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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, 2 December 2012

Hamlet - Dunstable Rep (Full Review)

I might as well admit it, I am not a big fan of Shakespeare’s famous tragedies. Shock, horror, local theatre oik confesses his ignorance. Othello ain’t bad, mainly because of the scheming Iago, and Macbeth is mercifully short. But they don’t grab me like the history plays or the best comedies and they don’t grip like Mr Chekhov and Mr Ibsen. My loss some would say, but at fourteen I was introduced to Julius Caesar and Osborne’s Jimmy Porter and it was an uneven contest. The first bored, the second mesmerised. Must be my council estate upbringing. So I went along to the Rep’s Hamlet with some trepidation. Do it all and you sit through four hours of a warring royal family in which most of the main characters die. Bit like And Then There Were None for cerebrals. Hamlet is tortured by the ghost of his father and his hatred for his usurper, Uncle Claudius, and his introspective character destroys both himself and practically everyone else. Miserable bugger, I always thought. In defence, I have seen a number of Hamlet productions and all directors put their own particular slant on it. It’s a broad canvas, rich in complex relationships, and almost cries out for interpretations. I did draw the line, many years ago, at going to see a local production that put them all in a spaceship. Probably my loss. Just did not fancy seeing Ophelia go mad in a fetching silky soft spacesuit. I have no imagination.
Annalise Carter-Brown does. She directed this one and whilst it would be misleading to say that she allowed her imagination to run riot, it was pretty clear from the start she kept only a loose rein. Lots of the peripheral characters were in frocks, mercifully played as women, and a couple of the main ones were given a surprising slant. None more so than Polonius in the guise of a lecherous Cardinal. I always thought he was a nice man. This production proved, here and elsewhere, that actions spoke much louder than words. Even Shakespeare’s. Words were sometimes lost in hasty diction from the weaker actors but bawdy action, I clearly have a dirty mind, was pleasingly wrapped in sumptuous music of the Mozart variety and simple and effective staging. Miss Carter-Brown’s picture was crystal clear. This Hamlet had a subtle love for the purity and innocence of his loyal Horatio, don’t worry she was beautifully feminine, but seemed to loathe everyone else. Especially himself. Don’t know if it was intended but that is how this particular slant on the troubled Prince came over.
Peter Carter-Brown did a superb job as that brooding Prince. His diction was clear and concise and his moods shifted in pleasing quicksilver fashion. Oh all right, he was a moody and whining bugger you wanted to slap at times but he delivered everything with astonishing ease. I particularly liked his feigned madness; the pure physicality of his acting there was joyously inventive. Gripping a tiny book, Henry V so I was told, this actor showed that he truly understood the complexities of his character. A marathon part with never a slip. Not for the first time I sat in the audience saying I couldn’t do that. Equally I couldn’t have done Stephanie Overington’s portrayal of Horatio. Surrounded by the big players this is usually a secondary part. Not here. The feminine slant came to the fore in spades and Miss Overington, dressed in innocent white, captivated whenever she was on stage. So did Alistair Brown’s quirky interpretation of Polonius. This Machiavellian character, dressed in cardinal red, oozed lechery. The dirty mind referred to above was convinced that his servant Reynaldo, nice performance from Jenny Monaghan, was considering fellatio at one point. I really should get out more. Elsewhere there were excellent performances from Katy Elliott’s Guildenstern, Jo Collett’s Player Queen and Kim Albone’s Ophelia. The latter certainly put a large dollop of lust into her madness. And we got a massive chunk of theatricality from the ghostly appearance of Hamlet’s father. The wavering pictures of Phil Baker’s face, coupled with his beautiful diction, was mesmerising. The overall presentation was a mixed bag but it came up trumps here. And the redoubtable Mr Baker was probably at home supping a  whisky. Great life, acting.
Overall though this Hamlet only fleetingly tweaked the senses. Yes we had an excellent lead, pretty essential, and that magnificent music to cloak the scenes. But some major characters came up a bit short. So the family drama only intermittently gripped. Dave Corbett’s King Claudius lacked authority, Marc Rolfe’s Laertes was a bit bland and rushed, and even the ever reliable Jenna Ryder-Oliver’s Queen Gertrude never totally stamped her personality on the production. She delivered her lines well, she is too good an actress not to, but I reckon she was a bit fazed by all those other women on stage. Gertrude usually reigns supreme in the feminine stakes. Here she had unexpected competition from a plethora of frocks. Only a theory of course. But what do you expect from a man who first fell in love with theatre when, in Look Back in Anger, he watched in awe at a woman ironing while a man ranted. Know the text of that one well. Watching Annalise Carter-Brown’s interesting Hamlet I reckon I should brush up again on this one. Shan’t bother. The only Wayward and Sweet Princes I still read about are those that grace Kempton and Haydock Park. Roy Hall




Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Hamlet - Dunstable Rep

Shakespeare is an acquired taste for some and Annalise Carter-Brown’s quirky slant on Hamlet won’t please everybody. Bloody long and wordy for a start. But her eighteenth century court, wrapped in sumptuous music, created some interesting pictures. Alistair Brown expertly delivered a lecherous Polonius, Stephanie Overington beautifully captured the loyal friend Horatio, and Phil Baker gloriously delivered the ghostly speech of Hamlet’s father. A classic case of posting in your performance. And the boy himself? Moody and whining. You wanted to slap him at times. But a superb performance none the less in this most arduous of roles. Peter Carter-Brown coped effortlessly with all those famous speeches and his feigned madness, pure physicality, was an absolute joy. Not an easy night on the ear or the bum and a mixed bag in the acting stakes. But worth seeing for those of a strong constitution.
Runs to Saturday 1st December 2012
7.45pm – Little Theatre, Dunstable High Street South.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

A Worm's Eye View (The Return of Inspector Garbutt)

Theatre societies will go to enormous and elaborate lengths to get a review on this blog. That is what I tell myself anyway. After all, there must be some logical reason as to why I found myself playing a bearded and concupiscent Sea Captain in St Andrews’ Murder Mystery. Not for my singing skills. Wisely this lot never let me get anywhere near the stage. And acting, such as it was, comprised solely of improvised lechery with the passenger audience. Click a few photos with the Cruise Captain and then sit back and enjoy solving his murder. Stabbed in the back in his cabin before the show starts. They may weep, unlikely, at my theatrical demise but I shall be home supping the whiskies his character clearly enjoys. So that was St Andrews’ ‘The Return of Inspector Garbutt’, a homebred show by Terry Mills, in which the passenger audience were invited to solve the mystery of who from the motley crew put the offstage knife into the unseen and deserving back.
Given that I spent more time with the audience than with the production I know more about the former than the latter. Besides you can’t review a show you were a part of, even though you weren’t actually in it. So I ain’t going to try. But I can stick my oar into that audience, about time they got a crit. I mean, they turn up everywhere and never get a mention. They must be thoroughly fed up. Dress up, pay a fortune for parking, petrol, and tickets, buy drinks and a programme and go home wishing, sometimes, that  they had put it all towards the looming gas bill or a fancied horse at Cheltenham. And not a squeak. Anywhere. Not a line in a paper or a scrawl on a blog. So this is their turn. Agents, get out your cheque books. Last week this unwary audience, cast as seafarers, performed
Some, mainly the actor types, played up beautifully and others, even if bemused, entered into the passenger spirit. A Mr and Mrs Smith, whoever they were, accepted snide remarks with aplomb and a Mrs Foster gleefully regaled the story of her falling under a Captain’s table. Dodgy chair legs or dodgy gin and tonics? Sadly we shall never know. Not all were so easy. One anonymous lady declined an invitation for a Friday dinner engagement with the said Captain. She had come to see the show on Thursday and then she was going home. No theatrical nonsense and no passenger playing for her. Even if provided a personal lifeboat and half the bleeding admiralty. Some folks are hard work. The highlight was Miss Janet Bray’s immersion into her unexpected role as sexual ingĂ©nue and the lowlight the chatting up of a young lady who turned out to be fifteen. I swear your honour, she looked at least twenty. A mixed lot, an audience. Much easier reviewing a show.
And in the absence of anything better the audiences provide it. I glimpsed the dress rehearsal and a bit of the Saturday night but never got the full flavour of the evening. Only audiences can do that. I saw bits that impressed and others that didn’t but my view was distorted. I was picking at a bag of theatrical sweets that this audience, reviewed and phone numbers ready, had been noshing at. They seemed to enjoy it. Nonsense fun, lots of lovely food, some good singing and acting, and a nice murder game at the end. A pleasant way to spend an evening out. I am glad about that. I am glad the audience enjoyed St Andrews Murder Mystery. I am particularly glad because I enjoyed them in their unexpected roles. On this cruise, from this worm’s eye view, the tables were literally turned.
St Andrews Players
'The Retrurn of Inspector Garbutt'
Stopsley High School, Luton.
November 7th - 10th 2012

