearance in the Edwardian house, to her climactic exit over the auditorium at the end.

Yes, it’s true that I sat through the whole thing with a sense of awe, wondering exactly how they fitted all the scenery back stage and whether or not the credit crunch had passed it by as each new fantastic effect or costume appeared, but I also left the theatre with a big smile on my face, almost longing for the panto season to begin as it left me with that same warm and cosy feeling that you get at those special Christmas shows!

The stage effects as things collapse and fall off walls and are then re-instated are superbly worked, the statues that come to life show excellence from the dancers playing them, the changes of scene from grey London day to colourful fantasy world are seamless and the flying is magical. Yes – it’s professionally efficient, but it’s not just about the workings of the stage, it is atmospherically warm and exciting too.

It looks fantastic, and not just in its design and costumes. The staging of the ensemble numbers is superb which is only to be expected from the wonderful Matthew Bourne who is both choreographer and co-director.

It would be easy to go overboard with a number like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, but in Bourne’s skilful hands it is a highly effective piece where the word is spelled out with hand movements rather than there being a lot of leaping about. Brilliant!

Similarly, the scene where the toys come alive in the nursery could have come straight from his Nutcracker or Edward Scissorhands and the fun exuding from Step in Time which includes the marvel of Bert walking upside down around the proscenium arch, is exactly what you want from a musical spectacular.

Caroline Sheen in the title role is “practically perfect in every way”, revelling in the mixture of firmness and kindness that the part requires and Daniel Crossley as Bert is a pleasing combination of mystery man and cheeky chappy.

What I like about this story is that amongst the magic there is a lesson to be learned. Mary Poppins is not the sickly sweet goody, goody carer that she could be turned into. She’s quite harsh with her charges but in doing so is firm but fair. It’s actually a fantastic example of how childcare should be approached – although modern day parents don’t have such an amazing bag of tricks – both literally and metaphorically!

Afterwards we looked back on an incident earlier in the day when we took one of our nieces to the park then, after promising the four-year-old an ice cream, we realised that neither of us had enough change to buy it. This, as you can imagine, was a disaster. The youngster’s quivering lip led to Mr FB running – yes running - back to the car to scrabble about for the pound we use for shopping trolleys and then running back looking rather pink and sweaty.
“What would Mary Poppins have done?” I said piously as we drove home from the theatre, “she would probably have explained firmly that we had no money and then taken her home with no sickly sweet treat but then found something for her in the fridge instead.

“We should have been firm and not given in” I added sagely.

“Pah” said Mr FB.

“Mary Poppins would have magicked up the flipping pound, wouldn’t she?! Pulled out a wad of notes from her big bag like a dodgy plumber!” he added.

This is true! Making things fly across the room or suddenly appear from nowhere is enough to capture the attention of even the most obtuse child, but no matter. While we may not have the carpet bag of tricks, we do have one fabulous treat at our disposal. A trip to see Mary Poppins should keep the little darlings quiet and enthralled for a couple of hours at least! This is a great show!

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Come on Jeeves

18 June 2008
Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage

By Jeeves, where's the fizz?!

Well, I liked the costumes!

And the set was nice!

But I have to say, and I KNOW it's a cliche, but, about half way through the first half, I really did find myself thinking about what I would have for dinner the next night! And to be honest, I really don't know what to say about this production!

Firstly, the plot - I can at least outline that I think!

In this story, Jeeves (Richard Pocock) is without Wooster, which is a bit like Pinky being without Perky. But it's explained away by Wooster being out of town and Jeeves only being "on loan" to the Earl of Towcester (James Cawood).

This Earl is struggling to maintain both his crumbling Towcester Abbey home, and a secret gambling habit and most of the play is based on the fact that he he has to keep this information from his fiancée Jill (Myfanwy Waring), as well as his visiting sister Lady Monica (Judy Buxton), and her husband Lord Rory (Derren Nesbitt). Yawn.

The rest of the story is based on wealthy American Mrs Spottsworth, played by the legendary Anita Harris, who has been brought to the ailing home by Lady Monica with a view to her buying it.

Jeeves, played by Richard Pocock is of course always on hand to help preserve sanity amongst it all.

That's about it really, but it's all rather long-winded and as the first half is basically all about setting up this scene and as this takes more than an hour, I think you can get my drift! It's so slow, it's like being behind a tractor in a 70mph zone.

