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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 ...

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Dangerous Corner (Wheathampstead DS)

Dangerous Corner
Wheathampstead Dramatic Society
May 2018

Those of you who read my piece on Redbourn’s Funny Money, there were a few, may be wondering why I have not blogged Wheathampstead’s Dangerous Corner. After all, I was looking forward to it and sharpening my pen in Redbourn was a mere theatrical taster following a winter as fallow as my racing wins. Perhaps I didn’t go, you may say. Stayed indoors watching some dreary reality show about Peruvian knitting or custard making in the Cotswolds. Actually, the latter might be fun so look out for it on BBC Four sometime soon. But I digress, as they say. I did go and see it, Dangerous Corner that is, and came away thinking fondly of those Peruvian knitters and that Cotswold custard. That comment is not meant to be cruel. It is said, or written, with a heavy heart. I watched this favourite J B Priestly play and thought, as some in the audience inappropriately chortled, that something theatrically precious was being damaged. Wheathampstead Players should not have staged it. They should have found something more suitable for the poor young girl directing it. With some bizarre casting she never stood a chance of pulling it off. Bear with me and I will tell you why. Either that or sod off and make some custard.
The good bits first. The characters in Priestley’s play are very nice 1930’s folk who formally dress for dinner, even in private. Ladies in posh frocks, men in evening dress, cocktails and canap├ęs. It is an age long gone but always pleasing to see recreated on stage. And Wheathampstead Players did that bit well. No farty updating here on a modern council estate with girls in dungarees and men in jeans. You could, given the narrative premise, but thankfully they resisted and retained that old world charm. Smug, self satisfied, successful folk, indulging in an evening soiree. Nothing could be nicer. What makes Priestley’s famous first ‘time play’ grip is the stripping of the cosy veneer following a casual remark regarding a musical box. By the end of the play these nice people are as snarling snakes writhing in the bottom of some dark emotional pit. I will not regale you with the details but it is all very clever, especially the end when all returns to cosy normality, and endlessly fascinates lovers of pure theatre. Are we all like that when the guard is carelessly down? Do we all have dangerous conversational corners? Say what you like about old John Boynton but he could certainly construct a play.
So you may ask, assuming you are still awake, where did it all go wrong? Casting folks, nothing more, nothing less. Jonathan Field made for a fine, straight laced, Robert Caplan and Steve Leadbetter scored quite a few acting points for the more worldly wise Charles Stanton. But much else displeased and disappointed. Irene Morris, fine actress, was scuppered by her discombobulated hair and Julie Field, fine director, portrayed an inappropriate heaviness to hostess Freda. Lines which should have been as sharp as mustard merely dropped as leaden weights. The Whitehouse pair, supposedly bright young things Betty and Gordon, were simply much too old to convince. I felt sorry for the two actors concerned. I have seen them both to better effect so will refrain from damning them here. Viv Fairley made for a convincing, if slightly muted Miss Mockridge, and her and Messrs Field and Leadbetter scored the only brownie points I am offering. But overall this was a theatrical Dangerous Corner that should have been sensibly swerved. Roy Hall


Monday, 21 May 2018

The Matchgirls (St Andrew's Players) - Full Muse

Those desirous of a bit of relief from Royal Wedding hysteria could do a lot worse than pop into St Andrew’s Players latest musical offering. The Matchgirls celebrates the famous and courageous strike of 1888 to improve the working conditions of downtrodden factory women. Heavy in theme but light in depiction, simple songs intertwine with complex social issues to illustrate both small community drama and the larger political stage. In an astute intimate setting, surprising in such a large arena, the camaraderie of London’s underclass is best displayed in some powerful collective singing and strong portrayals from the two warring lovers of Jo Yirrell and Joe Hawkins. More small scale musical than blockbuster, The Matchgirls informs, educates, and entertains in the best Reithian fashion. I doubt the Windsor lot being able to say the same. Malcolm Farrar directs with pleasing imagination. Roy Hall