Monday, 22 October 2012

Helen - Wheathampsted DS

You could write what I know about the Trojan wars on the back of a papyrus stamp. Helen? Wasn’t she the awesomely beautiful woman who launched a thousand ships after the Judgement of Paris? And wasn’t he a mythological bloke, not that city famed for onions and gaiety. Further than that I cannot go, ignorant oik that I am. Reckon most of Wheathampstead’s latest theatre audience were in the same camp. Lots of references to famous Gods. Zeus and Aphrodite, the sex obsessed one, being only two of many. Ten minutes in of Helen’s opening speech, beautifully done I might say, and we could be forgiven for wishing for a Greek guide book and, simultaneously, thinking that dear old Alan (Ayckbourn) ain’t half as hard.
But you have to admire Wheathampstead Dramatic Society and their director, Malcolm Hobbs, for having the courage, or should I say nerve, for serving us up a dollop of marginal Greek theatre based on all those wars that the Trojans, and others, were so keen on. I say marginal because in this slant on Helen by Euripides, I am in danger here of suggesting I know what I am talking about, she is stuck outside the palace gates of an Eygptian King lamenting the loss of her husband Menelaus. It was at this point, about fifteen minutes in, that I ditched all the reference points. I was not going to appreciate anything the evening offered if I needed a crammer in Greek mythology. But it’s a play for God’s sake. It’s a woman trapped with a prospective marriage she don’t want and a husband she loves resurrected. Nothing hard about that. Seen hundreds of similar ilk. Euripides and his translator, Frank McGuinness and his bawdy language, may be giving us a glimpse of mythological icons but they were doing it in a way we could relate to. One day someone may write a domestic comedy on Hitler and Eva Braun. I somehow doubt it, but if they did you would not need any reference points. And, ultimately, you didn’t with this Helen and her Menelaus. Beyond the language and the history was that age old problem of sorting out your relationships. Happens all the time in Waitrose.
Wasn’t totally enamoured of the simple presentation. The impressive sound effects for clanging palace gates jarred with their prosaic view and the mixture of costume styles, including a 1950s tea lady, defied any internal logic. Perhaps Mr Hobbs was saying ‘It doesn’t matter what you are looking at, just listen to the words.’ If so, he was probably right because his Helen was an interesting story and quirky ancient and modern dress made us concentrate. As one of my companions said on the way home, this play sort of grew on you.
Much of that growing was down to Irene Morris’s central performance of the captured Helen. Her acting was head and shoulders above anything else on the stage and in both tragedy and comedy she, literally, worked her audience. Robin Langer, an outrageous King of Egypt with comic persona never seriously suppressed, made a nice contrast with the more earnest King of Sparta from Steve Leadbetter. The latter’s modern soldier boy, excellent strong diction, gave Mr Leadbetter his best role to date. Pip Dowdell nicely turned in that spiky gatekeeper from a northern council estate, her language certainly was, and Julie O’Shea looked magnificent, if a little young, in her splendidly colourful Egyptian Princess costume. Lighting (Bob Parry) was effective and sound (Jill Collis) even better. The opening storm effects, this director has a habit of grabbing your attention early, were particularly realistic. I know. I hate thunderstorms and can recognise a false one when it flashes at me.
So overall an evening which threatened to be daunting turned out to be pretty absorbing. Lots of words, many of the four letter variety, but at its heart a play about a woman desperate to get her man. Wheathampstead Dramatic Society are known for occasionally pushing out the dramatic boat. They did it here literally and I, for one, ain’t going to knock them for it. Besides, as well as an evening of theatre I can now talk knowledgeably for thirty three and a half seconds on the Trojan Wars. And that’s about thirty seconds above average on our street. Theatre is so enriching. Even when some of it comes from your programme notes. Roy Hall

Friday, 19 October 2012

Euripides' Helen - Wheathampstead DS

Funny old night down at Marford Road. Director Malcolm Hobbs seemed to throw everything but the kitchen sink at his Wheathampstead Dramatic Society staging of Euripides’ Helen. The Frank McGuinness bawdy language is underpinned by a bewildering variety of costumes and acting styles in this interesting slant on the aftermath of the Trojan War. It shouldn’t work but strangely it did. Ignore the heavy reference points and you could be watching a modern marital comedy in which Irene Morris’s Helen of Troy was outstanding and Steve Leadbetter a strong and positive support. Interesting evening. I shall muse on its faults but, as one of my companions said, it was a production which grew on you. Given the heavy programme notes that was no mean achievement. Roy Hall

Full review to follow

Finishes tomorrow (Saturday 20th October - 8.00pm)

Sunday, 7 October 2012

And Then There Were None (Dunstable Rep)

