Featured post

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 ...

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

St Andrews Players - Christmas Is A Coming...............

...........and it has been for twenty seven years.

The St Andrews Players Christmas warm up in Luton has been doing its stuff, on and off, for twenty seven years and I reckon I have seen most of them. It isn’t great theatre, it isn’t meant to be, but that is hardly surprising. The players generally put it all together in a few days after their autumn production. But it is great entertainment and, more importantly, it’s our first real taste of the forthcoming festivities. It gives off a wholesome glow you could warm your feet on. I value such glows and in the one year I was deprived of their carols, festive songs, and readings, I stuck in my interfering oar. I face the household preparations of stuffing turkeys and hanging baubles much better if I have had my annual fix of ‘Follow the Star’ and ‘Sleigh Ride’. And it ain’t just me. Over the years I have dragged a variety of people along to it, old friends, new friends, neighbours and relatives. And they all come away with that warm glow of which I am so fond.

It has gone through a few changes. In the early days we used to sit around tables and sup wine and dive into nibbles in a church hall. Nowadays it all takes place in the church and we sit in pews. I worried at first that it might lose its easy charm and become too similar to the many church events that take place in December. I love a carol service as much as the next man but I like the St Andrews Players difference. There is something a bit special about singing ‘Hark the Herald’ and then sitting back as the performers stuff Santa and his ilk up a chimney. And what we like most, and there were a lot of us last Saturday night, is the things that rarely change. Nothing pleases like an old pair of comfy slippers and the familiar and oft repeated will generally score over the new. Oh all right, I admit that the wassailing song does nothing for me but then some folks, weird as they are, don’t like Sleigh Ride. There is no accounting for taste. But we love the Silent Nights and the Bleak Midwinters, the Dreaming of a White Christmas and the one that tells you all to Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas. Whoever gets the nod to sing that one, and they are usually good, I get very emotional. And critics being emotional are about as rare as a nine pound note. And we pew sitters all love doing our bit for the Twelve Days of Christmas. Personally I prefer being a lord a leaping to a turtle dove as you don’t have to get up so much. But we all, young and old, jump up and down with innocent abandon. You don’t generally get much of that in Luton.

Like all such events it has its serious side. It gives players who rarely get a chance to lead in major productions the opportunity to have their own five minutes, and it often showcases a new young talent yet to tread the boards in earnest. The critic in me, the unemotional one undisturbed by warm glows, has honed in on more than one teenage stunner over the years. I suppose I should rephrase that but I think you get my drift. And that drift is that this annual event, twenty seven years strong, with its silly five minute pantomimes and a chairman who always misses the entrance of Father Christmas is an occasion I unashamedly pin my colours to. The Mills Family, and there are a lot of them, do themselves and us proud. I reckon there were over two hundred warm glows around Denbigh last weekend, many hugging old friends. Early frosts and economic glooms got short shrift. Long may Christmas is a Coming survive. There are probably, in small villages and humble towns, hundreds of such events all over the country. They are the unrecorded tiny blessings of a celebrity obsessed and media driven culture. And if they are half as entertaining as our St Andrews offering then Christmas will be good. Even if you don’t like Sleigh Ride.

Roy Hall

Sunday, 4 December 2011

A Christmas Carol - Dunstable Rep


So the second nag in my Rep theatre handicap stakes has left the stable and strutted around the paddock. The first, Plaza Suite, fluffed the first few fences but ultimately showed a bit of group class. This one, A Christmas Carol, promised a lot from its classy breeding. By Alistair Brown, out of Charles Dickens, and ridden by Phil Baker. It has Gold Cups written all over it. So why did I leave this adaptation by John Mortimer of Rumpole fame with my gob less than totally smacked? At the risk of extending the tortuous horseracing analogy way beyond its usefulness I reckon, for all its obvious merits, this equine star was carrying just a bit too much weight. And weight, as all handicappers know, can stop trains.

Mr Brown had staged it with all his usual panache and flair. Stairs and a balcony allowed colourful Dickensian characters to frame the action and his beloved central turning circle and atmospheric smoke and lighting did the rest. And he had more ideas for trickery than you could shake a stick at. Some worked beautifully, actor’s voices ringing bells, imaginary door knocks, and performers playing the parts of furniture and, in one case, an overfed turkey. But with such an imagination it is easy to take your eye off the ball. His Want and Ignorance children were so wholesome and well scrubbed they could have come straight from an advert for Pears soap. The Fezziwigg party lacked the gaiety and colour needed to contrast the prevailing gloom. And, worst of all, Scrooge’s witness of his own tombstone lacked the harrowing vision needed to cut the heart. No fault of the actor, Phil Baker was superb in the role, but he was ill served by our muted and cursory glance at a weak depiction of his end. The culmination of the story of his life went out with a whimper rather than a bang.

None of this would have mattered if the general thrust of the piece had been totally sound. After all you can’t like all the cherries on the cake. But telling the tale through actor’s narration presents its own problems. We get all the gaps filled in and, with a story so familiar, it can seem a bit repetitive and slow. It worked with the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby by David Edgar and could have done so here if only the best actor’s voices were used. But it was all spread too thinly and much as I liked the presentation I was not blind, or deaf, to this inherent fault.