 When I said all the above after watching the Wednesday dress rehearsal I had every intention of following up with a fuller review. Star ratings and all. You see, I am so clever I can project my imagination to actual performing nights with bursting audiences and honed and polished portrayals. Except I can’t, and besides it ain’t fair. Those on stage, and the ones twiddling electrics and musical batons, might be better, or worse, than I imagined. First night brilliance followed by second or third night wobbles, the latter almost guaranteed if a bloody critic is in. And that bloody critic gets the one, elusive, theatrical snapshot that provokes rave or rant. As it should be. All I get from a dress rehearsal is an impression, a promise that may or may not be fulfilled.  Bit like a Newmarket trainer watching his horse on the limekilns gallops. It may flash and flare in its prep but only the actual race will find if it flops or fires. I knew I would get in a racing analogy somewhere. It’s my own fault, should have attended one of the actual nights to get the full flavour. But I didn’t. So I am not going to do an official review. I might have done some musings instead and, if I had, here they are. If you know what I mean.

 Simple musical with serious issues underlining it. Needs a studio setting with bravura playing by the cast. Being belted in a small space fits the bill. It cleverly got the former thanks to director Malcolm Farrar astutely enveloping all in a small black set. Annie Besant’s palatial St John’s Wood domicile simply suggested by a splendid chaise longue, and leading man Joe’s backyard realistically evoked by Victorian street lamp and sounds of lapping water were particularly impressive. Mr Farrar clearly had the right idea and linked the disparate scenes pretty well. The switching link in the song ‘Something About You’ certainly ticked my theatrical boxes. Some other scene changes were a bit muted, most notably boys' low key whistling for distant pigeons, but imagination says this would have improved with performance. I am so kind. Acting and singing split me if that does not sound too painful. The singing was generally pretty good, individually and collectively, and if the songs aren’t memorable they were very catchy. I particularly liked ‘Men’, though God knows where it came from in the narrative. But who cares. Kate and Polly belted it over. And who couldn’t like ‘Waiting’ and ‘This Life of Mine.’ Stirring stuff both. In my reviewing days St Andrew’s Players had a reputation for being one of the best around for choral singing in musicals. You can still see why. I haven’t a single word or pithy phrase to say about the musicians, so they must have been good. I only notice duff notes. So I reckon Richard Cowling and his team did a pretty good job.

 Now acting is different. I am an expert on acting. Ask anyone who has ever thrown a brick at me. I can spot a mislaid cue or a misplaced line a mile off. Pace and truth are meat and drink to me in characterisation. My numerous unpublished books are only outsold by my best seller ‘How to Win at Newmarket.’ Don’t go, is the answer to that one. But, opinions folks not facts, I sniffed out a few in the acting stakes. Jo Yirrell (Kate) and Joe Hawkins (Joe) were spirited leads drawn apart by political circumstances. Neatly encapsulated in the dilemma Kate felt when the call of social agitation eclipsed the promise of flight to the American dream. A misunderstood matchgirl if ever there was one. If I preferred Joe Hawkins acting, very strong, to his singing I suspect he does as well. Of the others Allanah Rogers impressed for a sassy Polly, disconcertingly pleasing on the eye, Tracey Chatterley for a powerful Mrs Purkiss, all East End suffering in her face, and Evie Wright for a scheming and manipulative Jessie. In a mixed ensemble all gave notable performances. As did Frances Hall in the small role of Annie Besant’s no nonsense secretary and Reece Lowen as match factory foreman Mynel. All menace, mouth and moustache, he commendably stayed just the right side of archetypal Victorian villain. I should not, of course, mention Mrs Hall so I will not do so.

