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Sidmouth Manor Pavilion Theatre - An Inspector Calls (with James Pellow)

Folks who know me very well often say, kindly I think, that I should get out more. I’m a grumpy old sod at the best of times and in the ...

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Pagliacci - Irrational Theatre Company

Irrational Theatre Company
Harpenden Park Hall
10th February 2019

An uplifting touch of small scale opera class


In my younger days, I did have some, I used to go to a lot of opera. Working in London had its compensations and the ENO Coliseum frequently beckoned as a change from my beloved straight theatre. I am no musical purist but boy could that lot sing. Tickets cost a fortune and you occasionally had to draw a veil over some iffy acting, but voices and music from a Verdi and Puccini heaven eclipsed all. Theatre in its purest form and no way could I do it. Which made it all the more enjoyable. Watching skills alien to your own theatrical comfort zone is a special pleasure. Sadly my days in the city of sin and smoke are long over and opera in the sticks are a rarefied beast. Musicals, Webber and Sondheim, abound, but opera is about as rare as turkey twizzlers in Waitrose.
So that is why I take off my extremely tatty old hat, yes I was wearing one, to Irrational Theatre’s small scale production of Leoncavallo’s masterpiece in the equally small scale but packed hall of my local town of Harpenden. A one off performance which gave us seventy five minutes of powerful acting and singing so close you could have re-arranged the buttons on the colourful and clownish costumes. The evening zinged and tingled and all we watchers could, inadequately, say at the end was ta muchly. And come again. You enriched a wet weekend.
Shan’t regale you with too much of the plot. In this Wikipedia age you can look it up for yourselves. Actors playing clowns and, tragically, bringing their real life drama to the stage. All ends in blood and tears. Bit like most operas I suppose, or at least them without consumptive women. But I will regale you with the performances. If they do not earn a living from their singing then this quintet bloody well ought to. Sadly there were no CV’s in the simple programme so I can only guess. Randy Nichol was a mesmerizingly powerful Canio/Pagliacci, he gave us a scorching dramatic rendering of the famous mid act aria, and created a convincingly troubled man you would not want to mess with. Samantha Green in the role of unfaithful Nedda/Columbina was absolutely delightful and coquettish and clearly relished her amorous duplicity in both roles. Katy Bingham Best counterpointed effortlessly as the ugly, unloved, fool and Joao Valido Vaz acted and sang superbly as Peppe/Arlechino. A fun harlequinade character you wanted to wrap in a chocolate box and take home. And rounding it all up was Alejandro Lopez-Montoya’s Silvio/Stage Manager. This baritone had a voice to die for and a presence to match it. Nedda’s lover, stabbed at the end, sadly missed. So I have given you some of the plot whether you wanted it or not.
This superb fivesome were well supported by Gergely Kaposi’s equally first class piano accompaniment, my untrained ear never heard a false note, and Peter Jones’ astute musical direction. I noticed how he cleverly picked up one slightly missed actor’s beat but if there were any others he masked them beautifully. In a performance of clowns that would be appropriate. Paula Chitty, director and designer and costumes amongst everything else, must be well pleased. I know I and my companions were. And one of them so Italian she never once glanced at the subtitles. I did, pedant that I am, but I did not need to. The passion and the power and the music were beautifully displayed. And no more than three feet in front of us. You did not get that at the Coliseum. Roy Hall


Monday, 3 December 2018

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (St Andrews Players)

I wasn’t going to review this one. I have a stinking cold, paracetamol and whisky to the fore, and dipped my toes into it when dress rehearsal audience were sparse. Means I did not have to sit close to anyone. Suits most folks who surprisingly sniff at my incisive opinions. And besides, spoiler alert, I go to bed with the director. Seems appropriate for I love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Sex, or the lack of it, drives this episodic piece. More of a revue than a full blown narrative story, diverse relationships eclipsing developing character, it strikes me as the American musical version of our own Alan Ayckbourn’s Confusions. He’s a national treasure, no idea if the creators of this are, but they tell the same coruscating story. Love denied, love consummated, love disappointed. Man and woman entwined til death in the dance that both teases and consumes. It’s sharp, it’s sassy, and it’s very straight and narrow. As it says, or sings, at the opening, this is man and woman and God created nothing else. Variations on the theme of the human condition are not an option.

