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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, 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,
Welwyn.
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
Toddington
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

 

 

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