I have always said, or if I didn’t I do now, it aint what you do it is the way you serve it up. Cooks and prostitutes know what I mean, not that I know many cooks. But it is a bloody sight easier to make an interesting meal of Coq au Vin than it is to tingle taste buds with beans on toast. And, in theatrical terms, Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ is very much a ‘beans on toast’ pot-boiler. I love her books, The ABC Murders, Murder is Easy, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd are absolute gems. Read ‘em all. Far too many times than is good for me. But she doesn’t really translate. Dame Christie is all plot and stock characters. Fascinating on the page, a bit ploddy on a stage.
So you need a keen theatrical eye to make them work. TV does it par excellence with Joan Hickson’s definitive Miss Marple and, even better, with David Suchet’s Poirot. Sublime characterisations of the Belgian egotist and his super sidekicks, Japp and Hastings, guarantee an evening of fireside pleasure. And the latter is all so art deco, from its geometrical openings to its opulent London flats with those overlarge clocks,  it screams pre war 1930s. And I like that sort of thing. Which goes some way to explaining why I loved Alistair Brown’s latest production for the Rep. I have always admired this director, can teach me a thing or two, and his setting of this trap for the unwary deserved at least four stars before anyone opened their mouths. I won’t describe it, far too difficult and time consuming, but it gobsmacked you for its opulence and style. You were never in any doubt that you were firmly in those heady and frivolous thirties before the dark clouds of world wars descended. Mr Brown, and his interior designer Alan Goss, had laid before us a visual treat and laced it with super mood music of the Shostakovich variety. The rest was down to those actors and their mouths.
There were ten of them, eleven if you include a spiky boatman, and they were the invited guests to the politically correct Soldier Island and its sumptuous villa. All had murderous history and all entered with innocent aplomb. And all were doomed to die at an unseen hand. Poison, axes, guns, syringes, even bear shaped clocks, you name it. They all died, or most of them did. To the tune of Ten Little Soldiers (Ten Little Niggers in Miss Christie's unacceptable original) they popped their clogs in consummate 1930’s style surrounded by that evocative music. All a load of pleasurable theatrical tosh, and if the ending displeased you could not help but admire the clean and cosy way they all died to order. But And Then There Were None is a very orderly play. There may be loads of deaths, there are very few surprises. Practically everything is flagged unmercifully, but in a production this good it mattered not a jot. It may just be narrative beans but, as Mr Brown seemed to be saying, it comes on a clever piece of artistic toast.
The ten soldiers, downed one by one from Craig Fisher’s stunning chimney design, were all competent and well paced and even the weakest actors entered into the overall style. I particularly liked Liz Blower’s emotional Vera Claythorne and Chris Young’s nervy Dr Armstrong. Both performances had an essential truth and subtly avoided the melodrama that constantly lurked in the script. Rep stalwarts Angela Goss, a superb Emily Brent in an equally superb evening dress, Joe Butcher with a very convincing South African accent, and Phil Baker as the believably mad High Court Judge all twirled with ease and Luke Howard, the first victim, briefly created an inconsiderate and engaging louse. But none of the performers totally jarred. David Hillman did not have the voice of the quintessential butler but he moved beautifully and looked an absolute treat. Don’t think he ever served the Sandeman’s port but a metaphorical silver salver was never far away from his person.
But whatever my individual caveats this was an evening of superbly served up theatre. The set was awesome, the music evocatively underscored the deadly narrative, Richard Foster’s lighting complemented all the moods, and the tightly knit team of actors turned and died on cue. I lapped it up, recognising that a master of the directorial art at the local Rep had pulled an illustrious rabbit out of a pretty ordinary hat. Being full of artistic jealousy the only question is whether I should bring about his demise with poison, an axe, or a hangman’s noose. Don’t think I will. Very appropriate but much too messy. Reckon I will give him four and a half stars instead. That should finish him off. 
Roy Hall

Thursday, 4 October 2012

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 world of theatrical reviewing I have ruffled many a feather. Don’t mean to, but I have this incorrigible habit of saying what I think. Fine if I am being praiseworthy but not so nice if I think something stinks. My doctor is giving me tablets in the hope of curing this strange tendency to blog my opinions. Won’t work of course. Opinions are only valid if they are honest. Don’t have to be right, there is no scientific measurement of a theatrical opinion, just have to be genuinely felt. This one is.
 I do occasionally get out more. Regularly to Sidmouth, a heavenly Victorian seaside town on the East Devon coast. Been there at least ten times in the last fifteen years or so. I love its Jurassic rocks, rich and red, framing a magnificent bay. I love its old fashioned promenade and its quaint shops. I love its super hotels, The Westcliff, The Victoria, The Belmont, and The Riviera. I love its mild climate and the way all in this place go to sleep at about nine o’clock. And I love its theatre. The Sidmouth Manor Pavilion. Every year Charles and Imogen Vance put on a summer festival of plays. They run from June to September. This year was their 26th season. I have managed to take in a play or two on at least ten of their seasons and over the last few years I have grown to love one of its actors. Next to the late and much lamented R F Delderfield, a novelist who should be up there with Dickens, that actor, James Pellow, must be Sidmouth’s most favourite son.
Mr Pellow has been with Sidmouth for nine seasons and I reckon I have picked up one or two of his performances in at least six of them. He never disappoints, from subtle performances in Rebecca and September Tide to quirky characters in Barefoot in the Park and a magnificent production of Sleuth (2011), he absolutely grips in whatever he does. And when you bear in mind that I am seeing one of an assembly line of portrayals, Summer Rep is like that, it makes them even more amazing. Here is an actor who has to learn and create in a week. This year the Vance season did fourteen plays and he would be in an awful lot of them. He could be forgiven if he just went through a bit of rote line learning coupled with a touch of professional aplomb. Perhaps he does but it doesn’t come over like that. His portrayals have a sincerity and truth that gifted amateurs take months to create and in which many professionals, given the tight Rep schedule, fail. My early experiences of Sidmouth, pre Mr Pellow, frequently saw that. But he reminds me of the late James Hazeldine. He started his acting life at Birmingham Rep in the sixties and I was a regular attendee. He knocked me out for his truthful weekly portrayals in such pot boilers as Hot and Cold in all Rooms and The Farmers Wife. An amazing actor my young reviewing nose thought. Went on to greater fame at the Royal Court and The National Theatre before sadly dying, too young. James Pellow has his gift. Creates a character in five minutes and gives any production essential gravitas. I love Sidmouth and I love its Summer Season at the Manor Pavilion. Especially while it has Mr Pellow.
A late visit to this favourite place this year and just managed to take in Charles and Imogen Vance’s fourteenth of fourteen. J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. That famous play where the smug industrial Birlings get their comeuppance at the hands of a mysterious inspector. Some nice performances, especially Sarah Griffin and Rhys Lawton as the engaged couple whose fragile relationship is increasingly seared by the revelations, and including a strong, if quirky one, from the aggressive leprechaun of Alec Gray’s Inspector Goole. Realistic Edwardian set even if it gave little opportunity for anyone to sit down. Gripping evening and thoroughly enjoyable. And James Pellow? He played Arthur Birling, northern industrialist desperate for his knighthood and continuing respectability. Naked familial emotions counted little against his promised gong. Lovely portrayal. But then his always are. And that is where I came in. Roy Hall