It mattered not a jot. This show is pure fun. Rich in sexual politics a variety of characters in a variety of short scenes effortlessly progress from first tentative date to poignant waiting at the cemetery gates. And in between the skilled sextet of actors, never a critical sniff of a weak link, paint rich pictures of dreadful dinner dates, desperate singles, besotted new parents, and family outings. Every American’s personal and private dream and nightmare writ large for a smidgeon of entertainment and a dollop of recognition. Given such a show, nineteen short scenes, you naturally cherry pick your favourites. Two of them came early. Steve Peters (Stan) and Emma Orr (Pat) gave us a skilled representation of speed dating taken to absurdity in Busy,Busy,Busy, and Richard Alexander (Jason) and Jo Yirrell (Julie) were beautifully buttoned up folk in A Stud and a Babe. The critic in me smugly notes that I knew that, on paper, this was a good cast and this early promise underlines it. But then I remember that, on paper, a few Cheltenham Gold Cups are crackers. But horses run on turf and actors thrive on good scripts and astute direction. Early hopes are often dashed.

They weren’t. Okay I was not a big fan of Satisfaction Guaranteed, over aggressive Americanism, and Waiting left me a bit nonplussed. I got the point of the latter; one partner always waiting for the other, but one of the trio desperate for a pee seemed a joke shoe horned in for no particular purpose. Take nothing away from the incontinent Jenna Ryder-Oliver, superb in everything she did, but this scene did not illuminate the frailties of relationships like most of the others. Perhaps, showing my age, I just do not like lavatory jokes. But these are small points. So many of the quickly rolled out scenes were just hilariously fun and brilliantly sung with never a false accent in sight. Tear Jerk, Wedding Day, and The Baby Song, all zinged for different reasons. Jo Yirrell's (Jane) eyes enraptured in filmic schmaltz, Emma Orr’s Oscar winning bridesmaid dress, fantastically awful, and John O’Leary giving thanks for his sperm to an increasingly uncomfortable Steve Peters all struck theatrical gold.

A good night at the theatre. In spite of colds, me, and the odd technical glitch, them. It is allowed at a dress rehearsal. I reckon all of this impressive cast have got at least one mention in the above. Hope so, they deserve it for consummate ensemble playing.  But a couple of bits deserve more. Emma Orr’s monologue in Rose Ritz’s Dating Video and Jenna Ryder-Oliver’s Muriel in Funerals are for Dating gave us touches of acting of the highest class. And in a cast this good that is saying something. Emily Wright (Piano) and Paul Costin (Violin) gave impressive accompaniment which rarely intruded and invariably enhanced and counterpointed the drama. Beth Thomas (Musical Director) and Frances Hall (Director) can be justifiably proud of their latest creation at Dunstable Rep. For the record I only go to bed with one of them. Roy Hall.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

My Mother Said I Never Should (Wheathampstead DS)

A quartet on impressive form

The more observant amongst you may have noticed that I have been getting out a bit more lately. A few late season theatre trips have been added to the social whirl of Ladbrokes, the chemists, and the local cafe. Hardly surprising that in this latest trawl of Hertfordshire’s finest I roped in another visit to my old thespian friends down the B653. That’s the foreign field of Wheathampstead for those unfamiliar with the terrain. I am nothing if not adventurous.

If I was the nervous sort, I am but let us not go there, I would have stepped out with some trepidation. I have seen a few crackers recently and on my last visit to WDS they had dropped some way below their generally high standard. If I sensed sniffiness about their latest, Charlotte Keatley’s complex My Mother Said I Never Should, any Christmas cards coming up the Lower Luton Road would be wrapped around the proverbial eight by three house brick. Some folks can be so wasteful. Thankfully, I knew within ten minutes of settling that all missives would come lovingly stamped and letter box sized. These players were back on form.

My Mother etcetera is not an easy play to get a handle on. Four generations of females criss and cross the bewildering timescales of twentieth century life. Second World War to post Thatcherism aspirations in the blink of an eye and, in between, four actors of all the ages play at children against the symbolic wasteland backdrop. Could call for a few headache tablets but director Julie Field, astutely, signposted most with time referenced sound effects. She knows her audience. We ain’t thick but without a script the bombs of the 1940’s and the Falklands War 1980’s nicely pigeonholed potentially wandering minds.

Charlotte Keatley’s absorbing play is not so much plot as dysfunctional lives. Doris is the grandmother, in reality great grandmother, who buries her husband of sixty years and wonders if she ever really loved him. Margaret is her unfulfilled daughter sacrificing life for others and finally subsumed by dreary office life and even drearier cancer. Jackie is Margaret’s self centred artistic daughter offloading an inconvenient sprog, Rosie, to her own mother and posing as clever and interesting elder sister. All conspire in a massive family lie which, as I often say, is bound to end in tears. All their men are unthinking, unseen and offstage, which is probably the best place for most. If the youngest had one she never mentions him. At the end Rosie has a fetching kite and oodles of angst when she discovers her sister is her mother. I reckon most families down our way are like this.