So where does that leave the actors who filled the parts in a clever and always entertaining production which fell just short of its imaginative directors concept? I have already said that Phil Baker’s Scrooge was superb. It was all that and much more. His classic and incisive voice, touched by a smidgeon of Irish brogue, wrenched every inch of the variety of emotions that all Scrooges must go through. He was hardly ever off stage and his performance never flagged. And in playing to his own shadow, The Spirit of Christmas yet to Come, he and Mr Brown combined with a piece of theatricality which was awesome in its inventiveness. Ralph Gough was a beautifully humble Bob Cratchit and Joe Butcher, heralded by effective red lighting, a strong and homely Christmas Present. More wool than a flock of Welsh sheep, but highly engaging. The Cratchit’s Christmas dinner scene ticked all my emotional boxes and Lynette Driver played her fiddle with aplomb. And in a large cast I was particularly taken with newcomers Steve Loczy and Hayley Vaughn in a variety of roles. Mr Loczy had a voice so pleasing and strong I would have given him much more of the narration.

But I suppose my biggest grouse, plusses and minuses aside, was that this production lacked surprise. It ain’t easy with a story that is almost as famous as the Nativity, but it is an essential theatrical ingredient. We got that at the end with an all enveloping Christmas card scene of snowflakes and glitzy lighting. This was wonderful. Almost made me forget the faults. A bit like a favourite horse making a number of dodgy jumps and getting up on the line to the winning post at Kempton or Cheltenham. Dunstable Rep and their Christmas Carol this week, a mixture of dazzling concept and the occasional awkward execution, cantered and galloped in the same style. So I left the theatre mentally giving three stars to a show that potentially might have got four or five. I have the same problems with horses.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

A Christmas Carol - Dunstable Rep

Second in the Rep's season of plays that have graced the silver screen. John Mortimer's adaptation of the Dickens' classic is brought to interesting life by an ensemble cast under the direction of Alistair Brown. Not flawless by any means but worth seeing for Phil Baker's superb portrayal of the irascible Scrooge. Good support from Ralph Gough, Steve Loczy, Joe Butcher, and Hayley Vaughn, and has an ending which eclipses all your favourite Christmas cards. Full review to follow next week.

Runs to Saturday 3rd December 2011

Monday, 28 November 2011

Absent Friends - Harpenden High Street Players

I gave up working for a living when I decided that there was more to life than spending six hours around a table debating the relative merits of computer systems I neither understood nor cared about. And I gave up writing theatrical reviews for the local paper when the fourth spear carrier’s distant aunts sent in vituperative letters lamenting little Johnny’s omission from my piece. Pressure, who wants it? Hence this private blog, where I can say or do what I want. Or so I thought.
A few folks who should know better have been lurking in Harpenden High Street and springing out to give me the odd mugging for not posting a piece on Absent Friends. Remember that? Directed by my wife for a society of which I am a member. Posted a preview (see below) and that was meant to be my last word on the subject. Saying anything the slightest bit complimentary and the boys of Wheathampstead Players and Dunstable Rep would be around with sharpened knives. Pen anything derogatory and whilst some would applaud my obvious honesty, not applicable to anything nice, that refined lot at the church players would pierce me with knitting needles and icy glances. Ever had an icy glance from Harpenden ladies of a certain age? It cuts deeper than any Wheathampstead knife.
So, on the basis if you can’t swim don’t jump into the water I decided to give this one a swerve. Pity really, as this play about a girl, Carol, who did something like that and inconveniently drowned I probably know better than anyone else who saw it. Hence the protests. I saw the original ‘in the round’ production at Scarborough in 1974, directed an amateur production of it in 1978, and both acted in and directed another production about ten years ago. I know my Ayckbourn and I know my Absent Friends. I may not be an expert but my ignorance is well founded.
With that sort of theatrical baggage it is hardly surprising that I both liked and disliked what I saw. I liked the staging, a good attempt at creating the original ‘in the round’ feel, and I liked the leading actor. Lewis Cox’s hapless Colin hit the other characters around the head with his absent and dead Carol with a relentless energy both funny and disturbing. One could not help thinking it should have been him who fell off the boat. We never saw Carol, just the five warring friends who, inadvisably, invited her bereaved to tea. It is a simple premise with oodles of Ayckbourn subtext and tension. The players gelled nicely and their performances were all watchable, if mixed in expertise and delivery. As, no doubt, will be the local knives.
Roy Hall

Monday, 21 November 2011

Cock - Royal Court on Radio Three

Cock – Radio Three (Sunday 20th November)

I don’t get out like I used to and visiting London theatres has long been off my agenda. Used to do them all. The National, The Barbican, old favourites The Royal Court and The Old Vic, and, if pushed, the populist West End when something really appealed. Nowadays I confine my theatre going to local haunts. Dunstable Rep and the others may not have the magnificent ghosts of George Devine and Lilian Bayliss to sustain them but they will do for me. And thank God they exist because elderly theatre lovers are ill served by the multi channels of the modern media. You can find hundreds of reality and celebrity shows but you will search in vain for anything remotely resembling real theatre on all those digital channels.