Monday, 24 September 2012

A Night at the Theatre (Peter Clarke) - review

Have been musing on last night at The Grove. Lots of folks asked me if I was going to blog it. I want to I said, shamelessly inhaling the oblique and implied flattery, but not as a critique. Such local theatrical moments, especially such an amazing goodbye to such a wonderful man, deserve a permanent comment. Even if only mine on this obscure site. But not a critique. That means singling out the best and admonishing the worst, giving an objective opinion on a theatrical presentation. Can’t do that here. There was so much goodwill, about a hundred on stage and up to three or four hundred in the audience, you could have bottled it and made a pretty penny. The best were brilliant and the rest a mixture of competent charm and earnest endeavour. But all were there to celebrate and give tribute to a man who touched so many theatrical hearts. Peter Clarke was amazing for his industry, his talent, his generosity of spirit, and his absolute niceness. All who were there, onstage and off, wanted to say thank you to him for being part of their lives and, in such circumstances, tear sodden critics (I was, especially at a brilliant montage) are superfluous. But, as I said, it has got me musing.
The media is full of celebrities and disasters. Anonymous people who touch lives for their fame or their demise or, in the case of Princess Diana, both. Millions pour out their grief or anger and the tweeters and facebook posters hum with indignation or solace. It is all very touching, sometimes, but it is all so unreal. The papers and TV may be plastered with these folks but we don’t know them. Our emotions are both media driven and second-hand. They may be famous but they are also remote. At the same time, all over the country, there are folks in small towns and communities giving a final farewell to someone who truly touched their lives. I regularly see posters, recently in Bourne (Lincs), Rugby, Aldeburgh, Hinckley (Leics) and Welwyn, where an anonymous life is truly to be celebrated. These folks never made the national papers, never got on TV or on the radio, never got those fifteen minutes of fame so beloved of Andy Warhol. But they were real people and they touched real lives in a way that media celebrities never can. For the Peter Clarke’s of this world the tears are real and the emotions raw. Only the few may know who we are saying goodbye to but, all over the country, we are saying the same. This person really did touch our lives. I did say I was musing.
And that brings me back to Alan Clarke’s Night at the Theatre. I reckon I would have enjoyed it even if I hadn’t a clue who Peter Clarke was. Alan Clarke (Peter’s son) packaged it well and Malcolm Farrar did a superb job as our compere for the evening. Sincere and engaging. The critic in me is seeping out here. The photographic montage of Peter Clarke’s theatrical life was emotionally awesome in its creation and execution, beautiful music and clever images, and the Luton Youth Jazz Section in Act Two absolutely wonderful. I reckon folks will forgive me if I say that this second half opening, including the amazing Amanda Seal and the consummate Graham Crisp, oozed considerable class. We opened with a splendid ‘Wilkommen’ from Cabaret and ended with an invigorating ‘Master of the House’ from Les Miserables. Peter Clarke would have loved the rendition of two of his favourites and everything in between. In fact I reckon he did. He was sitting there in the audience with us, as was his lovely wife Myrna. I said to her, after the show, that she must feel very proud. She was. And so was Peter’s spirit. A magnificent celebration of a life full lived. It happens all over the country with anonymous people in anonymous towns not celebrated by the media. I am glad to say I was there on the night it happened for Peter Clarke. Wonderful man, wonderful evening. Enormous thanks to Alan Clarke and Malcolm Farrar and all the others who made it happen. Three hundred, four hundred. Who cares. We all wept. Roy Hall.

For your interest:-

Jacqui Dankworth
With LYJO (Luton Youth Jazz orchestra)
Grove Theatre, Dunstable.
Sat October 6th 2012.
7.30 pm.
Tickets £20
01582 602080


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

A Night at the Theatre - in memory of Peter Clarke

When you are getting on a bit you always seem to be saying goodbye to somebody. Some are just distant and ageing aunts you hardly knew and some were so close, family or friends, you think you can still touch them. The majority are folks you got to know on life's fascinating journey. School, work, play, the local pub or, in my case, betting shop. The best of them enrich your life and make the constant struggle worthwhile. Peter Clarke was one of those. Our paths frequently crossed in local theatre for nearly forty years and in all that time I cannot think of anyone who had a bad word to say about him. Helpful, friendly, and generous in spirit. And at his best a pretty talented actor and director. I can still remember his Norman Conquests for The Wheatsheaf Players and that was a very long time ago. When he died there were so many at his funeral that they couldn't close the doors at the crematorium. And all were there to say goodbye to a very special person. It is said that no man who has friends is an island. Peter Clarke was one of those who made sure that there were very few islands in the theatrical world of Luton and the surrounding areas. He gets another goodbye on Sunday. If ever a man deserved it, he does. Roy Hall
A Night at the Theatre (in memory of Peter Clarke)
The Grove Theatre - Dunstable
Sunday 23rd September 2012
Tickets £12.50
Proceeds to Alzheimers Society, Parkinson's UK, and local community projects.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

West Side Story - Empire Arts

Empire Arts were always going to be up against it with West Side Story. I love Les Miserables as a musical and I loved their 2011 production of it. Four stars, rave review, and a place on my personal podium at the end of the year. Even gave Lucy O’Hare and Ashley Mead my non existent ‘best directors’ medal. Follow that I said. Not possible I said. Ain’t a fan of Bernstein’s music. Sondheim’s lyrics, clever as they are, don’t match his later work. And they won’t have Natalie Wood. This sixties teenager shamefully saw the film because of her and mindlessly drooled through all the prancing of the Sharks and Jets. I didn’t get Romeo and Juliet or teenage gangs in those days but, by God, I got Natalie Wood. Her Maria is seared on my memory and every West Side Story I have seen since, and I have seen a few, carries that heavy baggage.

But this is Empire Arts and Miss Lucy O’Hare and Mr Ashley Mead. Set them a sniffy critic’s challenge and they not only have you eating your pre-conceived words, they have you spitting them out and serving them up as humble theatrical soup. In short their West Side Story at Harpenden Hall was a magical piece of energetic theatre that left you gasping. The downtown New York staging was spot on. It moved locations, from park to shop to kid’s club, in the blink of an eye. It splattered it all with awesome lighting (Fred Rayment) and magnificent Bernstein music (Graham Thomson). It had gangland Jets and Sharks dancing with professional aplomb. And amid all that youthful energy it gave us a smattering of first class performances that honed the narrative and touched the heart. A piece of theatrical class served up in two weeks of intensive summer school rehearsals. It shouldn’t be possible. That it is proves that Les Miserables and many other Empire Arts productions were no flukes. This company does what many don’t achieve in three months. I should hate them for their expertise. I have said before that I couldn’t do it. I lack the gift and the energy. But I can give them four stars. Effortlessly, from a miser who doesn’t dish those out to many. Especially to productions that don’t have Natalie Wood.

With such sure fired superb packaging any individual turn is a bit of a bonus. But class still shines even in the best collective productions. I give a large dollop of my brownie points to Bianca Baikie’s superb Maria, great emotional depth, Cameron Hay’s Riff, a strong and engaging portrayal, and Pari Shahmir’s wonderful Anita. These three stood out in a cast which included notable performances from Tony (Ollie Slade), Action (Stuart Grey), A-Rab (Jamie Pritchard), Anybodys (Ellie Reay), Bernardo (Jahale Juredini), the blonde wigged Consuelo (Nadine Turk) and a stunning and consummate Rosalia (Katherine Knight). Mr Slade, a sensitive and nicely judged Tony, suffered a bit in his singing and Mr Juredini needed to project his gang leader Bernardo a little more but all added to a sumptuous theatrical experience. Alex Wheeler made for a nice Chino, number two and thwarted beau in the Sharks, but lacked the necessary height for verisimilitude. And in this youth production depicting rebellious youth, the generational battle was generally spot on. In a large cast of energetic youngsters a clever sprinkling of authoritative adults underlined the essential truth of teenage gangland angst. (That’s the nearest you are going to get to a plot summation). A couple of Dunstable Rep stalwarts did a nice policing job and, even though unnamed, I reckon this is the first time they have been referred to as theatrical sprinklings. Should up their status at the Rep.