That is about as much of character plot that I usually give. Says something about the performances. All totally believable and beautifully rounded. Irene Morris in her last performance with WDS, I shall certainly miss her, was on top form as the long suffering Margaret. She neither understood her mother or her children and probably went to her grave thinking that all men are shits, hers left her, and office life is less complicated and more forgiving. Sara Payne was a convincing selfish Jackie. The most awkward of the quartet and the least involved, her performance suggested a woman constantly confronting a girl she had literally and metaphorically abandoned. A  reminder of faults realised and ambition nakedly fulfilled. And Eleanor Field was an even better Rosie, the awkward elephant in the room ultimately betrayed. As much as she loved Margaret and Doris, especially the latter, none ever told her the truth.

And that leads me, nicely or otherwise, to Sheila Scull’s Doris. The grandmother come great grandmother who carried a lie and kept the peace. A wonderful performance, beautifully fleshed out. I loved her tales of her old man, her beautiful ending when, in flashback, old fashioned dress and ambitions told of a life to come, and her story of the posh teapot comically serving two poverty stricken houses. A portrayal so rich you wanted to put it in a Waitrose bag and take it home. Miss Scull was the cream of this production but all of this impressive quartet played their part. Longueurs on scene changes slightly irritated and a beautiful moving staging to the soundtrack of Both Sides Now was annoyingly cut short, but overall a pretty good production from my friends down the B653. Thankfully. I have no need of house bricks. Correctly stamped or otherwise. Roy Hall

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Dangerous Corner (Company of Ten) - Full Review

A Sparkling Dangerous Corner.

Company of Ten are one of the classiest amateur companies around and they are on sparkling form with Tina Swain’s virtually impeccable production of J B Priestley’s Dangerous Corner. In a good old fashioned 1930’s drama of seething tensions and destructive truths set and costumes perfectly realise the civilised age long gone. Russell Vincent leads an impressively strong cast as a man who, misguidedly, will not let sleeping dogs lie. An absorbing, four star, two hours that is well worth a ticket.

I wrote that, sorry to those who hate reading things twice, shortly after seeing a Sunday Matinee. (Dunstable Rep take note). Nothing has changed in my thoughts in the past week to make me alter my mind. I left Company of Ten’s latest production vowing to marry director Tina Swain if she will have me, her indoors may have something to say about that, but I did so for the best theatrical reasons. I reckon Ms Swain loves the old fashioned thirties as much as I do, her London Wall office life politics had me tingling, and she captured the post dinner party elegance and venom of Priestley’s first ‘time play’ with consummate style and pleasing presentation. Judith Goodban’s drawing room set and Lesley Ivinson’s costumes magnificently evoked a bygone age and metaphorical knives and damaging truths were drawn with finesse. Add in the fine directorial pointing of cigarettes lit, drinks poured, and refined seating by windows, and these numerous prosaic moments underline the hand of a director cleverly painting the gathering tension. Almost from the start I felt that this lot knew what they were doing. Sit back and enjoy.

It could all have gone pear shaped of course. If those bloody actors are blind to your concept they could scupper it by overblown or underplayed performance or by mistiming a line which destroys a lovingly created scene. Have seen the latter a few times in my long life and, pleased to say, my last prison sentence was suspended. Justifiable homicide the judge come theatre critic said. No chance here at St Albans. The seven strong cast were singing, collectively and individually, to Ms Swain’s Dangerous Corner tune. Shan’t regale you with the plot. Or only a bit. A chance remark regarding a musical cigarette box owned by the offstage and unseen Martin, conveniently dead, leads to smug and self satisfied dinner guests writhing like snakes in a bottomless pit. Lovely stuff. And beautifully played by actors collectively aware that this play had a solid theatrical base and individually determined to ensure that it zinged.