I did an interview with the legendary Anita Harris before I saw the play and she said that it was "lovely, relaxed and safe" and this to an extent is true but I would say that for "relaxed and safe" read "a bit boring" really!

She also says that it's a funny play rather than a comedy and yes, it's vaguely amusing in places, but not "funny" in the true sense of the word - i.e. it makes you laugh! There were some polite chuckles in places but that's about as far as it got. PG Wodehouse is said to be one of Britain's greatest literary humorists but I think it's fairly safe to say that this is not him at his finest.

Jeeves has some nice lines but in general this play should have sparkling repartee - in reality it just had a light fizz.

What made this night really interesting was that it was a signed performance and this inadvertantly provided the funniest moments for me. Because the signer didn't really seem to understand what was happening either!

When I wasn't pre-occupied by tomorrow night's dinner, I glanced at her because she seemed to be providing most of the action and interest, but even she seemed to be somewhat under-employed! I think she was actually paraphrasing - there were a lot of gaps between the odd flick of the hand!

The cast were OK and did their best to eek out the chuckles. James Cawood as the Earl of Towcester is a daffy kind of toff, just like Wooster in fact, and Richard Pocock's Jeeves has good stage presence and delivers well, the few good lines that I enjoyed.

Anita Harris’ clairvoyant Mrs Spottsworth was glamorous and did a very good Charleston, but was, dare I say it, a little bit hammy! Sorry - Anita, I think you are fabulous but this role really didn't do anything for you. For me the stars were Judy Buxton and Darren Nesbitt as Lady Monica and Lord Rory because they were the ones who were responsible for the spartan amount of laughs with their well-timed delivery.

But the main problem with this production is that I really didn't care about it. I didn't engage with the story, didn't feel anything for the characters and couldn't really give two hoots what happened.

It all felt a bit tired and a bit dated and was ultimately rather disappointing. 1930s drawing room comedies can be sparkling - this was just dull. But the costumes were nice!

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Relatively Speaking

Relatively Speaking
16 June 2008
Milton Keynes Theatre

The joy of the well-made play!

If there's anything that will make you give up any thoughts of ever writing a play, it's seeing one like this!

Alan Ayckbourn's 'Relatively Speaking' is so fantastically well-constructed that it made me want to cry - both with the pleasure of watching and the pain of it being something I could only hope to aspire to! And this was his FIRST major hit - it wasn't even written after loads of practice! Of course he's now written more than 60 plays and is one of Britain's most popular playwrights.

This one though was written in 1967, and while the plot is quite complex to explain, it is so beautifully laid out that the audience is able to work out what's going on little by little, at just the right pace, just as they need to. The characters of course are always a step behind and deliciously so too.

Basically, after a month long romance, Greg wants to marry Ginny. But Ginny’s former lover, Philip, who is a much older married man, is still sending her chocolates and flowers. Ginny also wants to get back the love letters she has sent to him before she can marry Greg.

One Sunday, Ginny tells Greg she is going to visit her parents but she doesn't want him to come as they wouldn't be expecting him and it would throw them. Finding an address on a cigarette packet Greg follows her to the house and it turns out that the inhabitants weren't expecting either of them! And unfortunately Greg arrives first!

What follows is a mixture of both joyous and excruciating exposition in a meticulously contructed play! It is quite simply a fabulous spider's web of misunderstandings where the sparkling dew hanging from it is the brilliant dialogue of cross-purposes that never flagged. The genius lies in the way that situations are only partially revealed and the two characters who are basically in the dark about their partners other lives, find out about them bit by bit.

I spent most of the play with the words, "Just TELL them" on the tip of my tongue, while marvelling at the mind who constructed the whole thing!

The cast of four in this production add to its excellence. Peter Bowles is superb as Phillip. He is a veteran and master of comedy but, even more than the perfect timing of the words, sometimes just a look or a raised eyebrow from him speaks a thousand words. He is indeed a national treasure. Diane Fletcher as his wife Sheila also turns in a flawless, assured performance.

Of the younger two, Robin Whiting as Greg is an enjoyable innocent, who always has everybody's best interests at heart and Siobhan Hewlett's Ginny clearly shows the quick thinking needed to deceive, something that Greg really should have taken heed of!

Designer Paul Farnsworth has created two wonderful sets for this production with the garish 1960s colouring of Ginny's bedsit, complete with posters of icons of that time, being in complete contrast to the beautiful Buckinghamshire country house garden, all of which ensures that the production is as enjoyable to
look at as it is to listen to!