It wasn’t always the case. I have some old Play and Players magazines from the 1960’s and they used to list the plays on TV for each month. Everything from Shakespeare to Shaw, Galsworthy and Ibsen, and, for modern tastes, a bit of Pinter and Stoppard. Fifteen or more on only four channels. Even as late as the 1990’s we got the odd Ayckbourn or a Philip King or a J B Priestley. Anyone remember the wonderful ‘When We Are Married’ with the drunken photographer of Bill Fraser? Not anymore. All gone. We may have umpteen TV channels but you can’t find a real play on any of them. Is it therefore surprising that all the exhortations I get to sign up to Virgin or Sky go straight into the rubbish bin. Old folks, especially old theatre lovers, are both marginalised and ignored.

Thankfully radio hasn’t completely given up on us. Many are plays written for the medium, you get the odd gem at 2.15 in the afternoon on Radio Four, but every now and then an old fashioned theatre play turns up. Terence Rattigan’s centenary gave us a few on Saturday afternoons recently and, not so long ago, the same wavelength turned out a couple of Ayckbourns. It’s a long way from BBC2’s ‘Playhouse’ series which some time back, headed by a magnificent ‘A Doll’s House’, tantalisingly suggested that theatre in your home wasn’t dead, but it fed a dire need. But for those housebound folks still in need of the odd theatre fix the reliance, these days, is usually directed at Radio Three. And usually on Sunday night.

‘Art’, ‘Amy’s View’, ‘A Bequest to the Nation’, ‘The History Boys’, are just a few that I can remember. And last Sunday they gave us a real beauty. Royal Court production from the original cast of the English Stage Company. The play was called ‘Cock’ and the writer was Mike Bartlett. I knew little about either. I told you I don’t get out much these days. But for ninety minutes it absolutely gripped. Pure theatre and pure and beautifully incisive dialogue. A man tortured by his sexual identity plays off his gay lover against the woman he has recently had connections with. Literally. I do not know how they staged certain scenes on the stage but, on the radio, the pictures were graphically displayed. It was riveting. As it built to a dinner scene when both of the sexually confused man’s lovers thought he would betray the other I gasped at the suspense created. Ben Wishaw was superb as the tortured bisexual John and Andrew Scott and Katherine Parkinson spit out all their witty and acerbic lines with a precision and poetry which both heightened the tension and underlined the craft of Bartlett’s writing. I may have quibbled a bit at the introduction of a fourth character, the gay lover’s father, as on first hearing it added little to the tensions already created, but overall I say thank you.
Royal Court, English Stage Company, Radio Three? Knocks that Sky and Virgin lot into a cocked hat. But TV knows nothing about theatre. Their idea of drama is a bust up in the Queen Vic on Boxing Day or a penalty shoot out at Old Trafford. We disenfranchised oldies know different. ‘Cock’ was a bit of theatrical heaven in a home based media desert bestrewn with drivel. I am glad I caught it and sorry if you didn’t.

Roy Hall

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Old Friends................Absent Friends

I love my horseracing and have recently been banging in a few juicy priced winners to enhance the fun. No begging letters please, I get enough of those from my wife. But my equine October highlight was meeting one of my heroes in the flesh. That’s him in the picture, the good looking one. Albertas  Run. Superstar gelding of Jonjo O’Neill.  Winner of 15 races, including a few top ones, and nearly £1,000,000 in prize money. Favourable circumstances conspired to get me a visit to Jackdaws Castle training stables in the Cotswolds on the day before Bertie won the Old Roan Chase at Aintree. I am sure it was the pat on the head I gave him. Either that or my hat. For those interested in such things I went with a close friend who was so taken by it all she promptly purchased one of his unraced companions. Whether it will be an Albertas Run (rated 170) or a Quixall Crossett (google him) only history will tell. Not that it matters. Both of them, and all the other darlings are heroes to someone. That’s why I love horseracing.

I also love theatre or I do when it is good. Among my favourite playwrights is Scarborough superstar Alan Ayckbourn (no raceform rating) and his best plays have a comic cruelty which is exquisite. I prefer his earlier stuff to the later ones and one of the former is the minor masterpiece Absent Friends. Five friends in fragile relationships arrange a tea party for a recently bereaved sixth. A simple premise but Ayckbourn conducts a writing masterclass in wringing every ounce of comedy and pathos from the situation. I love the play so much that I have directed it twice in the last thirty years. My wife, the one who writes the begging letters, is directing a new production of it in Harpenden at the end of the month and giving it an interesting theatrical twist. Aficionados of Ayckbourn in Scarborough will know that all his plays are performed ‘in the round’ but rarely get done like that on local circuits and certainly not in the West End. But this one gets that chairs on the floor treatment. I can’t review it for obvious reasons. But I can give it a preliminary pat on the head. And we all know what that did for Albertas Run. Go see it. I don’t think you will be disappointed.  Roy Hall