 I will mention the toffs though. Apart from anything else they were the real characters in a real piece of history wrapped up in fictional working class characters. Annie Besant, socialist reformer, and George Bernard Shaw, socialist windbag, lived and breathed through late 19th century history and beyond. The matchgirls strike was meat and drink to their reformist agenda. They both did a fine job, Malcolm Farrar every inch one’s perception of a young GBS and Michelle Arnold a fine and gentle Mrs Besant. Possibly too gentle at times as always vocally more at ease in familiar settings of office and home than in alien surroundings of the great unwashed. Perhaps the real Mrs Besant had the same problems. I have no idea. This is a muse not a history lesson. And neither was Bill Owen’s musical. A history lesson that is. We got a slight flavour of the real social strife but we got more of a few jolly songs. And all in all it made for a pretty good evening, nicely choreographed by the excellent Sarah Albert and splashed with good sound and light by Tim Garside and Paul Horsler. And that was the dress rehearsal when, so I am told, everything usually goes wrong. I must have been lucky and, probably, it all went pear shaped on the opening night. I doubt it though. Once they warmed up this Matchgirls started to gel.

Here endeth the unwritten muse.

Roy Hall












Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Matchgirls (St Andrew's Players) - Preview

Those desirous of a bit of relief from Royal Wedding hysteria could do a lot worse than pop into St Andrew’s Players latest musical offering. The Matchgirls celebrates the famous and courageous strike of 1888 to improve the working conditions of downtrodden factory women. Heavy in theme but light in depiction, simple songs intertwine with complex social issues to illustrate both small community drama and the larger political stage. In an astute intimate setting, surprising in such a large arena, the camaraderie of London’s underclass is best displayed in some powerful collective singing and strong portrayals from the two warring lovers of Jo Yirrell and Joe Hawkins. More small scale musical than blockbuster, The Matchgirls informs, educates, and entertains in the best Reithian fashion. I doubt the Windsor lot being able to say the same. Malcolm Farrar directs with pleasing imagination. Roy Hall



St Andrew’s Players

The Matchgirls,

St Andrew’s Church, Luton.

17th – 19th May     7.45pm


Box Office: 07778 241457     www.standram.co.uk

Full Review to follow

Monday, 7 May 2018

Funny Money - Redbourn Players

Funny Money
Redbourn Players
Village Hall
4th May 2018


I have been musing on my two loves of theatre and horseracing this week. Well, the horses anyway seeing as it is the Newmarket Guineas Meeting. Those classy three year old colts and fillies strutting their stuff on a big stage after months wrapped up in winter cotton wool. If you were lucky a few of them would have had a pipe opener somewhere in the proceeding weeks. Well in a way, tortuous analogy slowly coming to the point, that is what I have done. Other than cavorting various boards in sundry murder mysteries, great fun, thespian activities have been pretty thin on the ground. No scribing for months. I wish to change that with a sharpened pen for Wheathampstead’s Dangerous Corner at the end of the month. A favourite play by a favourite author. So popping down to the Redbourn Players for Ray Cooney’s Funny Money was my equivalent of an early season spin on the gallops. Even knackered old geldings have to get out sometime.

Ray Cooney is a master of farcical comedy. They may not tick all my theatrical boxes but even this misery will admit that done well, frenetic pace anchored to inner truthfulness, they will invoke involuntary chuckles. As long as real characters increasingly notch up ludicrous inner desperation, along the way making you laugh rather than think, they can be and are a great success. Funny Money has all the necessary ingredients. Switched briefcases, £750,000 in one and a cheese sandwich in the other, switched characters from compliant neighbours, an irate and quirky taxi driver, and two rather unusual rain coated detectives. All conspire with a nondescript accountant desperate for Barcelona and a nervy wife desperate for the bottle to create mayhem in a little bit of London suburbia. Cooney territory writ large. All it needed was Brian Rix both dropping in and dropping trousers to complete the happy picture.