In a telegram to Alan Ayckbourn after the play opened at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1967, Noel Coward wrote:

“All my congratulations on a beautifully constructed and very, very funny comedy I enjoyed every moment of it”

I couldn't put it better myself!

Thursday, 12 June 2008

See How They Run

10 June 2008
Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage

Blasts from the Past!

Great comedy is based on a loss of dignity, and while some of my nights out in the past may not have been that funny, I'm sure they caused someone great amusement!

But seriously, people in authority being brought down a peg or two or people in situations where they have to behave well and being made to look foolish have been the staple of comedy writers for centuries and that's why the vicar as become such a popular character in farce, especially when their trousers suddenly appear around their ankles!

So to eek out maximum fun from his wartime farce See How They Run, Philip King has given us not one vicar but FOUR - and also thrown in a Bishop for good measure!

This typical farce is a comedy of mistaken identities. Set in the village of Merton-cum-Middlewick, the proverbial "chaos ensues" when it becomes besieged by an escaped prisoner of war, a visiting priest, an actor, a locum priest and a policeman - all at the same time!

Meanwhile, parish spinster Miss Skillon makes a call to the vicar to discuss what, to her mind, is a far more pressing matter as she is outraged by the dalliances of the vicar’s wife, and of course gets embrolied in the action.

The publicity says that the resulting confusion provides an "hilarious" evening. Well, it is amusing certainly, and quite charming and genteel, but side-splitting it's not. I think this is because it is a play of its time (1945), and it was this fact that made the whole experience something that was almost moving for me rather than one that made me cry with laughter.

The first half spends a lot of time setting the scene, when it seemed that every statement is laboriously setting up something that will happen in the future. I found it a little slow but I produced a wry smile when former actor, Lance-Corporal Clive Winton (played well by Emmerdale's Dale Meeks) has to swap his army uniform for vicar's clothes and remarks that he's been in enough plays to know that when somebody swaps clothes bad things happen! I liked the fact that the author was acknowledging his devices! But, that aside I was beginning to shift around in my seat.

Then I spent the interval reading the programme notes and really thinking about it a bit more.

The writer Philip King was conscripted in the Second World War and wrote See How They Run in his spare time, which is quite a feat in itself under the circumstances. It was first staged in Peterborough in 1944 and transferred to the Comedy Theatre in London in January 1945. Now imagine. Two cities filled with service personel and war weary civilians desparately looking for some form of of amusement, something to make them smile in those dark days that were often filled with little hope. Imagine a comedy play about a vicar and his wife, a bishop, a soldier, a policeman and an escaped POW. These characters would have struck chords of recognition amongst those audiences but instead of reading about them or dealing with them, they were invited to laugh at them and not take them as seriously as they had to in real life. It must have been quite a relief.

And so, as I imagined people flocking to get even just a hint of laughter in otherwise dark days I felt a pang of guilt in finding it less funny than the more in your face comedy that I am used to. I began to be charmed by it and admired it as a product of its time with affection rather than judging it against modern comedies.

Added to this nostalgic feeling was the fact that many of the parts were played by actors who have formerly appeared in some of our best-loved TV sit-coms and shows.

There was Hi-De-Hi’s Jeffrey Holland as the bumblingly innocent stand-in vicar Arthur Humphrey, and Guy Siner who starred as Lt. Gruber in ‘Allo ‘Allo who played the escaped German POW and who drew a roar of laughter from the audience when one of his lines in this play was "Now, listen very carefully"! Then there was Michael Sharvell-Martin from No Place Like Home as the Bishop and Emmerdale's Frazer Hines.

Whatever you think of the subject matter, good farce needs good timing and physical agility and this cast certainly had those, especially in the second half. And if you love preposterous situations and nostalgic wartime farce, you'll love this portrayal of a preposterous situation in a nostalgic wartime farce!

It was basically an evening of inoffensive comedy, that made you yearn for the simple laughs we had in the 80s and also, when you thought about the context of when it was written, made you feel quite humble.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat

9 June 2008
Alban Arena, St Albans

I Closed My Eyes .... And Can't Stop Humming!

Joseph and the Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat is a bit like Marmite. You either love it or you hate it, and just as I am rather partial to the yeast extract based spread, I have always enjoyed Joseph!