I said earlier that I am not a big fan of Bernstein’s aggressive American music. Doesn’t tick the boxes of someone who admits he prefers his music without the noise. I like it to touch the heart not invade the ears. But I am not stupid (discuss) and Mr Thomson and his orchestra beautifully conjured up the authentic Bernstein sound. I loved the energetic prologue, revelled in Tony and Maria’s evocative balcony scene, lapped up America and I Feel Pretty (fantastic singing from all four ladies including Sophia Turner) and thoroughly enjoyed an inventive Gee, Officer Krupke. The genius on the baton (I am beginning to think he is the best around)  and his performers on stage milked everything in those outstanding numbers. All in all a bloody good afternoon (I gave up York horseracing for this) with hardly a false note. Great orchestra, great lighting, great staging, great sound (Graham Elliott, in case he feels missed out), and great direction from O’Hare and Mead. I don't do worthy community tick boxes. Too long in the tooth. You have to earn your theatrical praise from me. Empire Arts does. They clearly rule in the summer. Wonderful. Four stars. Again. Even without Natalie Wood.
Roy Hall


Thursday, 2 August 2012

And the Winner Is................

I started this blog just over a year ago. Previous attempts (two) were singularly unsuccessful. Hits were low (none and three) and my pitiful attempts to be the next mumsnet or guido fawkes were mercifully strangled shortly after birth. Was no one interested in the closure of my local post office or the dangerously incipient spread of unsalted biscuits and crisps? Clearly not. Or not from me on cumbersome and complicated sites. I nearly gave up. But the hankering to blog was clearly there and I made a third attempt. Anton Chekhov said that theatre was his mistress (medicine was his wife) and, in a way, I suppose it is mine. Whatever my other interests, it has dogged me all my life. So why not give it a try I said. A few folks who should know better said they missed my paper reviews and, who knows, I might get a few hits to make it worthwhile. A year on and the numbers make me blink. Nearly five thousand and climbing. You actor folks may not always like or agree with what I write but at least you have a look. Having your own opinion confirmed, whether on a scintillating new local star or an oik who lost his script, is clearly much more fun than musing on unsalted biscuits.
In my first year I have stuck my oar into over twenty presentations. Not an earth shattering number but you have to pay the gas and whisky bills, the latter anyway, before forking out on theatre tickets. That’s my excuse for being a lazy sod. If I see it, I feel inclined to blog it and these days inclinations, of any ilk, come along fairly infrequently. Hasn’t stopped me seeing everything the boys and girls of Dunstable Rep and Wheathampstead Players pushed out. Their classy and cosy venues account for about half of my output. Wheathampstead have yet to hit the theatrical heights overall but in Irene Morris (Broken Glass, Losing Louis), Sara Payne (Time of my Life), and Jan Westgarth (Time of my Life), they show they have some bloody good actresses. And in Sarah Brindley (Broken Glass, Losing Louis) they have an exceptional one. I like my local lot down the B653 and I have a feeling it won’t be long before they get an overdue rave. The quality is there; just needs something extra to make it gell like it did in the past with The Winslow Boy and The Cemetery Club. Dunstable Rep sometimes have the same problem. They regularly turn out some individual crackers, most notably Joe Butcher (Plaza Suite), Angela Goss (Plaza Suite and Blithe Spirit), and Phil Baker (A Christmas Carol), in productions which failed to totally impress. But they cram a lot in at the Rep and in the ‘Film Season’ ones that did tick most of my boxes Dave Corbett (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Justin Doherty (The Talented Mr Ripley) scored heavily for the boys and Liz Caswell (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Jenna Ryder-Oliver (The Talented Mr Ripley) for the girls. Only my opinion of course. So do not drop bricks on my blog, unless it is one of the John Gielgud variety.
In my theatre reviewing days for The Luton News I used to give out individual gongs for my personal bests. Not fair to do that here as, unlike then, I haven’t seen everything in the local area. I intend to have some fun with my Rep Theatre Handicap Race (see below) but that is a private bit of nonsense. The rest is merely comments on my first theatre blog year. Individually I also appreciated performances from Elliott Lawrence (Still Life – ACT), Steve Peters (The Drowsy Chaperone-St Andrews), Lewis Cox (Absent Friends – Harpenden High Street Players), Jonathan Field (Time of my Life-Wheathampstead), Ciara McDermott (Aladdin –Stage One), Suzy Major (Under The Stars – Company of Ten), Dianne Pickard (Under The Stars – Company of Ten), Natalie Gordon (Still Life –ACT), Katie Brennan (A Little Night Music – Luton Light), Caroline Fitch (A Little Night Music – Luton Light), Rona Cracknell (A Little Night Music – Luton Light), Joanna Yirrel (The Drowsy Chaperone-St Andrews) and Sarah Albert (The Drowsy Chaperone-St Andrews). Collectively Les Miserables (Empire Arts) was awesome and if I had a Director’s Award I would give it to Lucy O’Hare and Ashley Mead for knitting sixty plus teenagers into a magnificent evening of total musical theatre. As it is my blog I’ll give it to them anyway. None who saw it last Autumn would complain. Except possibly Matt Flitton, Kelley Sarson, John O’Leary, and the prolific Joe Butcher who combined beautifully in a madcap 39 Steps. But there were only four of them.
And that nicely leads us on to Dunstable Rep’s 2011/12 Film Season. They had six, from Plaza Suite to The 39 Steps, and two guest productions which fitted the criteria. Alan Clarke, greedy bugger, had one of each and both Still Life and The Talented Mr Ripley were absorbing evenings of theatre. The other guest production, Matthew Orr’s A little Night Music for Luton Light, was also pure class and when you throw in Chris Lavin’s compelling Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Bekka Prideaux’s fun packed The 39 Steps you know it ain’t going to be easy to find a winner. In the end Still Life just edged out Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and those two, along with that magnificent Les Miserables, were my personal tops of a first year of royhalltheatre.blogspot.com. Twenty plus shows and all an absolute pleasure. I love horseracing, win or lose, turkeys or triumphs, and theatre is much the same. So, in true Olympic spirit.
The Winner Is:-
Gold Medal.   STILL LIFE  
(ACT Theatre Company – Dunstable Rep – July 2011)
Just shaded in the envelope were runners up:-
Silver Medal.   CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF
(Dunstable Rep – January 2012)
With an honourable mention for:-
     Bronze Medal. LES MISERABLES
    (Empire Arts – Queensbury Theatre – August 2011)

Good field, lousy critic.
Roy Hall

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The 39 Steps - Dunstable Rep (Full Review)