If the picture in my mind was not matched by the portrayal on stage it was, nevertheless, an enjoyable evening. Redbourn are a small company but they created a nice bit of living room suburbia with lots of pleasing doors and an impressive realistic staircase. And in that suburbia we got a convincing minor accountant from Andy Turner’s Henry Perkins, bluster and opportunism equally displayed, and a nervy, alcoholic dependent, Jean Perkins from Lucy Goodchild. These two central players did a pretty good job. Personally I would have liked a little bit more panic and quiet desperation from Mr Turner to flesh out his lines but, in fairness, he never bored. And Ms Goodchild, in the best performance of the evening, suggested by her wavering voice and uncharacteristic reach for the bottle, the long suffering and anonymous housewife behind many a suburban door. When a man, even a dreary accountant, seizes an opportunity, his woman seizes some other support.

Of the other characters Maureen Wallis and Jordan Davis were an ill matched pair as the neighbourly and complicit Johnsons, stronger direction needed in ensemble scenes, and Euan Howell and Hilary Violentano two of the strangest detectives I have seen this side of  Wormwood Scrubs. I would not trust either of them with my parking ticket appeal, let alone a quest for a dodgy £750,000. Mr Howell, thin and rain coated and with a fetching little tache, had clearly blown in from some 1950’s bleak filmic murder mystery, and Ms Violentano’s DS Slater suggested nothing more than a homely June Whitfield. I quite liked her performance and if she had baked us a cake, so in keeping with her persona, I would have liked her even better. If my opinion on these motley subsidiary characters to the Perkins household is pretty firm the fifth one had me in more theatrical opinions than you could shake the proverbial stick at. No one on stage delivered lines better than Benita Gilliam’s quirky taxi driver. With her jaunty Joe Orton hat and manly clothes she suggested nothing less than Theatre Workshop’s Joan Littlewood. I suspect this was intentional. But a performance that displayed considerable skill was marred by over physicality. In other words the bloody woman never stood still when delivering those lines. I would have directed it out of her because, undoubtedly, Ms Gilliam can act.

But overall not a bad evening. A new director, David Howell, will learn as I hope I did, that sharper pace and more truthful characterisation will yield even more positive results. For instance the unseemly, blanket covered, sofa shenanigans should have been a highlight of the comedy but underdeveloped characters devoid of the essential innocent manic drive induced merely mild amusement and the thought of missed opportunity. Farce has its own internal logic. Miss it, even by an inch, and it falls flat on its face. Bit like my fancy for the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket. But I still enjoyed the race and, overall, I enjoyed my evening out to this one. As the art mistress said to the gardener, I may not be blind to your faults but I thank you for the pleasure. Horses at Newmarket or theatre in Redbourn. All matter. All gratefully received. And pen readily sharpened for Wheathampstead.


Roy Hall


Monday, 16 October 2017

Juliet and Her Romeo (Company of Ten)

Juliet and Her Romeo
Company of Ten, St Albans.
6th - 14th October 2017

Blogging isn’t what it used to be. Reckon I am fed up with Brexit, (in or out anyone?) and a flat season on the gee gees that has been awesome for its complete forgettability. And I have been up to my inadequate arms in decorating. Not me personally, merely supervising, but a friendly local professional who has been turning our house upside down. Not literally even if, with Storm Ophelia currently doing her worst, it seems like it. So that’s three excuses for dilatoriness and, given the non existent will, I could add in a few more. But I shall not bother, other than to say that a late discovering of Breaking Bad has dwarfed much else this autumn. Seriously addictive, especially for those who like well acted drama and moral dilemmas in abundance.

So it says something, a lot really, that I dragged myself off to Company of Ten’s Juliet and Her Romeo the other Sunday afternoon. I rather like the offerings they put in the studio and a Sunday matinee suits me fine. Welwyn’s Barn Theatre do them but they clash with my Saturday afternoon racing and it takes a combination of a must see play and dreary equine fare to tempt me out. The horses usually win, even if not in betting terms. And Dunstable Rep still resists this oldies route. I try to persuade but ears and deaf come to mind. So COT and the Studio are the occasional treat. London Wall was terrific, ensemble playing at its best in my sort of play, and Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mount Morgan almost as good and blessed with an exceptional lead in Andy Mills. I did not get the same vibes from this geriatric version of R and J but it was absorbing listening to the faithful rendition of the text and constantly admiring the skill and delivery of the actor portraying Romeo.