In a nutshell the story is as it is in Genesis and if on the off chance you're not familiar with it, the basic story is thus.
Jacob has 12 sons but favours the youngest Joseph, seemingly just because he liked his mother the best! Joseph has irritating dreams and annoys his brothers by interpreting them as signs that he will end up greater than them. The final straw comes when Jacob gives Joseph a rather snazzy coat!

The brothers plot to get rid of annoying Jo, quite understandably in my view, and he is eventually sold as a slave bound for Egypt where, after a spell languishing in jail, he finds the greatness that he dreamed about as an interpreter of the Pharaoh's dreams.

After some ridiculous scam with a golden cup that I still don't fully understand, Joseph, who is supposed to be the hero, is eventually vindicated, but for the most part I totally sympathise with the brothers! And Jacob’s parenting skills leave a lot to be desired – I didn’t think you were supposed to single out one child for special treatment!

In realising his dreams, Joseph appears as conniving, insensitive and arrogant as some of the best in “The Apprentice” so I’m really not sure what the religious message of this tale is anymore! And to cap it all, the dreams that he has to interpret aren't exactly challenging, he just has to use a bit of common sense!. One is about a baker who is carrying loaves of bread and birds come down and eat it all. Hmmm - now let me see - maybe something not very good is going to happen?!

But nevertheless, in this Rice and Lloyd-Webber musical the story manages to find great form, due to Tim Rice's genuis lyrics and Andrew Lloyd-Webber's incredibly catchy tunes. It is a feast of highly entertaining song and dance numbers in very different styles, from country and western to Parisian and gospel to Hawaiian.

This re-telling of the Biblical story of Joseph, his eleven brothers and the first ever fashion faux pas - the coat of many colours, marked the beginning of the legendary partnership of these two and it's hard to believe it’s over 40 and still going strong - a little like me!

I love the genius of Tim Rice's lyrics - any man who can rhyme "pyjamas" with "farmers" or write the following:
"He's the greatest man since Noah, It only goes to show-ah!" - deserves a knighthood in my book - and thankfully he has already got one!

And I love Lloyd Webber's annoyingly catchy tunes that I am still singing - "Close Ev'ry Door to Me", One More Angel", "Go, Go, Go Joseph" and "Any Dream Will Do" to name but a few. Although by the fifth reprise of the latter, it IS becoming a little wearing!

The cast can take a lot of credit for the joie de vivre of this production. They put in an energetic performance and looked as though they were genuinely enjoying themselves throughout!

Over the years the title role has been played by many famous names, Darren Day, Phillip Schofield, Donny Osmond and of course the wonderful Jason Donovan. In this touring production, Craig Chalmers took on the role. He was one of the finalists in BBC TV's 'Any Dream Will Do', losing out to eventual winner Lee Mead, who got the West End gig. And, not being funny, but you can see why Craig has been confined to the provinces. He gives an enthusiastic performance, and has a winning smile and a lovely voice, but it's just not as strong as Lee's. Also, his acting skills aren't that strong.

There are two other reality 'rejects' in the show as well, so it seems that all is not lost if you don't win the coveted West End role.

Tara Bethan got to the final 12 in 'I'd Do Anything' and while she wasn't Nancy, her clear strong singing voice filled the arena in the demanding role of the Narrator, which just goes to show that, just because you've got a good voice, it doesn't mean you're right for every musical role. Tara left the BBC show with doubts over her being able to do eight shows a week. On this evidence, I can't see a problem!

Antony Hansen was one of Craig's colleagues in the 'Any Dream' final and played the usual hip-shakin' Elvis style Pharoah with style and he also took on the role of one of the eleven brothers, all of whom looked different (I suspect that dad Jacob was a bit of a randy old dog!) and fairly bounded on stage every time they were required.

The production itself is, as you might expect, very colourful with some humorous touches such as a talking camel, inflatable sheep and a goat on wheels. The set is simple and not as lavish as the West End but just right for something that has to be packed up every week!

If I have any criticisms it was that the sing and dance-along finale, where they almost did the whole show again, went on a little too long, although it did give the wardrobe department the chance to showcase no less than THREE different styles of coloured coat. It was as if they couldn’t decide what to do in the production meeting so said “Hell – let’s just use all of them!”

But basically, the show is cheery and fun from start to finish – it’s Joseph – what more can I say?!

Friday, 6 June 2008

The Taming of the Shrew

5 June 2008
RSC at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford

Kiss Me Kate. And that's an order.

