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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 ...

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Review of the Year


.............an alternative view
Been doing this theatre blog since the summer of 2011. 15,700 hits to date, so some pernickety folks read it. Since giving out my much prized inaugural gongs (3/6d on eBay) in July 2012 I have seen about twenty five more theatrical offerings. Doesn’t sound an awful lot but, for this creaking gate, it is living life in the bacchanalian fast lane. Whilst many folks whizz around the world seeking adventure, I curl up and read my Racing Post. Welwyn and Hatfield is the nearest I get to dangerous outer reaches. Doesn’t do to be too brave. Except when giving your theatrical opinion. Now that is really foolhardy.
 
ACT’s Still Life snaffled my first dubious plaudit last year, don’t think they sent it back, so I thought it was about time I had a second go. More fruitful than peeling turkeys or stuffing sprouts, so I am told. Besides, practically everyone, with the possible exception of knitting pattern compilers, does a review of their particular year. So why not me? Except, quirky sod that I am, mine is a year and a bit. Brings me up to date. August 2012 – December 2013. Buy three for the price of two or, almost, buy one opinion and get one free. Bogof as some would justifiably say. I think I will but, before I do, read the following. You won’t learn anything but you might have a bit of fun disagreeing with me. Or failing that, go and stuff some brussels.

Didn’t see everything on offer, can’t stand visiting Luton’s Library Theatre these days, so my list is pretty selective. But I did take in 11 of the 12 offerings by Dunstable Rep and Wheathampstead Dramatic Society, only missed Little Voice, so few excuses there. A dozen or so others, from Welwyn to Hitchin, from Eaton Bray to Sidmouth, were also scooped into my arbitrary net. Any miffed locals, steaming at omission of their faultless offering, have a ready excuse. I didn’t see it. My New Year Resolution should be to widen my net to take in Hitchin (Bancroft Players), St Albans (Company of Ten) and Welwyn (Barn). But I don’t do New Year Resolutions. Resolved not to, long ago. I broke everyone I ever made, including lighting up three minutes after I vowed to quit smoking. I have no backbone. Never have. But I do have an amazingly bloody cheek. Here it is, in chronological disorder. My best of my elongated reviewing year:-

And Then There Were None (Dunstable Rep – October 2012)

Calendar Girls (Wheathampstead – February 2013)

Children’s Hour (Dunstable Rep – May 2013)

Into The Woods (St Andrews – May 2013)

Spring Awakening (Icarus Theatre Company – May 2013)

Hay Fever (Hitchin Queen Mother – June 2013)

Twelfth Night (ACT Theatre – July 2013)

Some others scored notable individual performances (see below) but the above productions, for me, had that extra collective grip which creates a completely satisfying evening of theatre. If I have to single out any, why not, I will give my joint 3/6d eBay gong to And Then There Were None (Director-Alistair Brown) and Hay Fever (Director-Nicki Pope) for productions which were virtually faultless. I am sure they will live it down.

As a large chunk of the actors on the above list impressed, I am going to get picky in the interest of brevity. No gongs here, aint fair, just a few from the above plus special mention for other thespians who stood out in the memory, and still do, from productions lower down my pleasurable scale. A lot of women figure which says a lot about my age. Or my tablets. Here goes, whether you want it or not.

Irene Morris (Helen – Wheathampstead)

Peter Carter Brown (Hamlet – Dunstable Rep)

Barbara Suggitt (Calendar Girls – Wheathampstead)

Mandy Lindsay (Steel Magnolias – Eaton Bray)

Angela Goss (Female of the Species – Dunstable Rep)

Anna Carter-Brown (Children’s Hour – Dunstable Rep)

Jenny Ryder-Oliver (Into the Woods – St Andrews)

Becky Leonard (Hay Fever – Hitchin)

Malcolm Farrar(Twelfth Night – ACT)

Sarah Brindley (Educating Rita – Wheathampstead)

Honourable mentions should also go to Stephanie Overington (Hamlet), Kim Allbone, Rona Cracknell, Victoria Moyle (Children’s Hour), Emma Orr (Into the Woods), Natalie Gordon, Laura Eason, Paul Wade, Charles Plester (Hay Fever), Adam Lloyd Jones, James Trapp, Miranda Larson (Twelfth Night).

So that is it for 2013 folks. Been a busy year. Apart from blogging I have trod the boards (Wilde’s An Ideal Husband) and waved the director’s baton (Ayckbourn’s Table Manners). I was of course brilliant in both roles. Not that you will read that here. Far too modest.

Happy New Year.

Roy Hall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Christmas is a Coming (St Andrews) - Update 2013

I am renowned for repeating myself but, to date, have never done it on this blog. At least not intentionally. Gonna do it now I am afraid, so all those with better things to do please move on. John O'Leary and Emma Mills took an old favourite, it still is, and gave it a stimulating theatrical twist. This year's offering retained the essential heart of the special evening I wrote about two years ago (see below) but did so with refreshing and entertaining style. So I was doubly pleased. Shan't review it. Not that sort of evening. But I loved it so much it is worth reminding folks of why St Andrews Christmas is a Coming helps to make this goodwill season what it is. Sent my lovely brother and his wife back to the Midlands with a glow you could see for miles. Roy Hall - 15th December 2013
 
Here is my piece from 2011. I still feel the same, soppy sod that I am.
 
The St Andrews Players Christmas warm up in Luton has been doing its stuff, on and off, for twenty seven years and I reckon I have seen most of them. It isn’t great theatre, it isn’t meant to be, but that is hardly surprising. The players generally put it all together in a few days after their autumn production. But it is great entertainment and, more importantly, it’s our first real taste of the forthcoming festivities. It gives off a wholesome glow you could warm your feet on. I value such glows and in the one year I was deprived of their carols, festive songs, and readings, I stuck in my interfering oar. I face the household preparations of stuffing turkeys and hanging baubles much better if I have had my annual fix of ‘Follow the Star’ and ‘Sleigh Ride’. And it ain’t just me. Over the years I have dragged a variety of people along to it, old friends, new friends, neighbours and relatives. And they all come away with that warm glow of which I am so fond.

