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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, 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.