One of the key characters in The 39 Steps, the Reps last celluloid to stage presentation, is the Memory Man. Mr Memory I think they called him, but my memory ain’t what it used to be. His was. Knew everything. Distance in miles between Winnipeg and Ontario or somewhere or other and the combined weight of Henry V111’s children. Oh all right he wasn’t asked these things, but he was asked lots of others. Am I right Sir? he engagingly asked. Richard Hannay, pennies falling into place, revisited his theatre show and asked him about the Thirty Nine Steps. Our Mr Memory regurgitated Hitchcock’s Macguffin, google it, and got shot for his troubles. He died beautifully, a complex formula revealed, and a plaintive ‘Am I right Sir?’ echoed around the theatre. There was not a dry eye in the house. Probably because they had been laughing so much. Buchan’s book is pleasurable nonsense, Hitchcock’s film with the unsurpassable Robert Donat as the hapless hero Hannay is equal to it, and Patrick Barlow’s zany interpretation releases the underlying comedy in imaginative style. I reckon Hitchcock, mischievously handcuffing a 1930’s heroine to the beleaguered fugitive, would have approved. If you are chasing a Macguffin, make it fun.
I reckon the Rep could have achieved that if they had just wheeled out their classy actors and amplified the script. These four were good enough to bring it to bizarre life from a rehearsed reading. But add in some basic staging and a few costumes and hats and chairs and you have a sure fire winner to end the season. I went on the first night due to holiday commitments and the pleasures of the Cotswolds, Chipping Campden, may have blurred my Mr Memory expertise. But I remember that I laughed a lot, I remember that I was impressed by the performances, I remember that the staging was occasionally clumsy and I would have preferred the elimination of assisting stage hands, and I remember, critical sod that I am, that the sparkling narrative had  a few dips. But most of all I remembered four excellent portrayals. John O’Leary’s nicely judged Hannay, an innocent involved in uncontrollable events, Kelley Sarson’s supremely accomplished feminine interests, and Joe Butcher’s and Matt Flitton’s bewildering inventive characterisations. Director Bekka Prideaux was blessed with this lot. You forgave the dips because you just knew that more fun was to follow. Am I right Sir?
It would have been interesting to go back on the last night. Would the sharpening of line delivery enhance the production or would the director and actors obvious love for their theatrical vehicle fatally flaw it? I doubt the latter. First night gremlins were dismissed with astonishing ease and humour, suggesting that this was a team firmly in control. That was clear throughout an evening which thoroughly entertained. They hit the heights with an hilarious train ride, switching hats in profusion, and an equally bewildering hotel booking in the remote highlands. Hannay and his handcuffed girl played the bedroom scene with sexual aplomb and Mr Butcher and Mr Flitton milked every moment of the strange proprietors. I almost wet myself, it’s my age, at a weird and muffled phone call by Mr Butcher but I cannot for the life of me remember why. This Thirty Nine Steps was a bit like that. Mr O’Leary and Miss Sarson gave the piece a realistic central focus and the other actor boys played all the peripheral characters, including two hilarious squawking hawks to suggest Scottish desolation, and they worked or failed on the machine gun principle. You can’t always hit the target but when they did it was all excellent first night fun.

Fred Rayment splashed in lots of effects, mood music underlined the action in the expected style, and the whole lot was a feet warming giggle. It ain’t Ibsen, although we had a hint with the removal of our heroine’s stockings by the handcuffed Hannay, but it was a jolly evening. You expect that in the July slot. End the season on a laugh is the Rep’s motto. And Bekka Prideaux and her magnificent cast did that for me in spades. When you like something you forgive its faults. And I liked this. Four bloody good actors chasing the Macguffin in madcap style. Death and glory and a tongue firmly fixed in Mr Hannay’s cheek. Hitchcock with comic knobs. Am I right Sir?
Roy Hall

Friday, 13 July 2012

The 39 Steps - Preview (Dunstable Rep)

Alfred Hitchcock’s version of The Thirty Nine Steps, John Buchan’s definitive spy thriller, is considered the best of its interpretations and Patrick Barlow pulled a masterstroke in basing his zany comic slant of the iconic tale on such solid credentials. Few filmic images have remained in the memory quite like the Hannay fugitive handcuffed to his girl. This last in the Rep’s stimulating film season was inventively packaged and rich in sharp and funny scenes. Bekka Prideaux was blessed with four excellent actors and only narrative drag and first night dwelling on lines occasionally slowed the pace. Spliced with lashings of effects from Fred Rayment and a bewildering variety of characters from first division stalwarts Joe Butcher and Matt Flitton The 39 Steps has all the hallmarks of a rip roaring success. If you haven’t booked your ticket I suggest you do it now.

The 39 Steps
Dunstable Rep Theatre Club
John O'Leary/Kelley Sarson/ Joe Butcher/Matt Flitton
Directed by Bekka Prideaux
Runs to Saturday 21st July 2012 (7.45pm - High Street South, Dunstable)

Saturday, 30 June 2012

The Thirty Nine Steps - Last entry in the Rep 2011/12 Film Season Theatre Stakes.(Opens 13th July)

I love theatre but I love horseracing more. So a bit of promised nonsense to rise to the challenge of the Rep's film season. When you have a blog you can post any old rubbish. Roy Hall.

THE DUNSTABLE REP HANDICAP THEATRE STAKES (GRADE ONE)    For theatre productions taking place at the Little Theatre, Dunstable during the 2011/2012 season. Minimum rating 150.  (Ratings based on expectations, play-writer-director-cast, prior to production.)

1.      STILL LIFE  (180) Noel Coward (ACT Theatre Company)

Classy pedigree.  Sire Alan Clarke; Dam Megan Clarke. Late supplementary entry due to fine form shown on the gallops. Faultless jumper which stays well. Has been clocking very good times on the tracks.

2.      PLAZA SUITE (175) Neil Simon (Dunstable Rep – Sept)   

Prone to make the odd mistake but finishes its races well. American pedigree and a bit fragile. Acts on any going except heavy and runs in snatches.

3.      A CHRISTMAS CAROL (180) Charles Dickens (Dunstable Rep – Nov)            

Trainer Alistair Brown has a great record in these races and his flamboyant style is reflected in his horses. This one jumps impeccably but with a tendency to move off a straight course. Flashy performer at best but prone to throw in the odd wobbly. Very good in a finish.

4.  CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (170) Tennessee Williams (Dunstable Rep – Jan)                  
     Another American import which has improved under trainer Chris Lavin’s care. Inexperienced main pilot in this class but gallop reports suggest this won’t be a problem. Prone to sweating.

5.  A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (175) Stephen Sondheim (Luton Light)
     A few setbacks in training but trainer Mathew Orr is determined to get this one ready for its late supplementary entry. Indifferent starter but improves the further he goes. Can cope with all goings and has won on heavy snow in the past.

6.  BLITHE SPIRIT (185) Noel Coward (Dunstable Rep – Mar)           
      Another classy entry with enormous potential to cut it in this grade. Has shown a lot of spirit in training and Joe Butcher reckons it will make all the others go. Subject of heavy gambles as stable staff frantically peddle their bikes to the local Ladbrokes.

7. THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY (175) Patricia Highsmith (Dunstable Rep – May)
      Murderously talented but prone to tail flash when under pressure. Second entry for trainer Alan Clarke and has a lot of class. Not the safest jumper and blinkers applied to sharpen her up. Gets the usual filly allowance and it might make the difference.

8. THE THIRTY NINE STEPS (170) John Buchan (Dunstable Rep – July)
     Yet to have a run but Bekka Prideaux is very keen on this one. Strong and experienced jockey and subject of some shrewd bets in a very open market.

     Betting forecast. 7-2 Blithe Spirit. 4-1 A Christmas Carol. 4-1 Still Life. 5-1 The Talented Mr Ripley. 7-1 A little Night Music. 8-1 Plaza Suite. 10-1 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 12-1 The Thirty Nine Steps.

    Spotlight view: A tricky race made even more complicated by the supplementary entries of Still Life and A Little Night Music. The original film season six all have their merits even if The Thirty Nine Steps has yet to show its promise on the track. Off time is 7.45pm on Friday 13th July and whichever wins it should be an absorbing race. Full race analysis will be recorded here when the final saddles are off and deserved rub downs have taken place. And, boy, do I like rub downs. Roy Hall

The Thirty Nine Steps – Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the book by John Buchan.

The Little Theatre, High Street South, Dunstable. 7.45pm

13th – 21st July 2012.