High Street Players

Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Frances Hall

Wed 23rd – Fri 25th November 2011 8.00pm

High Street Methodist Church, Harpenden

Tickets £8.00 (Tel 01582 763277)

Monday, 17 October 2011

Wheathampstead Players - Broken Glass

Broken Glass
Wheathampstead Dramatic Society
October 2011

I quite like that lot at Wheathampstead. For a start they are only just down the road and, more importantly, they regularly churn out my sort of theatre. And they do them very well. Taking Steps didn’t earn them too many of my brownie points but you could say that was as much to do with Ayckbourn as the company.  But with The Winslow Boy, London Cuckolds, Proof, and The Cemetery Club they displayed some cracking performers. The Cemetery Club, with  a trio of well crafted widows, knocked spots off a Dunstable Rep production on at the same time. And that one up the road was not bad by any measure.

So I was really looking forward to their production of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass. Miller’s best years were considered well behind him when he turned this one out so it came as a surprise when it easily ranked with some of his major works from earlier times. I say some as, seeing it for the first time, it ain’t any All My Sons or Death of a Salesman. How good it is remains to be seen because, although an interesting evening, Wheathampstead’s interpretation rarely progressed beyond a faithful reading.

It wasn’t bad. Sarah Brindley turned in a splendid performance as the traumatised wife, haunted and paralysed by happenings in pre-war Germany, and Irene Morris was so classy as her sympathetic sister that I wished Miller had given her more to do. But the stereotypical mannerisms from Peter Jeffreys' troubled husband and Steve Leadbetter’s enigmatic doctor hindered depth and characterisation in the numerous disturbing scenes. Middle class Brooklyn Jews affected by the events of Kristallnacht – hence the title – should create a dramatic vortex of distorted lives. This didn’t. I listened intently but my emotions were only intermittently engaged.

I shouldn’t be too hard. Broken Glass strikes me as a hellishly difficult play and Wheathampstead should be applauded for giving it a go. But in spite of director Malcolm Hobbs' powerful initial imagery of Nazi atrocities and Miss Brindley’s intelligent portrayal, the heart of this late Miller was a little pedestrian. They are back to Ayckbourn in February with Time of My Life. He searches souls with a comedic pen as incisive as any Miller can turn up. And much more accessible.

Roy Hall

Monday, 10 October 2011

Plaza Suite - Dunstable Rep


I knew I would start getting myself into trouble when I set up this blog. Must be the nature of the beast. When things get too cosy stir it up by sticking your oar in. Did it times when filling gaps on the Luton News theatrical pages. I set out on the premise that not everything deserves unstinted praise, ain’t fair on the brilliant, and packed it in when the stinting got up too many noses. But as the alcoholic said to the whisky bottle, I knew I’d be back. But this time will be different. This time I will do my own thing. Turn in a turkey and you won’t even get in my oven. Seen it, blanked it, will be the new reviewing fashion. Besides I am a coward, five star and twenty four carat, and I love my computer. Can’t risk a brick being thrown at it.

So where does this leave the Rep? I have vowed to review all six of their film season plays and shall turn up to each one praying forgiveness if they make me break my, now written, rule. Their turkeys shall be as faithfully recorded as their triumphs. But I shall console myself with the thought that bricks, like everything else these days, are getting bloody expensive.

I needn’t have worried. The Rep’s first offering is unlikely to be their season’s best but it was mercifully bereft of anything remotely resembling poultry and, in a dazzling late spurt, gave us a couple of personal triumphs. The set is room 719 of the Plaza Hotel, New York and on it three couples in three separate acts gave us a small slice of American middle class life. Or life with the Neil Simon quirky slant. For those not paying attention he wrote it. All of the plays had something going for them, even if in the first it was only a desire for brevity. But whatever your view the decor was easy on the eye and expertly changed. I admired all the differing curtains and the subtle updating of phones.

The Visitor from Mamaroneck gave us a fifty something obsessive Sam Nash (Richard Combes) desperate for extra marital sex and a perfect waistline and an equally desperate and fragile housewife (Julie Hanns) seeking a late rekindling of a seemingly romantic past. The set up is rich with possibilities for both humour and pathos but in truth the couple rarely gelled. Mr Combes, an actor with a long and distinguished history at the Rep, did his best as the insensitive husband and was always watchable but Miss Hanns, pleasing as she was, did not totally give off the sparks necessary to engage us in their private drama. She has come a long way since her uneasy debut in Absurd Person Singular but such challenging roles need a greater variety of tone and pace than she can currently supply.

The Visitor from Hollywood took things up a notch and for this we must thank Clare Tozer-Rhoot’s portrayal of the awkward housewife Muriel Tate. She occasionally under-projected but you nevertheless got the feeling that you were watching an actress rich in intelligence. A bit too frumpy to kindle real desire in her Hollywood director, Dave Corbett playing with the straightest of straight bats, but immensely enjoyable in its clever heightening of the absurdist comedy of the situation. I never really got the feeling that the likeable Mr Corbett had progressed from high school beau to big Hollywood wheel but, thanks to Miss Tozer-Rhoot, I was beginning to enjoy the evening.