Stratford-upon-Avon is a wonderful place, and it’s not simply the fact that it’s the place to go for all things Shakespeare! It’s HOW on earth they’ve made it the place to go for all things Shakespeare. Because the whole legend has been built upon precious little evidence!

Shakespeare was born in Stratford and he died there, on the same date (but different years obviously). And that’s about it! He didn’t seem to spend much time there in between and there isn’t that much detail about what he did anywhere else either! His whole life story is based on sentences like “well, we think he was here then, so he might have visited this place or that place. His ‘birthplace’ in Stratford is only the place he might have been born and the date of his death is only the date when he might have died. William Shakespeare is buried there, but who was this person and what did he do? The only evidence we have of his writing is six signatures, so we know that he could write his name and that he did it six times! How do we know he wrote all those plays and sonnets? The original Hamlet for instance was only some 70 pages long. Between the 16th century and now it has become a five hour epic. Who did that? Well, this is a debate that has raged amongst scholars for centuries and frankly I can add no more to the debate, except to look around in wonder, every time I go to Stratford, about the huge industry that has been built on what is essentially hearsay!

But I’ll go along with it too because, down by the river in Stratford, when you spot it through the tourists and throngs of Americans, it is one of the most beautiful places you can be, and watching a play at the RSC there, is sublime. Whoever wrote the plays, however many people were involved in the process and however they have evolved over hundreds of years, what we have now are a collection of plays that say something and provide hours of enjoyment and discussion.

And The Taming of the Shrew is a play that certainly provokes discussion, especially if you go with a partner! The way that Petruchio “tames” the headstrong and wilful Katherine into being a dutiful wife is something that isn’t a very satisfying denouement in this day and age and you even wonder what Elizabeth I would have thought about it when it was written?

As Mr FB pointed out, it’s the only Shakespearean comedy he’s seen where he felt that there should be another scene. The one where Katherine lets on that she only let him think she was obeying him for a quiet life and really it was she who was in control and pulling all the strings – more like a modern day marriage! (I added the last bit!) I had already let him know that despite our two names being similar to theirs, not to get any ideas!

But whatever the rights and wrongs of the story, I enjoyed the RSC’ treatment of it, albeit brutal.

‘Dr Legg’s in it’ I remarked to Mr FB, amused by the fact that even the RSC had resorted to casting ex-soap stars. Although Leonard Fenton’s role was a very different kettle of fish from what was served up at the Gordon Craig (see last post!).

It’s a very lively opening where a stag do arrives in what appears a kind of Eastern European stag do heaven. From the shenanigans, emerges a drunk Christopher Sly who is persuaded to watch a group of travelling players perform the comedy. This they do in the traditional style, so that anyone dismayed by the modern opening was immediately appeased by boots and cloaks. But there is also some very clever use of props to dress the set, designed by Francis O’Connor, with models of Italian buildings that open up to be tables and the travellers truck that reverses onto the stage to collect the players.

The rest of the comedy is then performed with the usual Shakespearean suspension of disbelief to extract comic effect. For example, no one bats an eyelid that the sisters Katherine, and Bianca, expertly played by (Michelle Gomez and Amara Karan) were of different ethnicity, yet when the brilliantly funny Keir Charles as Tranio, dressed as Lucentio, needs someone to stand in as his father, he chooses a black man and maximum comic effect is made from the fact that he tries to speak with a Caribbean accent!

But while the Commedia del Arte influenced slapstick is highly enjoyable, the darkness of the play’s subject is brought right into focus by Stephen Boxer’s excellent cruel Petruchio who treats Katherine with violent brutality, starving her, dressing her in rags, depriving her of sleep and physically striking her. But she still becomes the dutiful wife. In fact, Gomez’ Kate is not just tamed, she is destroyed. She suddenly becomes cold and obedient in stark contrast from her opening scenes.

Walking back to the car provided us with the usual discussions that are a mark of a good experience. Was this a play of Shakespeare’s time or was he ahead of it? And why, if Shakespeare was so forward thinking, did he not see a time when women would be equal to men? But then, I guess that’s the point, they aren’t really. And when at the end of this production, all the characters reverted to contemporary dress, it can be seen as a sign that men’s dominance over women is neverending. After all, there are relationships now that are built on fear and where one partner is submissive because of the controlling nature of the other. I'm just glad I'm not one of them!

Daisy Pulls It Off!