It has gone through a few changes. In the early days we used to sit around tables and sup wine and dive into nibbles in a church hall. Nowadays it all takes place in the church and we sit in pews. I worried at first that it might lose its easy charm and become too similar to the many church events that take place in December. I love a carol service as much as the next man but I like the St Andrews Players difference. There is something a bit special about singing ‘Hark the Herald’ and then sitting back as the performers stuff Santa and his ilk up a chimney. And what we like most, and there were a lot of us last Saturday night, is the things that rarely change. Nothing pleases like an old pair of comfy slippers and the familiar and oft repeated will generally score over the new. Oh all right, I admit that the wassailing song does nothing for me but then some folks, weird as they are, don’t like Sleigh Ride. There is no accounting for taste. But we love the Silent Nights and the Bleak Midwinters, the Dreaming of a White Christmas and the one that tells you all to Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas. Whoever gets the nod to sing that one, and they are usually good, I get very emotional. And critics being emotional are about as rare as a nine pound note. And we pew sitters all love doing our bit for the Twelve Days of Christmas. Personally I prefer being a lord a leaping to a turtle dove as you don’t have to get up so much. But we all, young and old, jump up and down with innocent abandon. You don’t generally get much of that in Luton.

Like all such events it has its serious side. It gives players who rarely get a chance to lead in major productions the opportunity to have their own five minutes, and it often showcases a new young talent yet to tread the boards in earnest. The critic in me, the unemotional one undisturbed by warm glows, has honed in on more than one teenage stunner over the years. I suppose I should rephrase that but I think you get my drift. And that drift is that this annual event, twenty seven years strong, with its silly five minute pantomimes and a chairman who always misses the entrance of Father Christmas is an occasion I unashamedly pin my colours to. The Mills Family, and there are a lot of them, do themselves and us proud. I reckon there were over two hundred warm glows around Denbigh last weekend, many hugging old friends. Early frosts and economic glooms got short shrift. Long may Christmas is a Coming survive. There are probably, in small villages and humble towns, hundreds of such events all over the country. They are the unrecorded tiny blessings of a celebrity obsessed and media driven culture. And if they are half as entertaining as our St Andrews offering then Christmas will be good. Even if you don’t like Sleigh Ride.

Roy Hall - December 2011

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1)


Hello, I can hear you say. Not a bloody word from him for weeks and he flags up a piece on a TV programme. Isn’t this supposed to be a theatre blog? Well, yes it is, and in defence there ain’t anything more theatrical than the Strictly lot on Saturday nights. So I am told. Personally I rarely watch it, reasons later, but do confess to a slightly mischievous frisson on the Sunday ditching of some hapless soul who has been loved, but not enough. Must be my upbringing.

But to explain. Been busy the last month or so directing my Harpenden lot in Alan Ayckbourn’s Table Manners. Pretty pleased because doing it in the round, no stage flats for this one, seemed to work and we had sell out houses every night. Not being into self promotion on this blog (that’s a laugh, they says, the whole blog is a form of self promotion) I say nothing else about it. But it did mean I missed Dunstable Rep’s latest offering. Little Voice. Pity, because they had a seriously good director and, on paper, an excellent cast. Pretty rare omission for me. The last time I missed a Rep production I reckon I was in short pants. As you don’t want to know about my private life I shall swiftly get back to Strictly.

Get back to it maybe, but clearly I don’t get it. Almost a minority of one in theatrical circles. And here come the tenuous blogging link. Judged by various comments from my cast and one or two at the Rep, I don’t tweet but I can facebook with the best of them, half of the actors couldn’t wait to ditch their scripts and settle down to their weekly fix of undiluted hysteria. And that’s its problem for me. I can just about stomach the frontmen, except the one I am convinced is a witch, and the judges have some individual charm. Bruno may be a demented Italian waiter and Craig, bless him, a nitpicking piranha but they can knock any Simon Cowell formation into a cocked hat. It’s the bloody audience I can’t stand. Drives me away from the screen quicker than you can say old seventies sitcom. They scream and boo at judges comments regardless of whether they are justified. The rule seems to be the bad gets booed and the good gets cheered. Nothing wrong with that if allied to performances but, sadly, performances seem almost to be incidental to audience frenzy.

If you don’t believe me think about the worst aspect of a programme that could, without its audience, be almost watchable. Every now and then you get moments of pure dancing theatre. It may be the professionals doing a turn with a guest singer in the background, occasionally it is a celebrity reaching the heights with a consummate partner. Music, staging, bodies, all combine in moments of physical poetry and tenderness. And then the audience scream their appreciation. Not at the end but during the twirls. The mood is destructively broken, not just for you but them as well. Only they do not realise it. Fired on by mindless TV executives who should know better those collective morons clap and scream to order. If they did it at the theatre you would walk out in disgust. As it is, I just go and make the tea and pray that one day, one day, they will defy their puppet masters and, presented with fleeting artistic beauty, remain silent.

Until the end.

Some hope.

Strictly Come Dancing?

No thanks folks.

Don’t have an opinion on the show, but I can’t stand the audience.

Roy Hall

 

Monday, 28 October 2013

Lights!Camera!Music! (St Andrew's Players)


For those of you living on some distant planet, it’s been pretty rough down here lately. This week’s storms are little more than a sparrow’s fart compared with the harsh economic winds which seem to have been blowing through our wallets since Clegg and Cameron were in short pants. There was a time when folks splashing out tarted up their houses or upgraded the old motor. These days the lucky ones pay off their gas bill or shamelessly switch on their lights for a self indulgent half an hour. Or it seems like that. Given the constant media reminders of food banks for the starving and ‘eat or heat’ debates it is hardly surprising that the financial plight of local theatrical societies figures fairly low on the agenda. Parting people from their pounds for a night out gets harder and harder. And those pounds they do part with rarely reflect the true cost of all but the most basic productions. Especially musical ones for modern audiences conditioned for West End blockbusters.

They are a sensible lot down at St Andrews. You can’t do a high quality Into the Woods, Drowsy Chaperone, or Children of Eden for peanuts but that is the price you have to put on the tickets if you want a local audience. And that comes at a cost. So it is hardly surprising that in between times most societies find other means to subsidise their local blockbusters. Lights!Camera!Music! clearly falls into that category. Minimal staging, minimal props and costumes, minimal band. Rely heavily on your individual singers, sprinkle in a bit of visual trickery, and trust enough folks turn up to swell the depleting coffers and put a smile on the face of your accountants and your show choosing committee. Great news folks, we can do Miss Saigon after all.

With such shows you inevitably cherry pick. Well I cherry picked Your Song (David Mills), Man or Muppet (Luke Storey and Jonathan Mills), and Sound of Silence (David Mills and John O’Leary) as being particularly notable. And I would also have cherry picked You’ll Never Walk Alone (Frances Hall) if I wasn’t married to her and Moon River (Andy Sizmur) if they had included him in the programme. But perhaps I have anyway. But the outstanding numbers were the collective Sweeney Todd Prologue and West Side Story (Tonight) and the individual Diamonds Are Forever (Alex Colledge-Orr). All these made me tingle in unexpected places. Miss Orr has a voice as rich and brown as treacle and, against an imaginative backdrop of James Bond films, she delivered my personal top of the podium highlight.