The Visitor from Forest Hills delivered that promise in spades. Simply put this was class of the highest order. In fairness to the actors in the other plays who may feel they have got short shrift, Mr Simon pulled out all the comic stops on this one. An unseen bride locked in a bathroom and her up market parents frantically trying to get her out for a pending wedding. And boy was this wedding pending. A rich picture was created of the offstage, expensive, thousands waiting for the desired ‘I do’. And that rich picture was matched by two beautiful performances. Angela Goss as the anxious and self centred wife and mother was absolutely superb. Her performance, in execution and timing, was faultless. You could not help thinking that she should do master classes for the Rep. As a bonus Joe Butcher’s calculating husband matched her to the inch. There is no better player of comedy at the Rep than Mr Butcher and give him a good script and a Miss Goss to play against and he displays all his flair. Hugely enjoyable and, along with my companions, I went home laughing.

So all in all it was not a bad evening. Director Julie Foster (Forest Hills) gets more theatrical points than Barbara Morton (Mamaroneck and Hollywood) but she had the best piece and two actors who could wring every ounce from it. I left with three totally disparate thoughts. Miss Hanns (Mamaroneck) needs to think outside the box and how to deal with phones, Miss Tozer-Rhoot (Hollywood) could be a major actor at the Rep, and Miss Goss (Forest Hills) has become an institution and we should erect a plaque to her. Clearly I am an undesirable. Obsessed by women. Bricks, thrown by actors, will be coming my way.

Roy Hall

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Plaza Suite - Dunstable Rep

Interesting evening at the Rep as Neil Simon's dramatic triptych gets the boys and girls of Dunstable off to a mixed but, ultimately, heady start. Richard Combes and Clare Tozer-Rhoot gave solid and watchable performances in the first two plays, but in true theatre tradition the best was saved til last. In room 719 of the Plaza Hotel, New York, both Angela Goss and Joe Butcher turned on the consummate comic style as fretful parents of a reluctant bride. I get no prizes for saying they had the lion's share of Mr Simon's comic writing but this classy pair wrung every last inch out of it. It takes a while but visit this Plaza Suite and you will come out laughing.

Plaza Suite
Dunstable Rep Little Theatre.
runs to Saturday 8th October - full review to follow

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Horseracing 0 Theatre 1 Plaza Suite 3

September is undoubtedly my favourite month. The sun, when it shines, is rarely too hot and the days still have a little life in them before the onset of winter gloom. I go on holiday and take in some plays in far off places and the horseracing gives a steady diet of quality. My two loves combine in a veritable feast. Why are feasts always veritable? Discuss.
Can't say the horses have shone though. Or the ones I studiously selected. Ran like drains most of the time. My humour not helped by the fact that my distant brother, who I love to bits, has been knocking them in with an ease that is almost unseemly. He just missed out on the Doncaster St Leger (England's oldest classic) but Ayr Gold Cup - 11/1 winner - and Newmarket's Cambridgeshire were a doddle for him. Prince of Johannes (40/1). Easy. All I get is a 6/1 scrubber in a Class 5 staying handicap at Chepstow or somewhere. But I love it and visiting the unfamiliar payout window a couple of times recently has eased my September racing gloom. I love it when other folks win, especially that brother, but I love it more when I find them. Especially the big races. And they don't come bigger than the Arc this weekend at Longchamp. Will let you know how I, and him in Leicestershire, do.

And they also don't come bigger, in theatre terms, than a new play by Alan Ayckbourn. Saw his latest, 75th, at Scarborough last week. Neighbourhood Watch is not vintage Ayckbourn, too formulaic for me, but it was served up by a super cast who were rich in quirky characterisation. And very topical. Middle class fears of working class, did I say feral, estates twisted to absurdity. Its strengths were how the actors on stage coped with the unseen fears. Its weakness the fact that much of the angst was directed offstage. I like all my Ayckbourn angst locked in the middle class setting of a Season's Greetings, a Table Manners, or an Absent Friends. This play didn't have that attraction but it was still a rewarding couple of hours. But if amateurs are tempted to do it they will need some very skilled actors to make it work.

I am hoping for some of those when I set off for Dunstable Rep's Plaza Suite next week. This is the first play in their film season and, set in a specific hotel room, we get three for the price of one. Neil Simon has frequently been referred to as America's Ayckbourn and it is easy to see why. He has a sharp ear and eye for the idiosyncratic middle class folks of God's favourite country. Should be a treat but, whether it is or not, I shall post something here. Barbara Morton and Julie Foster direct and they have some of those acting heavyweights who, hopefully, will get them off to a good start in my handicap stakes. Didn't get to their season launch so in no postion to suggest the likely winners of this six play theatrical race. Not that it matters. My brother, if he had attended, would have done a better job on the pre season selections. And he only likes horses.