Tickets £12 (Members guests £10)

Box Office 07940 105864    dunstablerepboxoffice@gmail.com

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

St Andrews Players -The Drowsy Chaperone (Full Review)

St Andrews 60th Anniversary production, The Drowsy Chaperone, is my sort of musical. Roughly translated that means it ain’t one. None of your Rodgers and Hammerstein thigh slapping cowboys here. It is more a play with an imagined musical, a pretty naff one, seen through the eyes of one of life’s natural losers. He sits in his chair, boils his kettles, shouts at phones he refuses to answer, and plays his records. He drinks small brandies from half bottles, such folk do, and constantly pops pills. Didn’t see him doing the latter, but such dysfunctional nerds have them in their cardigan somewhere. Trust me, I am an expert on neurotics. And the record he plays for us is a recording of his mother’s favourite. The fictional 1928 Broadway musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. Never heard of it? Well neither have I or anyone else. But the Man in Chair (a beautifully crafted portrayal from Steve Peters) and his performers brought it all to highly comic and inventive life. In other words its creators, headed by Canadian actor Bob Martin, had conceived an absolute gem of a theatrical experience. It was full of more surprises than you usually get in half a dozen shows. You gasped and giggled in equal proportions. If you missed out, it was your loss.
That’s not to say I was completely bowled over by the production. A greater contrast between the isolated refuge of our storyteller and his whiz-bang performers’ platform would have been more pleasing. This set had marginally too much of a stage musical look to it and reality and imagination were only partially defined. But I am picky, you all know that. Explains why I also sniffed at obvious stage markings, not a good idea in a raked theatre, and the occasional dodgy mike. But, unsurprisingly, it all mattered hardly a jot. Our Man in Chair wheeled out those performers and fleshed them out. You learnt about the weird musical characters, the Broadway acting set and their bizarre friends and enemies, and you learnt about the fictional actors playing them. This anorak in the chair knew everything about them. You know the saying ‘he should get out more’, well they coined it for him.
He played the record and the actors twirled and sang in a glitzy  wedding plot I have no intention of outlining. You wouldn’t believe it anyway. The musical wasn’t important, only the magnificent way it was performed. If the record stuck and repeated, the actors stuck and repeated. If he stopped the record he stopped the actors, there were some superb freezes, and in a hilarious opening to act two we got the wrong musical. Something about the Great Wall of China. I kid you not. I have never heard an audience laugh so much. And that included this cynic. They topped it all with a wedding in the sky that was rich in theatrical imagination. I mean, two ironing boards and an electric fan? I told you that you should have seen it. In a large cast Joanna Yirrell stood out for a portrayal redolent of Hollywood Queen Ann Sheridan, lovely acting and singing and super hair, and Sarah Albert for the dizziest blonde I have ever seen on the local stage. Her Kitty was an absolute joy. Not often I get a chance to say things like that in a review.
Shan’t single out the others, this was very much a team piece, other than to say that Richard Cowling was a brave and beautifully over the top Aldolpho, and Andy Whalley a spiky, cigar chewing, Feldzieg. Beth Thomas conducted a lively unseen band, Jo Harris made them all dance their socks off, and Frances Hall directed. Hey ain’t I married to her? Makes not a jot of difference other than, unlike other directors, she gets the chance to kick this self opinionated old bastard out of bed.
But what about the Drowsy Chaperone? Isn’t she what the show is all about? Actually she isn’t and although Sharon Robinson played her alcoholic lines with pithy aplomb she is a bit of a marginal comic character. If I had the title role in this I would have thrown at least three strops. It’s really ‘The Man in Chair Musical’ but that’s even less catchy than the one chosen. The Chaperone, drowsy and red, was just one of the crazy team he conjured up. And from that first dangerous moment, a long and clever speech delivered in the dark, you just knew you were going to enjoy it. Not all the performances were top notch, I’m not blind even if I don’t want to be kicked out of bed, but they blended with style in a show which deserves every award those astute Americans gave it.
St Andrews Players did it justice and that, on your 60th Anniversary, can’t be bad.
Roy Hall

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Drowsy Chaperone (St Andrews Players)

The Drowsy Chaperone is my sort of musical. Probably because it isn’t one. It’s more a play about a nerdish and lonely man bringing a pretty naff one to life. It’s awfulness makes it almost wonderful. At least to him. Stand outs amongst the cast conjured for our entertainment were Joanna Yirrell as a Hollywood queen, Sarah Albert as the obligatory vacuous blonde and Steve Peters as the beautifully crafted Man in Chair. Not everything worked but overall I loved it. If you didn’t go because you had never heard of it then you missed a treat. Roy Hall

Full review to follow

Monday, 28 May 2012

A P McCoy, Sweet Prince, and Me

I never was one for name dropping. Oh all right, I once spent a week swimming in the nude with a very famous actor. Ain’t saying who, but perfectly true, as dropping names along with trunks might land me in the law courts. But I am gonna drop one name. Tony McCoy. A P McCoy as he is known in the horseracing game. Superstar, legend, fifteen times NH Champion, and runaway winner of the BBC Sports Personality of the year. Can’t remember when but it must have been after he won the Grand National at his fifteenth attempt (Don’t Push It) as jockeys rarely get the recognition they deserve. Met him last Friday, chatted, had a photo with him, and left thinking what a nice chap he is. Hope he thought the same of me. I mean, let’s face it, I may not be a legend but I know at least three folks who reckon I am only nine pence short of a shilling.
I met the nice and helpful Mr McCoy because he rode a friend’s horse in a race at Towcester last Friday. It wasn’t Cheltenham or Aintree and the race (a NH bumper) won’t register on the great scheme of horseracing things. But A P McCoy, racing legend in case you have forgotten, gave our party the lowdown both before and after the race. So pleasant and informative you would have thought he was riding the favourite in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The horse, Sweet Prince, finished third and we were all delighted. Will never be an Alberta’s Run (see blog profile) but will give its delightful owner a lot of fun when it enters the world of handicapping hurdling. Being trained by Jonjo O’Neill (another racing legend) there was always the possibility that AP (don’t take me long to get familiar) would one day ride him. But in his second race? In a bumper? At Towcester? That’s a bit like Colin Firth turning up for a cameo at Harpenden Hall or Wayne Rooney having a fling with Luton Town FC. As I told one of our non horseracing party, we were in the presence of an icon. She’s a bit deaf and I think she thought I said iron which may explain why she kept admiring my shirt. Light blue and white, colours of the Greek flag and Sweet Prince. I know how to impress racehorse owners. Greece might go belly up but I reckon our five year old, a real trier based on his first two runs, may make his mark. The McCoy factor meant he went off favourite at Towcester (11/4) but he never threatened to win. We didn’t mind. A hot evening, nobody took their clothes off, and we cheered like mad when he plugged on for third. Bit frisky in the winners enclosure for the first three. Reckon he tried to kick me as they showered him with well deserved water. Many would say that our Sweet Prince has taste.
Epsom this week – Derby and Oaks – and then Royal Ascot. Vow and The Fugue should go well for the fillies and fancy a punt on O’Brien’s Astrology in the Derby. My sort of price (20/1) even though Camelot and/or Bonfire both look the real deal. Won’t see Sweet Prince there. Putting his feet up after Huntingdon and Towcester. Much more important. Mr McCoy, legend, superstar, would agree. Roy Hall

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Losing Louis (Wheathampstead DS)