I would have liked that filmic backdrop a bit more. It started proceedings nicely and ended imaginatively with a roll call of all the participants, including the popcorn maker, in true cinematic style. Stagers Emma Orr and Emma Mills, backed by Jonathan Mills’ lively trio, had clearly given their evening of limited resources a heavy splash of creative thought. I liked it. So did the audience, and there were a lot of them. And so did their accountants. Not many of them I am told. Far too expensive. Roy Hall

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Educating Rita ( Wheathampstead DS )

****
I find it easy to relate to Rita. Willy Russell’s heroine of Educating fame may have a scouse accent as thick as Mersey fog but in all other respects we are two peas in a pod.  Working class post war baby, desperately seeking culture and an escape from mind numbing council estate values. Harold Wilson’s Open University opened up a world of opportunity for the aesthetically deprived and Rita eagerly grabs it with large hands and an even larger mouth. She may have come to Chekhov and Ibsen later than I did but she gorges on it like a child in a sweetshop. Russell’s famous play is good because his monster of a mouthpiece for the changing times is a comic creation of the highest order and her tutor, Frank, an intricate fragile foil on which to bounce the narrative and drive the conflict. Get the chemistry right and it is a play that zings.

That this version from Wheathampstead almost totally succeeded owes much to the brilliant portrayal of Rita from Sarah Brindley. You believed in this woman from the moment she entered the book strewn tutorial room. Desperate to learn and sharp as a Liverpool razor, this Rita grabbed you by the throat and never let go. Scene by scene Miss Brindley created an offstage life that was both bleak and unfulfilled. You could almost see the unfeeling husband, the dreary hairdresser clients, the pathetic mother yearning for a better song. Beautifully judged, quiet reflective moments interspersed with coruscating one liners, this Rita tickled the fancies and stilled the heart. All is directed at Frank, the tutor consumed with his own quiet desperation and fraying at the edges. Alcohol is both his prop and his curse. Malcolm Hobbs could not match Miss Brindley in the acting stakes, his controlled character needed a hint of greater disintegration for that, but it was a carefully observed and measured performance. His was the firm ground on which Rita danced. A bit too firm perhaps, except in a highly comic drunken scene, but one that held your attention.

For the cultural snobs amongst you, Rita was Galatea to Frank’s Pygmalion. For those who know theatre and Willy Russell, she was Breezeblock Park’s Sandra writ large. But whatever Rita was, she and her Frank made for an absorbing evening. Individual acting merits aside, you believed in them both. Pretty important that, as plays with only two characters can be enormously difficult. Not that I know, I have never done one.
But I reckon director Steve Leadbetter quietly considers himself fortunate to have a pairing that had clearly worked their socks off. His packaging will improve as he gets more directorial experience, unfocussed sound and hasty and confused lighting changes displeased, but his first shot at it was a bloody sight better than mine. But however many plays he directs he will rarely get an individual performance as consummate as the one delivered by Sarah Brindley. This Rita roared. Roy Hall

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The God of Carnage (Dunstable Rep)

***
My mother was a fierce defender of her kids. A full time job as she had a lot of us. First sniff of bullying and she was up our school quicker than you could say litigation. Not that she used such words. Working class, council estate, sort the little buggers out was her maxim. I reckon she would have been useful to the adult characters of Yasmina Reza’s The God of Carnage. They finish up squabbling much more than the two offstage fisticuff kids who launch and drive the onstage plot. And these parents are middle class and French. The French isn’t relevant, could be anywhere south of Watford, being middle class is. The ostensibly nice and civilised parents of the one bashed about the head with a stick invite the ostensibly nice and civilised parents of the juvenile aggressor for meaningful talks on the problem. Doomed to failure of course. You could see that the minute the curtain rose. Meaningless small talk lightly cloaked a delicate issue in which views and positions were entrenched in slabs of concrete. But what makes the play an interesting and entertaining evening is that the foursome spatting and sparring constantly switched allegiance. The couples warred as much with each other as they did with the other side. I reckon those unseen kids would have enjoyed the mayhem almost as much as the stick bashing event which sparked it. Kids are like that. Ask my mother.

Veronique (Jenna Ryder-Oliver) is a bohemian Hampstead type with cultural snobbery and social conscience stamped all over her attributes. Gets up your nose the minute she opens her mouth. Husband Michel (Dave Sims) is a downmarket toilet salesman with a nice unfeeling line in killing hamsters. Or at least giving them a map and dumping them on the open road to search for adventure. An ill matched pair if ever there was one. Him and her, not the hamster. Annette (Christine Hobart) and Alain (Dave Corbett) are no better. She is a power dressing hypocrite and he is an unfeeling drugs lawyer obsessed with a constantly ringing mobile phone. Much of the fun is watching the thin veneer of respectability disintegrate, beautifully illustrated when Annette throws up over one of Veronique’s arty books, and wondering how on earth such disparate couples stayed together long enough to produce and rear two healthy and feisty eleven year old boys.  I kept musing, as the rum flowed and tempers got increasingly frayed, on how it was all going to end. But it didn’t end, it just unsatisfyingly stopped. They could still be fighting now for all I know.

Thanks to some cracking pacing from Director Anne Blow and excellent teamwork from all four actors the evening whizzed along entertainingly. It is always nice to see folks savagely having a go at throats other than your own. Jenna Ryder-Oliver’s Veronique took the largest chunk of the acting honours for richly rounding out her complex character and for her beautiful observed decline into drunken introspection. It was her kid who got whacked on the head and if he was anything like his mother you could see why. Dave Sims’ Michel was too formal and precise to approach Miss Ryder-Oliver’s stagecraft but in a strange way his uncomfortable persona added rather than detracted from his performance. Here was a man totally out of his depth in his marriage and the situation and his relationship with rodents. You left the theatre feeling a bit sorry for him.

Christine Hobart did her usual dependable job for the Rep in the role of a woman more concerned with abandoned rodents than dodgy drugs on which her husband makes his considerable living. She threw up with ease and raised many a silent cheer when she dunked that bloody mobile phone in a tulip vase. Completing the quartet Dave Corbett etched out a watchable insensitive lawyer. Are insensitive lawyers watchable I ask myself? His well cut suit and handsome beard certainly were. A lighter touch on occasions, teasing the hapless Michel on the virtues of toilet ephemera for instance, would have enhanced his innate cruelty. But Mr Corbett’s staging strength was that he was part of a closely knit team that had clearly worked its collective socks off to create an interesting evening. The credit for that must go to director Anne Blow who had taken four actors of differing abilities and banged them into a coherent and pleasing shape.