Plaza Suite by Neil Simon
Friday 30th September to Saturday 8th October
Dunstable Rep (High Street Little Theatre)  - 7.45pm

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Les Miserables - Empire Theatre Arts

Queensbury West Theatre,
August 27th 2011

Les Miserables is one of those musical blockbusters which must constantly irk and mystify hostile and snotty theatre critics of yesteryear. They almost unanimously slagged it off as a load of pretentious, pop opera, rubbish which did little justice to Victor Hugo’s sprawling masterpiece. Twenty five years on and it is still giving out the old two fingers all over the world. The public loved it in 1985 and they still do. And it is easy to see why. The main characters are richly and simply drawn. The condensed narrative is surprisingly easy to follow. And the through composed music has a lyricism which is both heavenly and stimulating. In short, it knocks spots off most other modern musicals. If Boublil and Schonberg’s genius wasn’t fully recognised all those years ago, it certainly is now. Wherever it plays Les Mis and its barricades continues to pack them in.
But if the show is virtually gilt edged as an audience draw, it stills needs careful packaging and theatrical punch to make it the experience it deserves to be. Especially so if you are doing it as a summer school project in two weeks and involving sixty plus performers from ten to late teens. I am not sure whether directors Lucy O’Hare and Ashley Mead need certifying or canonising, but in Dunstable last week they proved that anything, given commitment and talent, is possible. However you look at it Empire Theatre Arts gave us an awesome production. The bare black stage and the copious use of atmospheric smoke effects allowed for seamless scene changes, and Fred Rayment’s superlative use of lighting did the rest. Easy really when you know how. I may have quibbled slightly at the over reliance on that smoke in act one, but in the revolutionary act two it really came into its own. Never more so than at the ghostly disappearance of the magnificent, essential, barricade. Dressed with the dead and dying and brilliantly lit by Mr Rayment you just gasped at the perfect theatricality.
Given such astute packaging this show would have been an unqualified hit even if the individual performers had only been so-so. I mean, sixty youngsters. There are bound to be a few who drag it down. But whether by luck or sheer genius the two directors put together a team without a single weak link anywhere on the stage and firmly placed this production in the ‘magnificent’ category. Acting was truthful and sincere, ensemble playing was clever and disciplined, and much of the singing lifted and stirred this ageing, cynical, heart. A lot of credit for the latter must go to Graham Thomson’s sensitive and skilled musical direction, including evocative keyboards, but those in charge need the ones who strut the stage. And Miss O’Hare and Mr Mead combined the talents so well I am seriously thinking of taking up stamp collecting or fly fishing. I left thinking I couldn’t do that. Not in two weeks. Not ever.
With such a show you probably don’t receive any thanks for singling out any individual performer. You can’t mention them all and those neglected may feel they had less to offer. It ain't true folks. From the boy who constantly got slapped on his innocent head to the raucous lovely ladies of the night, all played their part. But of the main players Stuart Grey impressed for the maturity of his fugitive Valjean and Ollie Slade for the commanding presence of the nasty, but ultimately troubled, Javert. Katherine Knight touched the heart for the sincerity of the doomed Fantine and Tara Patterson and John Douglas were the superbly grotesque Thenardiers. I cannot pay Mr Douglas’s portrayal any higher accolade than that his brilliantly costumed scoundrel landlord invoked memories of Alun Armstrong. If he doesn’t think that is praise he should look him up. Imogen Gurney as Little Cosette and Katie Ross as the elder version both acted and sang with exceptional beauty, and James Clark and Jahale Juredini Mcleod showed in a multitude of roles the depth of this large cast.
Much of the action takes place against the background of a student uprising in 1832, hence those barricades that everyone knows so well, and Cameron Hay’s portrayal of revolutionary leader Enjolras particularly impressed. His character does not have any of the individual focus that much of the narrative allows (wot! no girlfriend) and he can easily get lost in all the action. But Mr Hay acted his part beautifully and died even better. His barricade sprawl is to be savoured by those who like such things. His companion in student arms, Jamie Pritchard as Marius, turned in a beautifully crafted performance and was well matched by the enchanting acting and singing of Pari Shahmir’s thwarted Eponine. Her ‘On My Own’ was exceptionally fine and one of my numerous highlights.
So I name you all these characters and don’t spell out a plot which has more strands to it than Agatha Christie at her convoluted best. Suffice to say it is all to do with the fugitive Valjean and the folks he gets involved with on his travels. Including a liberal helping of riots to give Les Mis a topical ring which, in truth, is always with us. But I quite like this sort of rioting from our youngsters. I may be old but I can engage with the young, especially when they are as talented as Empire Theatre Arts. I wonder what those pipe sucking, slippered and ageing theatre critics think in their old folk’s home. ‘Les Miserables? Won’t run for more than week.’ The world, over twenty five years, and Lucy O’Hare and Ashley Mead over three nights in Dunstable, have proved them spectacularly wrong. Magnificent. Haven’t I said that somewhere?

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Empire Theatre Arts - Les Miserables (Schools Edition)

Magnificent. Two directors, two weeks rehearsal, and sixty or more kids from ten to late teens belting out this wonderful musical. A standing ovation from a packed house on the night I went and well deserved. How Lucy O'Hare and Ashley Mead did it I have no idea, but this was definitely the positive side of youthful rioting. In a cast full of super performances Ollie Slade's Javert, John Douglas's Thenardier and Pari Shahmir's Eponine took my highest honours. But there was class throughout, all wrapped in beautiful music, imaginative staging and terrific lighting. My head ached in appreciation. If you saw it you will agree with me. If you missed it you will regret it. As I said, magnificent.