Russell Vincent was riveting as the slightly pompous and unduly pure host Robert Caplan who, misguidedly and doggedly, unearthed questions best left unanswered. A central performance of the highest class. And Abbe Waghorn visually ticked all my demanding boxes as elegant hostess Freda Caplan, torn between social niceties and destructive truths. Do you serve sandwiches when someone has confessed to murder? Probably. Lianne Weidmann was on top form as the slightly repressed and introspective Olwen Peel, Stuart Hurford spot on in the difficult part of the over emotional Gordon Whitehouse, and Apryl Kelly engaging as the doll like Betty Whitehouse. Miss Kelly needed to project a little more in her quieter scenes but this is a small point in an overall captivating performance. Besides, my ears ain’t what they used to be. But my favourite performance in a cast full of cream was Andrew Baird’s subtly crafted performance as the dinner party’s bad apple Charles Stanton. Drinks as much as me, Mr Stanton that is, which is no bad thing and his revealing social pariah cleverly knitted the growing tensions of the Caplan’s evening soiree. I first sniffed out Mr Baird as the friar in Juliet and her Romeo. Impressive then, even more so here.

That just leaves me with Jacqui Golding’s Maud Mockridge and my only caveat in an otherwise faultless production. Rest easy Ms Golding. Nothing about you. A beautiful, well modulated, and clear performance as an insufferable author publishers have to put up with. Social snob and convenient voice of exposition and, at the end, the underscoring point of the narrative. In a play that crucially goes full circle, hence its charm, Miss Mockridge is the important link. Her returning final scene was not reset with open curtains and afternoon light. Cigarette box and radio music repeated conversations not dramatically pointed enough for my taste. So the muted finale did not underline the tantalising beginnings. But my only caveat. Overall a superb Dangerous Corner. A superb production, first class director, excellent cast. Even if my small ending theatrical sniff means the marriage to Ms Swain is off. Roy Hall

Monday, 15 October 2018

Dangerous Corner (Company of Ten)

Company of Ten are one of the classiest amateur companies around and they are on sparkling form with Tina Swain’s virtually impeccable production of J B Priestley’s Dangerous Corner. In a good old fashioned 1930’s drama of seething tensions and destructive truths, set and costumes perfectly realise the civilised age long gone. Russell Vincent leads an impressively strong cast as a man who, misguidedly, will not let sleeping dogs lie. An absorbing, four star, two hours that is well worth a ticket. Roy Hall

Abbey Theatre,

St Albans.


Runs until Saturday 20th October 8.00pm


Box Office 01727 857861 (Tickets £12/£11)

Full Review to Follow



Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Neighbourhood Watch (Barn Theatre)

Barn Theatre,
October 2018

A Classy Neighbourhood from the Barn

There is no pretending. Neighbourhood Watch is not one of Ayckbourn’s best. Hardly surprising. He has written as many as his age and that is close to eighty. On both counts. The cream of those have that wonderful frisson of middle class folk, superficially civilised, grasping each other by the metaphorical throat in family dances of exquisite comedy. Think Seasons Greetings, Absent Friends, Just Between Ourselves. The resident lot on the Bluebell Hill Development do not have that comic potential. These nice folk, well some of them, direct their angst at the anonymous oiks festering in the off stage and threatening Mountjoy Estate. Put up the barriers, erect the stocks, and create a private police force. We all, cosy middle class that we are, fear the Mountjoy worlds and given the opportunity would do the same. That is what Ayckbourn seems to be saying. It creates comedy, it creates absurdity, but it lacks that recognisable reality that underpins classic Ayckbourn. He really don’t do plot and Neighbourhood Watch has a bloody big one.
But even a minor Ayckbourn is littered with rich characterisations. The brother and sister Massie’s have religion and sexual frustration in spades and their misguided campaign to embrace their new neighbourhood in civilised vigilantism captures a motley crew of willing, and unwilling, participants. The Bradleys at number whatever are a wife beater and a sensitive musician, and the Janners, so some say, a nymphomaniac and a masturbating loner. Mix in a security obsessed ex army man and a gossipy old fogey completely out of her depth and you have a heady mix for an interesting pudding. All united against those unseen monsters of the Mountjoy estate. As my old mother used to say, it will all end in tears. This one did as pigeons and people perished in fire and gunshot. And you can’t say that about much of Ayckbourn’s canon.
I take my hat off to director Bob Thomson. He not only flagged up the growing threat to those cosy residents of Bluebell Hill with astutely filled living room backdrops and Mosleyite donning of black costumes but he created a delicious mix of complex characters in which there was not a single serious weakness. I have never seen Godfrey Marriott on stage before, but by God I can’t wait to see him again. His performance of Martin Massie, misguided lover of Jesus and most of mankind, was a joy. A character who could have been bland almost to the point of non existence was, in Mr Marriott’s hands, rich in nuance and vulnerability. A central performance of the highest class. Linda Vincent was an equally excellent Hilda, feet more firmly on the ground, and Hazel Halliday a touching and sensitive wife beaten Magda. Her second act speech on childhood abuse was riveting. Of the others, all totally believable, I will only single out Ruth Heppelthwaite’s portrayal of Amy Janner. A refreshing antidote to the righteous indignation of most she invested all her scenes with aggressively strong characterisation and consummate skill. A booted bitch, we suspected, but with an enormous sense of fun.
I have a few caveats but that is probably because I saw the Scarborough original, directed by that man Ayckbourn himself, and have played the obnoxious security man in a later production. Directed by my wife. With all that baggage you could say, unkindly, that I went to the Barn determined to theatrically sniff. If I did, and I didn’t, those sniffs were quickly packed away. I know a good production when I see one. And this, I am pleased to say, was one of them. Well worth four stars. I reckon the one I was in only got three and a half. Roy Hall




