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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, 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