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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 ...

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.