Queensbury Hall, Dunstable.
August 25th - 27th

Full review to follow.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Dunstable Rep - Season 2011/2012

One of the highlights of my reviewing days for the Luton News was following that classy lot at the Little Theatre in Dunstable. From Rebecca to Home and beyond they gave me an enormous amount of theatrical pleasure. With directors such as Alistair Brown, Alan Goss, Peter Carter-Brown and the late and much missed Robin Hadcroft and Mona Norris, they turned out style by the bucketload. Okay, they occasionally threw in the odd turkey but that just added to the fun. But those mentioned, and a few more, regularly combined with a stream of first rate performers to set the standard by which I judged most other local companies. At their best only St Albans Company of Ten came anywhere near them on the local scene. Which, on the basis that you are allowed to chastise those you love, I occasionally stuck in my unwelcome hostile oar. I always want the Rep to be good.
Those sentiments apply in spades to the new season. Having directed one of their last season plays (I humbly declare an unseemly interest) I have seen their set up from the other side. Believe me it is a heady roller coaster ride but one rich in professionalism. They put on plays quicker than some of us change our underwear. And from September 2011 to July 2012 they are churning out six film related stage offerings. From Neil Simon's Plaza Suite to John Buchan's Thirty Nine Steps they are doing everything celluloid. They won't have the immortal Robert Donat (google him) but I am sure they will line up a list of directors and performers who will bring their own special slant to an interesting season.I will stick my interfering neck out and say that I reckon that audiences are in for a treat with this imaginative sextet.  And being a keen racing man I intend to set up the 'Dunstable Rep Film Season Handicap Hurdle' with a prize for the best.
But it will be a handicap, so trainers and jockeys are all important. Some actors will carry more weight than others. Literally in some cases. I shall therefore sneak into their season launch party to assess the likely form and then talk to my local Ladbrokes. Purely in the interest of theatre. Even I can get better than 15/8 on one of those Browns. Roy Hall

Plaza Suite (30/9-8/10) - Christmas Carol (25/11-3/12) - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (20/1-28/1) - Blithe Spirit (16/3-24/3) - The Talented Mr Ripley (11/5-19/5) - Thirty-Nine Steps (13/7-21/7)

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Still Life (ACT Company) - Full Review

Dunstable Little Theatre - 21st July 2011

Noel Coward’s ‘Still Life’ strikes me as both a minor masterpiece and, in the best sense, a museum piece. It is a masterpiece for the sheer economy of its emotions, unbridled lust and love overlaid with middle class conventions. A museum piece for its tight station cafe background of rigid rules and regulations. The central characters of medical doctor Alec and suburban housewife Laura may be reliving and regretting their offstage trysts over luke-warm tea and cafe pastries, but it is the cafe proprietress who lays down the laws by which we should all live. Closing up at ten o’clock, not serving alcohol before six, and certainly no unseemly cavorting between male and female staff on railway premises. One could not help thinking that the troubled adulteress Laura admired such pre-war society rules, and by the end was silently wishing she had obeyed them.
Hang on I can hear you saying, this sounds like that film where middle aged housewife Celia Johnson relieved her dreary life by having illicit afternoons with Trevor Howard’s dishy doc, after he took some grit from her eye. And that film, as we all know, was ‘Brief Encounter.’  Never has the detritus from a train made such filmic history. And it still echoes today, getting on for sixty years later.
But in the film the gaiety of Laura is expanded and the staff in the cafe merely interesting and amusing background. The short play on which it is based, deprived of the dramatic and romantic focus of an unfulfilled woman, has a much more even and desperate feel. The lives of the richly crafted cafe folk both underpin and illuminate the desolation of the two nice and gently mannered folks waiting for the 5.43. It is as if Coward is saying that passionate dramas are being played out everywhere and in the most prosaic settings. If only we knew where to look.
I willingly throw my theatrical hat into the ring when I say that directors Alan and Megan Clarke brought all this to riveting and dramatic life. Over five short scenes we experience the discovery and ramifications of an unexpected love and the fleshing out of the anonymous people who provide its background. Elliott Lawrence and Liz Caswell were perfectly cast as the ultra respectable Alec and Laura with the doomed desire. Mr Lawrence played his part with an impeccably straight bat but was never less than sincere and truthful and if Miss Caswell was occasionally too lugubrious, she rivetingly painted a picture of a fragile woman drifting perilously out of her depth. There aren’t many laughs in their relationship and you couldn’t help thinking that such decent folks shouldn’t bonk away from home.
These classy central performances were backed up by some cracking support from the inhabitants of Milford Junction’s railway cafe. Natalie Gordon, with an over refined accent which could easily cut through house bricks, was a magnificent Myrtle Bagot. She lorded over all in the cafe, and when she offered her cakes and pastries fare you could never be sure whether you were getting the crown jewels or something from the sewer. Most of her attentions were on her long suffering assistant, an excellent not too bright Beryl from Stephanie Overington, and Joe Butcher’s nicely judged and slightly lecherous ticket inspector Albert, but all customers and staff knew who ruled this particular roost.
Only the last scene failed to totally bite. There is an underlining cruelty in the chance meeting of Laura’s chatterbox friend at the moment of the lovers’ final goodbye. Miranda Larson looked and sounded stunning but her Dolly Messiter lacked the relentless delivery necessary to notch up the subtle drama of quiet suffering. But that is a small point in an overall super production. Realistic cafe set pitched at the right level of ordinariness, excellent ensemble playing, and train sounds to satisfy even the most pernickety of anoraks. Throw in songs from Al Bowlly and Peggy Lee and there weren’t much to quibble about. Alan Clarke’s ACT Company only pops up on odd occasions. Judged on this little gem they should do so more often. Roy Hall