3 June 2008
Gordon Craig Theatre

Daisy, Daisy, Give Me An Answer Do!

I’ve got to be honest. As always, Ian Dickens has got a good cast together and produced a slick production, but I have to say, the question that I want an answer to is, what is the point of Denise Deegan's play?!

The title makes you think it’s going to be a slightly risqué romp, a good old-fashioned farce, but it’s not. It’s amusing, but the main joke runs out after about five minutes and you spend the rest of the two and three quarter hours wondering if anything new is ever going to happen and if we will ever get to the ending, which frankly you can see coming from early in the first half.

The main joke is that it is all set in a girls boarding school in 1927 and all the characters say spiffing and scrummy and other such Enid Blyton-esque phrases in every sentence. As the school girls are played by much older girls it is vaguely comic for a couple of pages, but when you realise that this isn’t going to be the glorious send-up of those kinds of scenarios that the Comic Strip did so brilliantly in the 80s, but merely a recreation of something like Fifth Form at Malory Towers, you know you’re in for a long night. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved Enid Blyton, I devoured her books with relish. But I was seven at the time.

The story centres around Daisy Meredith, who as an ordinary girl at an ‘elementary’ school wins a scholarship to the ultra posh Grangewood boarding school. She’s poor but clever so guess what – despite her one friend Trixie, the rich girls hate her and so they play jolly japes on her, although they are not always jolly and she ends up on the brink of expulsion until, guess what, she saves the day and, guess what, they find out that she is not what they think. Yawn.

How they don’t know this from the start though is impossible. As soon as they start talking about missing heirs and long lost fathers early in the first half, the denouement is galloping towards you faster than Desert Orchid, it just takes an age to get there!

Daisy is charmingly played by Carly Hillman who used to be Nicki de Marco in EastEnders and Trixie by Julia Mallam who was Dawn in Emmerdale, so if you like seeing your ex-soap stars in the flesh then Ian Dickens, as always, has done a good job. I also liked Kim Hartman (Helga in Allo Allo) as the firm but fair headmistress and Ben Roberts (Inspector Conway in The Bill) as the enigmatic music teacher. They are all very good in these roles, don’t get me wrong! They deal with what they are given on the page extremely well, it’s just what they are given that I find wanting!

I have to try and be objective though. The audience around me seemed to be enjoying themselves so who am I to say? There’s obviously a niche for this production so if you’re in a family with daughters between the ages of seven and ten or you’ve never grown out of Upper Fourth at St Clares, wizard wheezes and midnight feasts, then this will make excellent viewing. If you don’t fall into that category, I wouldn’t waste your money!

Fat Pig

29 May 2008
Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London

Food for Thought!

Neil La Bute has added to his plays about body image with an interesting take on, to put it bluntly, having a fat partner with a great personality!

And what I liked about it was that, as well as being very witty, there was always that dark uneasy undercurrent beneath that made you really think about the situation. He also doesn’t take you down the road that you expect at the end, which I think was a far more truthful way of dealing with the subject.

Tom (Robert Webb) meets the big, beautiful, intelligent and funny Helen (Ella Smith). They have an instant attraction and start to date, but although they begin to fall in love, Tom feels that he can’t tell his work colleagues Carter (Kris Marshall) and Jeannie (Joanna Page), of whom the latter had been having a casual relationship with him.

I was so pleased that Robert Webb, one half of Mitchell and Webb, didn’t just do his popular Peep Show slash comedy act. As he veered between being the sensitive and understanding boyfriend who knows what the right thing to do is, but just can’t quite do it, he proved that he really is a very good actor indeed.

Kris Marshall as always gave a solid and well timed comedy performance as the lad about town for whom a woman’s appearance is everything and Joanna Page was good as the slim but spurned ex-girlfriend, although her character is very difficult to actually like and her American accent often sounded as though it had come by way of Barry Island, just like her Gavin and Stacy character.

But the performance of the night goes to Ella Smith as the girl who can’t believe that someone likes her just for her. She feels that her weight will always be an issue and as the play unfolds she is proved right. Her combination of bravado and sadness is quite heartrending and you just want to Tom to stick two fingers up at the others and do the right thing. But does he?

I don’t want to give it away so you’ll have to get down to Whitehall to find out. But I feel it’s more than worth it to see a top cast in an entertaining play that keeps you guessing.

And what’s more? I even know which one’s Mitchell and which one’s Webb now!