Alan Goss created a realistic middle class Parisian living room and Fred Rayment, crucially, delivered the many realistic ringings of the mobile phone. Almost a fifth character in Yasmina Reza’s short but pithy play, she has previous form, this sound effect seriously impressed. You always learn when you go to the theatre, no matter how old you are. This one taught me, as it never did my mother, never try to solve your kid’s playground problems. And if you need a mobile phone to ring on stage, get Fred Rayment. Limited career for him I am afraid. Shakespeare and Ibsen never had one. Roy Hall


Wendy Says:  I could have done with another hour of this. Worth at least three stars, probably more.

Friday, 20 September 2013

3 J's and a Joanna - Dunstable Rep Theatre Club

***

The more perceptive amongst you will have noticed that I haven’t blogged anything for a little while. Given that most folks understandably fall asleep with my musings that’s about three of you. Her indoors has manfully plugged gaps in an early autumn bereft of theatre that appeals. To me that is. But deprived of anything that one usually craves, the urge inexorably returns. My doctor understands, nice man that he is. Explains why I decided to stick my oar into an experimental cabaret evening at the Rep. 3 J’s and a Joanna. The three jays are the singers and the Joanna is a piano. Rhyming slang. Geddit. Not Lumley or Trollope.  God, I am so intelligent. Pretty good. Them not me. And they will get better. Described themselves as stylish, camp, and bitchy. Or something like that. Certainly stylish, occasionally bitchy. And Camp? Well one of them was at the end, beautifully, in spades. But I won’t go there. Their sexuality is something secret between them and their instruments. And a friendly and biased audience so warm to them you could crisp toast on it.

The sniffy critic in me is rarely, if ever, seduced by a crowd overselling a product. Seen too many overpraised turkeys to be taken in by that ploy. But an act just starting out can be forgiven a bit of self indulgent camaraderie as they apply the professional spit and polish. Especially when they are, individually, as good and as talented as the three on stage. High notes and harmony did not always totally please and a couple of numbers, especially Defying Gravity, should either be reworked or quietly dropped. I favour the latter. But enough of their turns had me thinking that this interesting trio might have something. Joe Louis Robinson, the piano man, spun out a sensitive and gentle A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. Jenna Ryder-Oliver twisted and turned the tortuously difficult Words, Words, Words with linguistic aplomb. And Jaymes Sygrove wonderfully conveyed the camp receptionist in a very funny Welcome to Holiday Inn. Acting through song is definitely this threesome’s strength. Just my humble opinion for anyone still awake.

As if to emphasise that point the three combined in a finale that was clever and funny and expertly delivered. Design from the musical The Tailor Made Man. Stylish, bitchy, Esther Williams and Pola Negri. What more do you want. All in one glorious song. No, I’ve never heard of it either. But until tonight I had never heard of 3 J's and a Joanna. Given a bit of presentational polish to add to some obvious class I reckon a lot more folks will soon get to know them. Remember you heard it here first. If you aren’t asleep. Roy Hall



Jenna Ryder-Oliver is appearing at The Pheasantry (Chelsea) on 17th February 2014
 

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Griffin Players - The Vicar of Dibley

***
What is it that makes a popular TV sitcom? And can it be translated into a successful stage play? Well I suppose it can but it is a tricky feat to pull off. In the case of The Vicar Of Dibley, I’m sure most people would say that its success was almost entirely due to the fantastic cast of characters created by and around Dawn French’s charming lady vicar Geraldine. And therein lays the rub. Comparison to the original is never far from your mind, particularly when the stage adaptation is comprised of snapshots from the series. Admittedly some of the best moments, but all so well known it’s practically impossible to take the audience by surprise.

Director John O’Leary served up some innovative moments, particularly with the use of Luton Youth Chorale providing live music to welcome the audience and cover scene changes. A clever way to set the atmosphere. Likewise, pianist and choir mistress Julia Mcleish, leading the audience in a hymn preceding Geraldine’s first sermon, set the scene beautifully and established us as the congregation. But overall some of the pacing was a little slow and punch lines so predictable that comedy was often lost. 

On the whole the cast was a strong one, led by Dee Lovelock making a likeable and straightforward ‘Geraldine’, her timing was good and she made the part her own. And Matt Flitton was superb as the dopey ‘Hugo Horton’, absorbing all the mannerisms expected of the character but maintaining an inner truth. I found Alistair Brown’s ‘David Horton’ rather deliberate but his constant exasperation was never in any doubt, and Gary Nash produced an almost exact replica of the TV ‘Jim Trott’ to the delight of many. So precise in fact that it rather highlighted that others were not. Sadly the character that really didn’t work was ‘Alice’, the dippy, off-the wall verger. Jennifer McDonald tried valiantly to create her own version of this iconic sidekick, but in a team of lookalikes she was the one that was physically least like the original and suffered most in comparison.

I’m sure the company were pleased with their production and it was certainly successful at attracting a decent sized audience, no mean feat these days when theatre is considered a luxury and plays so rarely performed in Luton. It’s just a shame that such a weak script, by an un-credited author, is served up as a vehicle for supporting ‘Comic Relief’. But then TV sitcom adaptations are surprisingly popular if generally disappointing.  Frances Hall

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Beauty And The Beast - Empire Theatre Arts

****
A guest review from Frances Hall with a four star rating. Given this fine company's history I am not surprised. Clearly I missed a treat. Much better than the horseracing results from York. Roy Hall

Beauty and the Beast

Disney musicals are not everyone’s cup of tea, and I think Mr Hall probably made the right decision to opt out of this one, purely from the point of view that he is much more inclined towards the gritty realism of a ‘Les Miserables’ or ‘West Side Story’ than this sweet and tender adaptation of the popular children’s love story. However, he did miss another stunningly produced offering from this talented group of youngsters. Being a director of musicals myself, I appreciate just how much planning and expertise Lucy O’Hare and her production team must put in before she embarks on her two week Summer School productions. Nothing is left to chance. The set is carefully conceived  and the means to construct it in place; the technical crew, some of the best available in the area, are booked and primed;  the Musical Director, Graham Thomson, with hand-picked orchestra, is ready to teach complex harmonies; Lucy’s mother Gaye is designing and making costumes (loads and wonderful for this production!). The list goes on.  I believe the principals are auditioned and cast in advance, but beyond that everything happens in two weeks of concentrated rehearsal. And that requires an enormous amount of enthusiasm and solid hard graft. And, wow, what enthusiasm leaps off that stage. No matter whether the part is big or small, chorus or principal, everyone is having a ball.