Simon Mendes da Costa’s Losing Louis is a funny old play. It’s funny in the sense that it has some searing and vulgar lines, generally well delivered, but also in the sense that it crams in more emotional and historical baggage than is good for it. Sons and wives attending dad’s funeral enter the marital bedroom set with much more than an overnight bag and toothbrush. And that dad, the concupiscent Louis, interleaves the here and now with distant depictions of his inconsiderate bonking and its consequences. It was almost two plays. In fact it was. In the yesterday of the 1950’s our Louis and his wife and mistress serve up a bleak picture of death and possession. Louis spawns children from both but only the mistress’s survives. Fast forward and the question is raised, at least in the audience’s mind, as to whether the symbolic baby in the cot is the younger son. I can’t be bothered to answer the question because it would be both obvious and tedious. And that is the weakness of a play which, literally, dramatises that emotional baggage. The present was much more fun. The past bogged it down. Bit like life really.
But on the basis that you can’t blame the jockey for the horse, and I should know, it is only fair to judge Wheathampstead’s latest production on how they served it all up. And here I divide in to two camps. In acting terms it was pretty good. The company are blessed in having a number of fine actresses and Sarah Brindley and Irene Morris are two of the best of them. Ms Brindley was the tartish Sheila with a bizarre interest in astronomy and Einstein, and Ms Morris the more upmarket Elizabeth with a penchant for the bizarre placing of wedding rings. In dress and manner they combined and clashed beautifully. With husbands Tony (Robin Langer) and Reggie (Steve Leadbetter) constantly warring, usually over flashy or frumpy cars, we were firmly in Ayckbourn country. Not that dear old Alan ever did circumcision, as far as I know. The quartet gelled to great effect in the opening to act two, the rainy recriminations of a disastrous funeral, and this vicious joke filled scene was the theatrical cream of the evening. Mr Langer’s dig at his lawyer brother was so splendidly misdirected it was almost worth the entrance money on its own. We got two laughs for the price of one. Given the play’s strong Jewish theme, it seems appropriate.
But as I said earlier, you are allowed to repeat yourself on a blog, we also got two plays and the eternal triangle from the past constantly slowed the action. The younger acting set did a fair job, Ryan Goodland was a pleasing Louis and Julie O’Shea a promising mistress, but it was all a bit bleak. And much as I admire Sara Payne (an excellent Maureen in Time of my Life) her disturbed and complex wife marginally suffered from a comic voice in a serious portrayal. None of this should have mattered because, overall, it was a pretty strong septet of actors. But director Joe Maher didn’t move them with imagination, even the best looked statically awkward at times, and repetitive scene changers tested the most patient watcher. Mr da Costa’s play is not easy to serve up as a coherent whole and this production did not seriously try. I blame the 1950’s radio. It made more exits and entrances than any actor in a bedroom farce. Searing jokes, snappily delivered, can’t compete with that. Roy Hall

Saturday, 19 May 2012

The Talented Mr Ripley - Dunstable Rep (Full Review)

It may come as a bit of a surprise to those who think I am a nervy and neurotic limp lettuce, but I know my murderers. George Joseph Smith (Brides in the Bath) and choirboy John George Haigh (Acid Bath) are old friends. As are H.H.Holmes, Peter Kurten, and Graham Young. Google them, all nice chaps. Read lots about all of them and with one, Mr Young the 1970’s Bovingdon poisoner, was in the court when he was in the witness box facing the attorney general. They killed for a variety of reasons, usually money or sex or a combination of the two, but all were driven by arrogance and a belief in their own personal power. Comes over in old books with Haigh and some others and, especially, in that St Albans court with Graham Young. For the only time in my life I was within twenty feet of a killer and it chilled the heart. Normal rules do not apply to such men. The talented Tom Ripley is very much of that ilk. He uses and discards people much as we ordinary folk would utilise our household objects. He lacks any empathy, whether for a hapless tax fraud victim or the concerned relatives of a friend he has killed. Cold eyed and callous, he sails through life haunted only by his dreams not by his deeds.
Give me an actor who can’t cut this particular mustard and you have a production that, whatever its strengths and weaknesses, ultimately fails. Phyllis Nagy’s The Talented Mr Ripley, an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, stands or falls by its lead. You can have a good set. This one, multileveled and open with rolling backdrop clouds, fulfilled most requirements. You can have good and evocative sound. This had lapping waves and haunting music. And you can wrap the supporting players, two excellent, with moody lighting effects which stun. But you need your Mr Ripley. You need your convincing, charismatic, killer. Without him all else goes for naught. With him you have a play which draws and grips. This one had Justin Doherty and, for me, he never put a foot wrong. Cold eyed, quietly spoken, and with a stillness that unnerved he created a psychopathic realism rarely seen on the local stage. For over two and a half hours you genuinely felt you were in the presence of a killer. And I know, I have been.
None of this makes me blind to any faults in Alan Clarke’s production. I am a bit too long in the tooth to be totally seduced by one performance, however good it may be. Mr Clarke was up against it. His Still Life last year is the nearest thing to theatrical perfection this blog has seen. They didn’t bat as long in Ripley, stage lit interiors were less realistic than exteriors, and the second murder was bereft of dramatic tension and clumsy in its aftermath. We will all shuffle off this mortal coil but here a bloodstained actor (Marc Rolfe) gave it a quick and literal interpretation. And, final nitpick, a play rich in narrative mood and atmosphere veered perilously close to under pacing at times. It’s a clever play with lots of overlapping dialogue and scenes and, generally, Mr Clarke staged it well. But actors are buggers for picking up the rhythms and levels of others. And, theory here, that other was the mesmerising and bespectacled Ripley.
But enough of that. Actors don’t want to read this rubbish. They only want to know what you thought of them. Quite right too. Well Jenna Ryder-Oliver was excellent, I think I have said that somewhere, both as the dying mother of the first victim and the dotty aunt of his killer. She acts with verve and style and every inch of her variety of personalities, the mother had at least five, was laced with astute human observations. Super. As Herbert Greenleaf, father of the first victim, Malcolm Farrar has a much more restrained characterisation. It totally convinced throughout, particularly so in his moving final speech telling of his wife’s ultimate demise. This was done with an admirable economy of acting skills proving the old theatrical adage that less is often more. He couldn’t resist slightly showing off in his more flamboyant second portrayal, an Italian Colombo like detective, but even here he created a pleasing tension. You got the distinct feeling that his Lt Roverini, fingering a damning cigarette case, knew he was facing a killer but lacked the desire or energy to pursue it. La Dolce Vita has a lot to answer for. The other performances couldn’t match the three singled out but Miranda Larson looked every inch the scrumptious girlfriend Marge and, for good measure, also threw in a sultry prostitute. Luke Howard was engaging as the nervy cartoonist handing over cheques and James Trapp a nice clean cut victim. I reckon I would need to see this again to get a real handle on Mr Trapp’s characterisation of the doomed Richard Greenleaf as on this showing he seemed a little bland. Perhaps most murder victims are.
But, on balance, I found the production hugely entertaining. I like believable murderers and in Justin Doherty’s compelling portrayal we got it in spades. We also got oodles of filmic atmosphere thanks to a clever set, generally well used, and classy lighting (David Houghton) and even classier sound (Graham Elliott). All merged beautifully at the end when the still and menacing Tom Ripley listened to Aunt Dottie’s reprise of his personal nightmare. At that moment you saw the divide between those who kill and the rest of us ordinary folk. This production had both dramatic highs and lows but Mr Clarke must have been well pleased with that final picture. When the mood takes, Tom Ripley will kill again. Roy Hall