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!