I went to the matinee and was predictably surrounded by wriggling, giggling, girly girls, many in replica ‘Belle’ party frocks who absolutely loved every minute. They all knew the story, the songs and the classic ‘Be Our Guest’ routine of dancing crockery. Wisely the production mirrored the film as closely as possible and the characterisations kept firmly in the two dimensional, no gritty realism required. None the less Ellie Reay was a charming and beautiful ‘Belle’, with real maturity in her singing, and Alistair Robinson a fine balance of angry ‘Beast’ and lost soul, played with depth. All the enchanted servants were good, although I lost some of the diction from ‘Lumiere’ (Harvey J. Eldridge) and Babette (Abbie Mead) in otherwise fine performances. Jessica Pegram as ‘Mrs Potts’ was particularly strong and sang the title number beautifully, sparkly supported by her tea-cup son ‘Chip’ (Connie Jenkins-Grieg). Cameron Hay was having a whale of a time with his excellent he-man ‘Gaston’ and was ably supported by an ebullient Harry Rodgers as ‘Le Fou’. The company numbers were all outstandingly well sung with some nice characterisations in the background. In the unenviable role of lone adult in the cast, Chris Young gave a touching performance as Belle’s father and would-be Heath-Robinson inventor ‘Maurice’.

Production-wise Fred Rayment’s lighting was absolutely superb, how lovely to be able to indulge in sumptuous ‘Disney’ effects. If I have a criticism it has to be that at times the pace dropped in some acting scenes, and for me I would have preferred that the Beast and the Prince were in fact the same actor, tricky but possible.  But, all in all, another in a long line of brilliant productions from Empire Theatre Arts. Can’t wait to see what next year will bring. Frances Hall

Friday, 16 August 2013

Star Gazing (Crackers and Turkeys)


I write two blogs to help me pass the time in my old age. The other one, no I ain't saying what it is, regularly gets between 100 and 200 hits a day and it won’t be long before it passes the 50,000 figure. In about two years. It amazes how folks find it because I don’t advertise. But it clearly has universal, if minority, appeal. The power of Google, I says. My theatre blog is much more localised and specific. Hence the hits are cumulatively lower and much more volatile. But still respectable with the 15,000 mark coming up and occasionally hits 200 in a day when a new show or play gets a comment. Folks may say they don’t read them but, clearly, some do. Long may they continue. Much as I enjoy my scribing I would give up if nothing got read. Whistling in the dark is a fruitless occupation. Not likely to happen because even a piece on a Radio Three play is still regularly viewed and a touring professional company recently put my four star rating of its show on its advertising blurb.

And that brings me on to those illusive stars. I need to put in a health warning here. They are just part of the fun I get from reviewing. Completely meaningless and unscientific and best ignored. Unless you get four or five. They are merely a snapshot of one man’s gut feeling and reflect absolutely nothing else. It was after I had reviewed about ten pieces that I decided to put them in. I had seen a couple of crackers (ACT’s Still Life and Empire Arts Les Miserables) and wanted to draw extra attention to them. It grew from there and now, when me and her indoors come home, the stars and half stars are debated almost as much as the production detail. It is a game we play which amuses. And that amusement is the sole purpose of my theatre blog. For me who writes and, hopefully, for those who read. Explains why I will never blog anything I completely loathed. Nil stars don’t exist for me. I used to savage the occasional piece for The Luton News but I was paid a miniscule sum to do that. Here I can just ignore them. Nothing is gained by me blogging that something is absolute crap. There is enough nastiness on the internet without me adding to it. So I only blog what I want and the truth, when it will hurt, is carefully wrapped. Or I hope it is.

I have posted about 80 pieces since I started just over two years ago. Ignoring previews and musings I reckon that means I have given my opinion on around 50 productions of one sort or another. (Oh, go on, count them. I can’t be bothered). A few do not get a star rating for numerous reasons. Not appropriate, as per St Andrews Christmas is a Coming or, in memory of the late Peter Clarke, A Night at the Theatre. Magnificent and uplifting celebratory evenings, they invoke emotions not conducive to analytical ratings. But most of the rest do. They have crafted for umpteen weeks, dotting every theatrical point and crossing every staging hurdle with meticulous care. Or they should have. So they deserve a star rating even if they, wisely, completely ignore it. I have never given five stars to anything, presumably because if I do I shall have to give up searching, but four* have scored four and a half which is almost the same. As I show  them as ***** then, as I tell folks, print the review out in black and white and it looks as if it is a coveted five. For those reading this and still awake the following explains how the rating is arrived at. We are a sad pair in our house.


***** 

See below or above


*****  

Virtually faultless in acting, direction, staging, imagination.


****   

High quality acting throughout, especially principals. Usually imaginatively  staged and directed and rich in production values.


**** 

Strong acting, especially principals. Good production values, especially staging. Rated up to or down from four depending on overall coherence.

 

***

Good quality production with some excellent acting. Directing and staging generally good but lacking a special quality to make it exceptional.


***

Acting and direction generally good but not exceptional. Some weaknesses in smaller parts. Staging would have to be exceptional for higher rating.


**

Acting and direction acceptable but nothing in the production to grab the senses.


*

I like the company and I like the actors but nothing inspires.

 

 

So there you have it. Singularly pointless blog, singularly pointless read. But I bet some of you do.

 

Roy Hall

 

*Those four are:-

 
Still Life (ACT Company – July 2011)

Les Miserables (Empire Arts – August 2011)
And Then There Were None (Dunstable Rep – October 2012)

Hay Fever (Hitchin Queen Mother – June 2013)

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Twelfth Night - ACT (Little Theatre - Dunstable)