Geriatric? How rude. Misty red eyes are probably still blazing in defence. Was it that awful you say? Did it clunk until the wheels fell off? Did this reviewer fall into an afternoon snore? Banish the picture folks. I have no wish to be unkind. This production was literally, not theatrically, geriatric. Our Juliet and her Romeo are old folks in a care home. As are the Tybalts, Mercutios, and Benvolios. The Verona Care Home, no less. All very clever. And as director Angela Stone says in her programme notes, this adaptation by Sean O’Connor and Tom Morris gives ageing actors an opportunity most of them felt long past. They may not have teenage youth but they have experience.

It does not totally work, mainly because passions are naturally muted and anger diluted, but it had enough of old Shakespeare and his crossed lover’s tale to entertain and engage. And on Dennis O’Connell Baker’s simple but clever care home set and excellent evocative modern music it all gelled pleasantly enough. Graham Boon was absolutely superb as Romeo. I shall not guess at his age but I reckon the Winter Fuel Allowance has long been in his back pocket. But he invested Romeo and his lines with exquisite delivery and total believability. I got the feeling that he may have first played the part many moons ago. If not he should have done. No other performer seriously matched him but I had tons of admiration for Rosemary Goodman, stepping in for an indisposed Juliet at the last minute. An assured delivery which only rarely glanced at the book. Of the others Tony Bradburn was a pleasant enough golf club type Tybalt, albeit lacking in fire, Roy Bookham a bemused Benvolio, Andrew Baird an excellent trendy Friar Lawrence, and Jacqui Golding a no nonsense nurse gathering her care home charges like wandering sheep in need of penning. But the two supporting roles which stood out for me were Dewi Williams' engaging and disruptive Mercutio, beautiful rich voice and fun portrayal, and Peter Hale’s totally believable Paris. Mr Hale had little to say, a wandering dementia backdrop to the main drama, but he portrayed it with a realism which was disturbing.

So there you have it folks. If it all sounds a bit gimmicky, eighty year old Romeos, it probably was. But having seen Hamlet in a spaceship, a mafia version of Measure for Measure, and an all female As You Like It in my time, anything goes. If you don’t believe me tune into our dear old BBC. They don’t do much that spins my dramatic juices these days but they have a frivolous Shakespearian twirl with David Mitchell’s Upstart Crow. Do that and, seriously, anything, absolutely anything goes with our Will.

Roy Hall




Sunday, 25 June 2017

Major Barbara (Shaw's Corner) / The Man From Aldersgate

Major Barbara (Shaw's Corner) ****
(Ayot St Lawrence - Fri 23rd June 2017)

The Man From Aldersgate****
(Harpenden Methodist Church - Sat 24th June 2017)

