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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 ...

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

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Talented Mr Ripley (Dunstable Rep)

Justin Doherty turns in a mesmerising tour de force in the Rep’s atmospheric production of The Talented Mr Ripley. As the clouds roll and the music haunts, his cold eyed and callous killer totally convinces. Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel is short on pace but long on mood and Mr Doherty gets splendid support from Jenna Ryder-Oliver and Malcolm Farrar as his victim’s gullible parents. Some of the supporting cast need to up their game for the second week but, overall, Alan Clarke’s faithful presentation held a pretty tight grip. Roy Hall

Full review to follow

Runs to Saturday 19th May (7.45pm) – Little Theatre, High Street, Dunstable.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Under the Stars - Company of Ten (St. Albans)

You can’t help but feel sorry for the main characters in Richard Crane’s  Under the Stars. I mean, even the title on the programme doesn’t capitalise it. Flagging their unimportance I suppose. Understudies. The acting folks who sit in the dressing room, waiting and rehearsing, while the big stars strut their stuff on the stage. Warbling here are two ageing theatrical divas manfully spouting Helen of Troy through the tannoy. Extremely well done I have to say by Angela Stone and Norma Jenkins. Faces elegantly matched voices at their curtain call. But they are just the famous backdrop to dressing room traumas of the unwanted and unloved. Echoes of Sybil Thorndike and Edith Evans they may be but the real stars of Company of Ten’s studio production are that dressing room intense and precious Stella and the cynical and world weary Regina. Understudies both, but as far removed from each other as their incessant backdrop Dames.
The weakness of Richard Crane’s play is that it does not involve you in any journeys of discovery. We know little more about the main characters at the end than we did at the beginning. Desperate actress Stella internalises with manic intensity and Regina knits. The situation, understudying the stars, is all. Brief codas of a life beyond the stage rarely intruded for too long. I think the Stella character had an illegitimate child but it was never so important as an unfinished costume or a reconsidered inflection. A shallow picture of a shallow character given comic potential by her world weary and prosaic foil. If Stella screams for stardom and recognition, Regina merely wishes for a quiet life of teabags and tuna rolls and much of the play is their constant and disparate theatrical banter.
That I enjoyed the evening so much is purely down to the performances. Suzie Major was a magnificent Stella. Rich in vocal delivery and physical dexterity she was very much the greyhound in the traps bursting for her moment of fame on the track. You knew she wouldn’t get it, never more so than when Dianne Pickard’s equally magnificent Known Actress flaunted her bit, you just wondered when the truth would hit her. Probably at the moment when she, along with most of the audience, suppressed their desire to add in their own throttle to Miss Pickard’s throat. A director’s ‘name’ to replace a wobbly star is the knife that cuts all understudies hearts. Except those that serenely knit.
Katherine Barry and that knitting did not try to match Ms Major in the acting stakes. Her Regina, twenty five years an understudy to the same star, was very much the calming water to Stella’s theatrical fizz. Comic lines abounded, all delivered with deadpan sincerity, and if Ms Barry didn’t flesh out her Regina too much she was nevertheless very good. And, at the end, every inch the Greek heroine.
It was all a bit episodic and I would have liked some music to relieve the numerous scenes but on the small, realistic, studio set I could not help but admire the performances. Brian Stewart worked his cast well, I was going to say knitted but we have had enough of that, and gave us well crafted support from revolting impresario leather boy P.Q. (Philip Reardon) and harassed trainee director Charles (Andrew Baird). Mr Baird’s natural and easy style as the theatre work boy was a constant delight.
So a first blog from me for Company of Ten. Time they got tainted with my intrusive brush. Suspect it won’t be the last as from past experience I knew this was a classy company. With this slight but interesting play they proved it with consummate acting style. Not bad for understudies.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Talented, The Lost, and The Drowsy

April has been a funny old month for me. Horseracing has eclipsed theatre, too little in the straight drama stakes, and the bloody and incessant rain has thwarted even my feeble attempts at gardening. Hosepipe ban? Mine’s stuck under ten feet of water and likely to remain there for the summer. Drama groups should get topical and put on Somerset Maugham’s Rain or Ayckbourn’s Way Upstream. Or better still, Noye’s Fludde, the 15th Century Mystery play. Google it. I did. As it is, my local lots have been rehearsing in the rain and saving all for, hopefully, the sunny month of May.

First under orders is Company of Ten’s Under the Stars, a play about those poor souls who learn all the lines but never get to strut the stage. Understudies. I saw it many years ago in Luton and was underwhelmed. An ordinary play that needs strong acting to grip. This classy St Albans group might just pull it off. Tried to see it on Tuesday night but the studio was sold out. Good for straight theatre, not good for me. Will go later in the week. If it doesn’t rain.

Don’t have much choice with Dunstable Rep’s fifth offering off their 2011/12 film season. Made a rash promise to review them all. So if you see a boat floating up the A5 it is probably mine. Should be worth the effort. The Talented Mr Ripley comes from the pen of Patricia Highsmith of Strangers on a Train fame. On paper it has an excellent director, Alan Clarke, and a first rate cast headed by Justin Doherty. But as with the gee gees, form in the book is never guaranteed.  Fingers crossed this heady murderous mix translates to the stage.

Old favourites Wheathampstead also get in on the act with their production of Simon Mendes da Costa’s Losing Louis. Spawned at Hampstead Theatre Club this hilarious comedy (it says so on the poster) was a big success both here and abroad. Judging by the plot, angst ridden family and long buried secrets, this could be a reprise of their last production. That was Ayckbourn, this is a writer compared to him. So should be fun. I always enjoy going down the B653 to the Memorial Hall stagings. And if they block that route because of something I have said, I shall find another one. We critics are nothing if not resourceful.

Rounding off the month is Luton’s  St Andrews Players with their 60th anniversary production at the Library Theatre. The fringe musical comedy The Drowsy Chaperone was fettered with awards and was a Broadway smash but, sadly, flopped in London. Critics loved it but audiences stayed away. Too original was the cry. So in recreating this show about a theatre geek who brings to life his favourite 1920’s musical (fictional) the players are being brave. I hope it pays off. Especially as the woman who shares my bed is directing it. Now that should get tongues wagging.

So there you have it. St Albans, Dunstable, Wheathampstead, Luton. Will there be no end to my worldly travels? Of course not. Unless it rains.

Under the Stars – St Albans Company of Ten (27th April to 5th May – 8.00pm)   Tel 01727 857861

The Talented Mr Ripley – Dunstable Rep (11th May to 19th May – 7.45pm)         Tel 07940 105864

Losing Louis – Wheathampstead DS (17th May to 19th May – 8.00pm)                  Tel 01582 834669

The Drowsy Chaperone – St Andrews Players (30th May to 2nd June - 7.45pm)   Tel 07778 241457