****
I suppose if I wanted to be provocative I should say that I preferred some other production of this play. That comment got me into enough trouble the other week. Not for the first time, mouth shot out of theatrical blocks somewhat quicker than brain. Her indoors has changed my pills and sellotape in the vain hope of reform. Wouldn’t be fair with this one though, as my only experience of Twelfth Night is from the old box in the living room. Dazzling performances if I remember, but I was as clueless at the end as I was at the beginning. TV is a terrible medium for attention spans. And Shakespeare’s comedies rank someway below his history plays for me. Reckon I said that in the bar afterwards but no one, not even director Alan Clarke, produced any sellotape.
Not that he needed to. I had a few caveats about ACT’s latest theatrical offering but for ambition and clarity I could not fault it. This company don’t take easy options but on a simple and effective walled garden set, no cumbersome scene changes, they allowed the text to do the work. Edwardian folk set in the land of Illyria (no I’ve never heard of it either) weaved a complex comic web in a clear narrative flow. Intricate couplings were a little low key but I was firmly seduced by the outrageous secondary characters thrust centre stage by Shakespeare’s script. Dogberry is my favourite character in Much Ado About Nothing. This one has three or four, equally rich in fun. An enjoyable evening was effortlessly lifted by comic actors firing on all their inventive cylinders.
Amongst the best of them was Malcolm Farrar’s superb performance as the enigmatic Malvolio. Played here as an elderly solicitor come family retainer, Mr Farrar etched out every inch and sniff of a comic character tinged with melancholy and misunderstanding. Multi layered and beautifully precise, his interpretation of the misguided lover to Olivia was an absolute joy in lettered word and action. Mr Farrar wasn’t the only acting star on this stage. Adam Lloyd Jones was an equally superb Sir Toby Belch, rich in sonorous tones and vocal variety, and James Trapp a beautifully observed Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Mr Trapp’s puzzled facial expressions skilfully displayed a consummate silly ass foil to the bumptious and hedonistic Sir Toby and both actors combined in physical and verbal comedy of the highest order. The grossness of one and the fragility of the other teamed with dramatic finesse.
I was also strikingly taken with Miranda Larson’s excellent playing of the mischievous maid Maria. Miss Larson has eyes so expressive and sparkling I reckon she takes them out and polishes them every night. Whatever the trick, this was a playful character completely in her comfort zone. I have always admired Miss Larson, even when she slightly disappointed. Here she was on the top of her considerable form. Steven Clarke was also on top vocal and singing form as Olivia’s fool Feste. But here comes my first caveat. Strong as it was it lacked a quintessential lightness to simultaneously mask and point the intelligent devilry. Only my opinion of course, but much as I admired Mr Clarke’s singing, especially his rounding of the play at the end, he is an actor better suited to meaty dramatic roles.
I am in danger here of overlooking the central plot. Happened before. Once did a review of a Becket play and never mentioned the actor playing Godot. I blame Shakespeare. Cross dressing and mistaken twins are part of his staple comic diet and in this one he constantly upstages them. So it says a lot that Megan Clarke made her mark as the dignified and beautiful Olivia. Loved by Orsino (nice cameo from Alan Clarke) but with her passions mistakenly directed elsewhere. I didn’t totally buy into that passion. Emily French’s Viola/ Cesario was convincingly boyish and shows great promise, but lacked the maturity to totally flesh out her role. I reckon Shakespeare’s boys, they played girls playing boys in his day, might have had the same problem. But Miss Clarke rose above the mayhem with poise and dignity. And, boy, this silly play (Pepys said this on its first showing) had lots of mayhem.
And that mayhem is what I particularly liked. Some of the smaller roles lacked the finesse of the principals, a notable exception being Richard Alexander’s imposing Antonio, and overall sexual ambiguity was generally lacking. I reckon I have a dirty mind. But if the evening was slightly unbalanced it was also a jolly piece of fun. Alan Clarke’s laudable ACT Company gave us another taste of Shakespeare and, beautifully costumed and with some great comic acting, I understood it all. And that’s a first with this play. I shall say so, loudly, at my next theatrical meeting of the Shakespeare society in Ladbrokes. If they take off the sellotape. Roy Hall

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Calendar Girls - Dunstable Rep (Full Review)

***
Personally I have never understood the fuss made about nudity, makes sense in the current steamy weather, but it is clearly a big deal for some. And very unbritish. Which probably explains why a group of Women’s Institute ladies collectively dropping their Yorkshire knickers twenty years ago, caused such a stir. Tits and bums replaced Jam and Jerusalem on fund raising calendars and worldwide media frenzy ensued. Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls tells the real small scale story, liberally laced with pathos and humour. Death, sunflowers, and gritty warmth manfully cloak an essentially simple tale of village folk. Too episodic and formulaic to be a great play but one in which it is impossible not to be moved. Emotional and historical baggage had a feel good factor worthy of bottling for any village hall fete.

At the risk of sounding like an unwelcome adjudicator at a private knees-up I have to say that, for me, Angela Goss’s latest Rep production only partially pulled it off. She had some cracking performances, none more so than Dee Lovelock’s feisty florist Chris and Annalise Carter-Brown’s repressed Ruth. Miss Lovelock was sharp and pithy in everything she did and Miss Carter-Brown, playing against type, beautifully etched a mouse that eventually roared. But some scenes seemed under paced and/or over rehearsed. Take your pick. The freshness of verbal sunflowers was missing. On a set that leaves all the work to the actors, can’t do much with a village community hall, you need your cast to fire full tilt on all their collective cylinders. Here, in the heat, sparks only intermittently flew. I enjoyed some well crafted portrayals but I wasn’t grabbed by the throat. Given the full houses, the complimentary water and the ecstatic audiences, I now, no doubt, will be.

Susan Young turned in a very sensitive portrayal as the lady who lost a husband (a gentle cameo from Phil Baker) and found a calendar, and Katy Eliott (upmarket sexy golf widow) and Barbara Morton (belligerent but refined teacher) provided rich humour in their clearly shaped characterisations. Completing the Miss of the Month sextet, Deborah Cheshire served up a rebellious vicar’s daughter. Aggressive in attitude and attire, more vocal variety would have enhanced her performance. Told you this was pseudo adjudication. Well if it is I shall leave some of the peripheral roles alone. I liked Kenton Harding in the thankless role of Rod the flower man and Julie Hanns looked every inch a cloned beautician. But the towering performance from a cast member who didn’t shed drawers was Jo Collett’s status conscious Marie. Her Women’s Institute Chairman treated Yorkshire as something she had trodden in and constantly tried to shake off. Along with an unhappy past in, emphasise the last syllable please, Cheshire.

My last syllable is that I admired Alan Goss’s clever set change to a Yorkshire hill and the sunflower lighting of the theatre walls at the end. And I felt for the man who never got to see the real flowers grow. But you can be emotionally moved without being theatrically lifted. Flesh and feelings were skilfully revealed in this calendar but the separate pictures never totally gelled. Roy Hall

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Calendar Girls (Preview) - Dunstable Rep


On a steamy hot night the full house audience at the Rep’s latest production could have been forgiven for stripping off. That they did not follow the bra waving antics of the Calendar Girls cast was to be welcomed. Nudity, sunflowers and death abounded in Tim Firth’s famous play on an unconventional slice of Yorkshire grit. Feisty florist Chris, a super performance from Dee Lovelock, leads the Jam and Jerusalem girls and she gets some good support, especially from Annalise Carter-Brown as the self-effacing and knicker resistant Ruth. Angela Goss directs the pathos and humour, and in an uneven large cast, Jo Collett’s status conscious WI Chairman Marie was outstanding.

