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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 ...

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)