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Still Life - ACT Company

Alan Clarke gave us a little gem of a production at Dunstable Little Theatre this week. Noel Coward's short play spawned the famous tears and trains of a 'Brief Encounter' that has lingered in the memory of film buffs for over fifty years. No one can eclipse the performances of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard but this doomed love affair of Alec and Laura suffered not one jot for it. From the grit in the eye to the final farewell we were gripped by the consummate and sincere performances of Elliott Lawrence and Liz Caswell. All takes place in a realistic station cafe setting, splendidly managed by the magnificent Myrtle of Natalie Gordon, and rarely a false note was struck throughout. Excellent cast, nice thirties songs, and train sounds by the bucketload. Only an hour but an absolute joy.

Runs to Saturday 23rd July 2011. Full review to follow.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Steel Magnolias - Griffin Players (September 2008)

My last review for The Luton News before concentrating on the horses. No bricks.

Steel Magnolias
Griffin Players
Luton Library Theatre

12th September 2008

It is a little known fact, or if it isn’t it ought to be, that I spend a fair bit of my time in ladies hairdressers. It doesn’t make me an expert in the ways of feminine inner sanctums but it does mean that Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias does not take place in completely undiscovered territory. Harling’s characters wisecrack their way through eighteen months of a tearful journey alien to my refined Harpenden lot but, in other respects, the soul bearing haircuts have many similarities.

On Gary Nash’s realistic and splendid set, cleverly creating wide angled spaces on a stage not renowned for depth, the staff and customers intertwine emotional baggage and off stage action. The life outside this salon is rich with gun toting husbands, unsociable dogs, and dead or distant partners, and the hardest trick for the company is to engage you in those offstage lives and simultaneously dazzle with onstage rapport. They didn’t totally succeed, not least because Mr Nash’s directorial skills fell a little short of his excellent designing talent, but the evening was never less than enjoyable and entertaining.

Lorna Trapp was the sharp and clear Truvy, a proprietor convinced that there was no such thing as natural beauty, and Sophie Singleton-Sells a beautifully crafted assistant. Miss Sells’ Annelle made the greater journey of development, and was therefore the more enriching, but both actresses skilfully underpinned the microcosmic life in this Louisiana salon. Denise Bryson (aggressive and moneyed dog lover) and Elizabeth Rhodes (widowed cake maker) provided the comic relief but, two sides of a similar coin, only Miss Bryson truly grabbed the part by the throat. Sharp on cues and timing, this actress injected pace which the otherwise likeable Clairee of Miss Rhodes could not match.

But the heart and essence of Steel Magnolias is the relationship of the ultimately doomed Shelby (Kate Johnson) and her frustrated and unstable mother (Nuala Prior). All the others are merely amusing and interesting satellites in their slowly developing tragic journey. Both the portrayals were fine, Kate Johnson a particularly perky daughter besotted by pink, but their central scene of medical revelations was both muted and unfocussed. I liked the ebb and flow of the lives of these Louisiana ladies; I just wanted a change of dramatic gear and tone. But if the well flagged dying failed to induce the promised tears even this old heart was impressed by skilfully controlled final scene speeches from a cast in the shadow of Shelby’s death.

The Griffin Players gave us that splendid set, underpinned by realistic sound effects from Graham Elliott and effective lighting from Andrew Maxted and David Houghton, and Truvy’s hairdressing salon was a small world it was a pleasure to inhabit. If Sophie Singleton-Sells' journey from dowdy assistant to frizzy haired bible thumper took much of the acting honours all played their part, even down to convincing southern American accents. I reckon my Harpenden ladies, gun shots apart, would have quite liked it.

Roy Hall

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Theatre Reviewing

Any one interested in the amateur theatre scene and living in the Herts/Beds area in the early part of this century (don't that sound peculiar) used to love reading my reviews in the local papers. Or so they told me when they wrapped them around a housebrick and lobbed them in my direction. I gave it all up when I started to get bland to stem the flow of letters. A couple of folks who clearly need certifying have often hankered me to start them again. I just might. Here. But if I do they will be interspersed with comments on many other topics including my first love, horseracing. Now that is real theatre and, thankfully, horses can't read.

So watch this space. If you have nothing better to do.