 

Runs to Saturday 20th July 2013 – Dunstable Rep Theatre – 7.45pm

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Hay Fever (Queen Mother Theatre - Hitchin)

*****
I am terribly well behaved, so my mother said. Always do as I am told. Listen to authority I do. Directors, lots of ‘em, regularly earwig me and say ‘whatever you do, don’t mention the whatever.’ Flat trombone player, fat dancer, actor wearing odd socks. Whatever. Don’t mention it. So I don’t. Except obliquely. A little hint, the odd word, a slight nudge somewhere in the text. Because although terribly well behaved, I am also mischievous. So my mother said. And this one had a funny mirror. But I won’t mention it.
What I will mention is that the characters in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever were terribly ill behaved. At least the family was. So their mother said. And she was as bad, if not worse. The upper class Bliss family are so self centred and egocentric they are almost on a separate planet to normal mortals. In their closed theatrical world, playwright husband and actress wife, they infuriate and bemuse unwary guests in equal proportions. And whether play acting at life or merely playing games they and their precious children give no quarter. Subscribe to their rules or flounder. Underlying cruelty twisted, with Cowards clever pen, to super high comedy. If you do it right.
And boy, this lot did. Under Nicki Pope’s superb direction the Queen Mother Theatre gave me one of the classiest and pleasing productions since I started blogging. For pace, timing, characterisation, set and costumes it oozed quality throughout. Practically every scene, especially the madcap wordgame, zinged with precision and clarity. I made no notes. I did not need to. This lot gobsmacked for acting skills. Natalie Gordon was an insufferably majestic Judith Bliss, ageing and shallow actress in equal proportions. I would have liked her taller but you can’t have everything. And she packed an incredible punch in everything she did. Charles Plester, equally insufferable husband, beautifully served up the best sort of ham. Sort of a cross between Robert Morley face and Noel Coward voice. A lesser actor would have destroyed it. Mr Plester pulled it off with style.
This revolting couple were well matched by their equally revolting children, Simon and Sorel. Beautifully attired in twenties style and with crisp and affected voices you could bottle and sell at John Lewis. Paul Wade played Simon Bliss with energetic verve and affectation and Laura Eason matched him all the way as a sibling who knew her place in life. Firmly at the top. Their interchanges electrified and their playacting with Mama in reprises of one of her theatrical turkeys was an absolute joy. It is hardly surprising that this dysfunctional quartet was shepherded by an ageing and reluctant maid with the diplomatic skills of an arthritic piranha. Clara the maid was Mrs Bliss’s theatre dresser and in Barbie Gardiner’s lovely cameo that is what she still is. In demeanour and voice Miss Gardiner conveyed looking after families, especially this one, was best done with electrified barbed wire fencing.
But however scintillating and clever the Bliss family are, Hay Fever needs those unfortunate weekend houseguests. They create oodles of romantic permutations, all totally unbelievable, and a semblance of normality in the human condition. Or most of them do. Neglect them, in casting or characterisation, and the play would stall or at least stutter. Nicki Pope is no mug. She roped in a classy quartet who etched out some beautifully individual portrayals. Becky Leonard as Myra Arundel, the vamp with the sexual shrimping net, probably took the edge because of her magnificent costumes and nicking the only taxi but the others were up there with her. Greg Jones was a nicely judged gormless boxer, Chloe Maddox an excellent nervous ingĂ©nue, and Doug Brooker an effectively boring diplomat. Mr Brooker’s suit looked slightly ill fitting, thereby demoting his status, but that is my only nitpick in a nine star cast which constantly fired on all cylinders.
In the interest of balance, I do get read by lots of societies you know, I should now completely tear apart the set, the lighting, and the sound. Can’t. Loved the set (Rosemary Bianchi), especially the realistic back garden. Loved the sound, especially the realistic rain. And I am sure I heard bacon sizzling in the breakfast scene. My imagination often gets the better of me. And loved the lighting, except the inexplicable changes on the landing stairs. Perhaps Judith Bliss insisted on it. But most of all I loved these bright young and not so young things from the nineteen twenties. Captured in consummate style by Miss Pope and her team. Even if none of them could see themselves in the perplexing pseudo mirror. Damn. I said I wouldn’t mention it. Told you I was mischievous. Ask my mother. Roy Hall

 

 

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Hay Fever - Queen Mother Theatre (Hitchin) - Preview


It is said that Noel Coward knocked out Hay Fever in three days after spending a weekend as the house guest of an insufferably eccentric American actress and her playwright husband. If they were half as madly egocentric as the Bliss family he subsequently created, the young Mr Coward must have had a torrid time. Audiences loved it and still do to this day. In Nicki Pope’s splendid Queen Mother Theatre production it is easy to see why. Characters clash and zing with effortless Cowardesque aplomb and breathtaking pace and timing. Natalie Gordon and Charles Plester lead a virtually impeccable cast, including Barbie Gardiner’s super curmudgeonly maid, in a presentation that oozed class from every pore. First blogging visit. First rate theatre. Roy Hall

Runs to Saturday 29th June (Queen Mother Theatre, Hitchin. – 7.45pm)

Full review to follow

Sunday, 16 June 2013

A Chorus Line (Oaklands College-Welwyn)


On reflection I should have seen both performances of Oakland College’s showcase for its drama students. Would have been worth it, as the A Chorus Line I popped in on in Welwyn was pretty good. It’s an ideal vehicle for individual talents, lots of rewarding cameos, and simple to stage with a minimum of fuss and cost. With thirty odd performers director David Wilson and choreographer Victoria Markham, the teachers, cleverly divide them into two groups and most get their chance to dazzle on one or other night. I took in Real Arts Theatre Company on Thursday for personal reasons. So, apologies to those who zinged on Tuesday (Slapstick Arts) and were fillers on Thursday. As I say, with hindsight I should have seen both nights. But with hindsight I would back more winners. Opticians sell lots of glasses but none for that sort of vision. Gap in the market somewhere methinks.