I have had a heavy weekend of religion, or theatre depending on your point of view. All I know, and I do not know much, is that God figured an awful lot in both of them. Salvationists and Methodists all and, theatre aside, you cannot help but admire the commitment and unwavering belief in both. It all happened by accident. Not the plays, merely my juxtaposing of attendance. George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara is a play rich in wit and satire, and a plethora of bloody long speeches, but bares in abundance his thought provoking polemic trademarks. Woolly charitable efforts to feed and clothe the poor are all very well but money and industry do it a damn sight better. Even if that money, as it often does, arises from the sweat of whisky distilleries and armament manufacturers. Pass the smelling salts someone, or at least an opposing political tract. It is an absorbing argument, amplified here by cynical businessman Andrew Undershaft and his feisty Salvationist daughter Barbara. If I did not totally buy in to the underlying family dramatic plot, only foundlings inherit this worthy gunpowder business, I was bowled over by the central performances in Michael Friend’s production for the National Trust Shaw Corner Festival. Chris Myles was beautifully clear and commanding as Andrew Undershaft, this was an outdoor production on a windy evening, and invested all of his speeches with delightful variation of tone and he was well matched, or should I say sparred, by Maryann O’Brien as the zealously religious daughter Barbara. Whether in her upper class day clothes or her austere Salvationist’s uniform you were always acutely conscious of a woman rich in misguided warmth and commitment. Good as these two actors were, they did have the two meatiest parts and expertly wolfed them down, they were given splendid support by William Keetch as the ineffectual son Stephen, Derek Murphy as the etonian beau Charles Lomax, full of engaging ‘don’t yer knows’, and. most notably, Laura Fitzpatrick as beleaguered upper class mother Lady Britomart. Miss Fitzpatrick had that silken serenity of a woman always destined to be obeyed, or so she thought, and a honeyed voice which conveyed it exquisitely. So all in all an excellent evening of theatre, albeit a typical Shaw long one, only slightly marred by scene placing against the trees and wind in Act One. Not their fault but most of the later scenes were, mercifully, fully in front of the house. A large cast and I can’t single them all out but Molly Waters was an impressive young Salvationist and Paul Thomas the engaging silly ass Adolphus Cusins. Not a totally believable character, not his fault, but played with a great sense of Charles Hawtrey fun. My one main caveat, other than occasionally poor placing of actors, was Paul McLaughlin’s portrayal of the rather nasty Bill Walker. A strong performance but a little too strong for my taste. But then in the famous film Robert Newton took on the part. And he was no fading wallflower.
B J Johnston was equally no fading wallflower in his one man portrayal of John Wesley at Harpenden Methodist Church the following night. This was his five hundredth performance of The Man From Aldersgate and if the other four hundred and ninety nine were given as much rich drama and commitment as this audience then it has been a long treat for many. Mr Johnston is a Methodist preacher but he is also a skilled actor to his fingertips. Over an hour and a half he creates a rich picture of the life of the man who founded the Methodist movement in the eighteenth century. We learn about his relationship with his devout mother, his rescue from a fire as a child, his finding of his true religious self, his lack of interest in money, his confrontation with a highwayman, and his battles with the establishment. All writ large in the engaging performance of an actor totally immersed in his role. The greatest compliment I can pay Mr Johnston is that at times I actually thought I was watching and listening to John Wesley and that his horseman was really outside getting water from the wrong part of the stream. Engaging the audience can be risky and dangerous but, generally, he pulled it off. Folks of a religious bent will have been enthralled by Mr Johnston’s mixture of theatre and religion. But even cynical old farts like me, there purely for the biographical and theatrical bent, will have left uplifted by both the message and the performance. Well worth catching when number five hundred and one comes along.
Roy Hall


Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Jamaica Inn - St Andrews Players (World Premiere)

Something rather unusual is taking place at St Andrews Church this week. There is no swirling fog on bleak moors, this is Luton after all, but gothic ambience is being lovingly created behind closed doors. A world premiere, no less, and we do not get a surfeit of those in these parts. Richard Cowling’s musical adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s famous Jamaica Inn gets the first airing of what I reckon may be many. To use my favourite, some say tortuous, horseracing analogy the nags are either bloody or brilliant, the jockey on top only does the steering. A pensioned off critic, sneaking in on a dress rehearsal, has a duty in such circumstances to separate the two. I have never read Jamaica Inn, gothic dramas are not really to my taste, but musically Mr Cowling has done a first rate job on this one. A nag of the first order. Collectively and individually the songs have a depth and passion which easily engage the senses and please the theatrical heart. Especially in the first act. I left thinking this is a work that would justify a wider audience on a more ambitious stage. Given a few second act musical and narrative tweaks, Jamaica Inn deserves to open its semi operatic doors again. In the interim enjoy this first production of eighteenth century Bodmin Moor folk and wallow in the excellent singing of Michael Niles and Ellie Turton in the central roles of Joss Merlyn and Mary Yellan. You could have more wasted evenings. Roy Hall


Jamaica Inn

St Andrews Church Luton

Wednesday to Saturday

17th – 20th May 2017

Box Office 07778 241457

Tickets £10 - £12