Monday, 1 October 2018

The Accrington Pals ( TADS theatre Group)

Tads Theatre
September 2018

Theatre's Joy, Accrington's Sorrow

Being a man of a certain age I have seen a lot of War Memorials in my time. Through the length and breadth of this country the smallest hamlets and towns and villages all have them. It humbles you to see the long list of names from World War One, in even the tiniest of places. I have never been to Accrington, famous for its Stanley football team and its wartime Pals, but I reckon their war memorial must be amongst the biggest and most awe inspiring. Over 700 of their young men signed up for Kitchener’s army and nearly 600 of them lost their lives in one of the twentieth
century’s bloodiest battles. The Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916. The ‘Pals’ recruitment policy was soon ditched. The downside of a community going to war together was the desolate whirlwind created in the town left behind.
Peter Whelan captures all this, poetically and beautifully, in his small scale telling of the tale of a town which went to war and, tragically, inscribed its name forever on the British memory. The Accrington Pals encapsulates those men in the Tom and Arthur and Ralph of his dramatisation but also, even more, paints a tender and realistic picture of their women. As someone much cleverer than me said, he could have just as easily called his play The Accrington Gals. They it was who had to pick up the pieces when passions and hopes of a wasted generation lay dead on a foreign field. This play is Oh What a Lovely War writ small and telling. And it packs, especially at the end, a similar punch.
The gritty May has unspoken love for her younger cousin, the idealistic and introspective Tom. The sensitive Eva yearns and succumbs to the cheerful charms of irrepressible Ralph. And pious Arthur takes up gun and God to escape the acerbic Annie. Or that’s how I read it. Mix in the sexually liberated Sarah and the jolly and comic Bertha, splendidly attired as a bus conductress, with unseen and unsatisfactory beaus and small town lives engagingly focus against the backdrop of a devastating war that devoured the innocents. These men knew not to what they willingly marched.
The ensemble playing did not totally please, I wanted more pace and vigour in early scenes, and a couple of the players lacked that essential inner truth to completely engage the small town life. But where they did in Jenna Kay’s directorial debut we were given some cracking performances. Tracey Chatterley was a superb no nonsense May, conscious both of duty and denied emotional fulfilment, Joe Hawkins (Ralph) a delightfully uplifting man of pleasure, and Iain Grant (Tom) a sensitive artist destined to have ideals and body bloodily destroyed. My small caveat with Mr Grant is that this ageing critic wished for more projection in his quieter scenes. A criticism I also directed at Connie Wiltshire’s eminently watchable Eva. You felt for this cuckoo in May’s domestic nest, her expressions oozed emotion, but some of her lines were lost.
But overall, especially in a vigorous second act filled with consummate sound and lighting effects from Paul Horsler and Josh Halsey, the production generally pleased. Jennifer McDonald was a telling Bertha, an emancipated girl who could not love a man who stayed at home, Claire Moore a nicely dirty minded Sarah, Andrew Naish an especially impressive bible thumping Arthur, and Nathaniel Chatterley a convincing ragamuffin constantly avoiding his mother’s stick. The young Mr Chatterley’s stage timing would put some older hands to shame.
Director Jenna Kay sang the two evocative songs beautifully and the second, counterpointing the harrowing end scenes depicted, softened even the hardest theatrical heart. Miss Kay shows much promise as a director. I may have quibbled at some of her narrative scenes but fine individual acting coupled with the quiet and still intensity of the final war strewn tableau will long remain in the memory. I have directed over fifty plays. Jenna Kay’s ending of The Accrington Pals eclipsed much. It makes you muse over that late night introspective whisky. Theatre, like wars, relies so much on the promise of the young. Theatre’s joy. Accrington’s sorrow.

Roy Hall