Whatever sort of specs I was wearing I would have been blind not to recognise some seriously impressive talent on show, especially in effortless and consummate dancing. (Don’t you just love these seamless blogging links?) Whatever my thoughts on individual singing or acting, this lot, or most of them, danced with warming balletic grace. I take my hat off to both them and Miss Markham. You don’t get such dancing on the amateur stage. Connor McSweeney (Mike) was outstanding in the I Can Do That number but a few others were up there with him. And musically the company (Musical Director-Maureen Roche) gave us a strong opening with I Hope I Get It and a pretty good closing One. I have heard the latter sung better but rarely with such dancing precision. A real Chorus line.

Individually Danielle Field (Val) impressed for a vibrant Dance Ten, Looks Three, coping well with the slight hiatus to her Tits and Ass number, and Alice Smithson (Diana) put a lot of emotion into a pleasing rendition of Nothing. But the outstanding individual number of the evening was Roz Farmer (Kristine) and Calum Brooker (Al) for a sharp and scintillating Sing! Interplay between the two nerdy newly marrieds was razor sharp and Miss Farmer was exceptionally good for the variety of emotions she packed into one song. Victoria Burrough did a solid job in the key role of Cassie, lost love and lost stardom, but lacked authority and status. I reckon it was the girly dress because she sang and danced her The Music and The Mirror number very well. It’s my age folks. That and the influence of the film.

In acting terms the three outstanding performances of the evening were Hector Hadley as hard-bitten musical director Zach, Helen Abbott as the ageing sassy Sheila, and Bryan Fawcett as the troubled homosexual Paul. All these performances were rich in tone, variety, light and shade, and pace. Everything an actor needs if he is to progress. The scenes between Sheila and Zach zinged for precision of delivery and excellent timing and were a personal acting highlight and Mr Fawcett touched every heart with a sensitive monologue on his decline to the bottom of the theatrical pile. I have seen these three young performers before and, believe me, they are very good.

So all in all a pretty good evening and their teacher folks can be pretty proud. Given the resources it would be nice to see them do this as a full blown show with all the production values you need to sell it to Joe Public. The talent is there. Even the flouncy reject at the beginning made her mark. She left beautifully and acidly, whoever she was. My specs, foresight and hindsight combined in dusty lenses, spotted that. They also spotted that a lot of supportive folks turned up. Genuinely, it was well deserved. Real Arts gave us a bloody good evening for four quid. Pensioners who rage at the young, but not the theatrically talented, appreciate that. Means more money for glasses.  Roy Hall

Friday, 14 June 2013

Griffin Players - Whistle Down the Wind

Not being a fan of the Library Theatre these days I often miss out on some cracking productions. So I am told. But I have my little helpers. Here is one. Welcome guest reviewer Hilary Bell. Roy Hall.

One might describe Whistle Down The Wind as a simple moral tale with some catchy tunes, another Lloyd Webber classic; hard to resist but requiring strong performances to bring it to life.  The Griffin Players have achieved just that.  Standout performances from leads Paul Ramsey and Bethany McLeish are ably backed up by other members of the cast, in particular the youngsters.  Ruby Thorne as Brat and James Haxell as Poor Baby are wonderfully believable whilst the children's ensemble will tug at your heartstrings from the off.  Occasional technical hitches and odd set decisions aside, director Julia Fraser’s vision of the piece is clear, simple and well communicated and her musical direction impeccable.  In short, a production well worth the ticket price and not to be missed!  Hilary Bell   
 
Runs to Saturday 15th June (Library Theatre - Luton)  

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Arne Dahl (BBC Four)


I am not a big fan of television. Ask me to choose between the box and the radio and it is no contest. I would miss it of course, as it went flying through the window. But not much. Channel Four Racing would be the only serious loss and I may briefly yearn for The Antiques Roadshow and The Chase. But these days, for me, it is little more than a glorified DVD player. I only agree with the contentious licence fee because of beloved Radios 3 and 4 and, sometimes, Radio 5. Wasn’t always the case. TV plays from Dennis Potter, Jack Rosenthal, Allan Prior and others regularly graced the screens thirty odd years ago. But along with Armchair Theatre, The Wednesday Play, Play of the Month, all have been ditched in favour of reality and celebrity. And mindless talent shows. The more channels you have the less there is to watch. Or that is how it seems. Especially on the licence charging BBC.

But, in spite of disgracefully and shamefully ditching all their horseracing coverage, they still have one little jewel in their tarnished crown. It is called BBC Four. This channel not only occasionally churns out interesting programmes, biopics, history, music, art, books, but they do them better than anyone else. They entertain you on the assumption that you might just have a passing interest in the subject, are not still at primary school, and that your attention span stretches slightly further than a gnat on Ritalin. Chivalry and Betrayal – The Hundred Years War was a recent three part history programme which showed this channel at its best. Intelligent presenter, in depth detailed commentary, and stunning photography not destroyed by mindless music and quirky styles. A sheer gem. Not surprised though that some political cretins and others think it is a channel that should be ditched. It caters for those who do not want a constant diet of Soaps, Celebrity, or Trivia. Such folks are dangerous.

That leads me on to Arne Dahl, the latest little gem on this unheralded but essential channel. There are lots of dangerous folk in this, and the ten week series on Saturday nights absolutely gripped for a number of disparate reasons. For the uninitiated Arne Dahl is a Swedish detective thriller writer and the series dramatised five of his novels. For some inexplicable reason subtitled dramas used to be considered anathema in the western world, only God knows why, but the powers that be have belatedly woken up to the fact that it beats dubbing any day. No longer do we get plied with flat and unemotional voices at variance with physical emotions. The actors are now allowed to speak for themselves, as it always should have been. Even in Swedish. They do so brilliantly in Arne Dahl’s complex and gripping pieces. A team of seven detectives, lead by the magnificent Irene Lindh as Jenny Hultin, solves cases that bemuse all others. Miss Lindh must be Sweden’s answer to Helen Mirren. She is brilliant for both grittiness and economy of style. And all of her A Team are beautifully crafted characters both in the acting and the writing. As well as getting strong and hard hitting storylines, no political correctness with this lot, we learn about all their frailties and passions. These cops don’t just drive the stories, they are the stories.

The last two-parter – Europa Blues – was a classic example of the set. Nasty murders in a cemetery and a zoo, horrifying executions of a group of prostitutes, echoes of Nazi medical experimentation, and a detective puzzled by an unexpected inheritance. All links beautifully in the end and along the way we get a consummate performance from Niklas Akerfelt as the featured cerebral cop Soderstedt. But it was like this throughout the whole series. Narrative gripped and realistic scenes stunned. Yes it was in a foreign tongue and you did need to pay attention. But that is BBC Four for you. Doesn’t like to make things easy. I shall miss it on Saturday nights. If it comes out on DVD get it. Unless you are a gnat. Roy Hall.