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Sidmouth Manor Pavilion Theatre - An Inspector Calls (with James Pellow)

Folks who know me very well often say, kindly I think, that I should get out more. I’m a grumpy old sod at the best of times and in the ...

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Steel Magnolias - Front Row Theatre Group

I have now seen Steel Magnolias, Robert Harling’s witty and sad play set in a Louisiana hairdressers, three times and each time have come away with one overriding thought. You don’t half feel sorry for the men. The odd good word is said in their defence but you could fit most of them on the back of a Thomas Jefferson commemorative stamp. Collectively the unseen male of the species, dead or alive, of Harling’s play are lazy, aggressive, stupid or self centred. Usually all four. Men, of course, are not like that. In rugby clubs and on football coaches, up and down the country, they spend most of their time and energies revering the beauty and wisdom of ladies in delicate and literate tones. No, I don’t believe it either.
Probably explains why I have no difficulty in believing that when women get together in the tonsorial equivalent of the confessional they can expand, in pithy and witty terms, on the husbands and sons and lovers in their life. Apart from anything else, in Steel Magnolias it creates a rich seam of comic lines against the backdrop of a sad and tragic central story. Over four scenes, over two years, customer Shelby marries, gets pregnant, has baby, gets ill, and dies. Solomon Grundy in dramatic, feminine, relief. On Richard Clark’s sparse but realistic set, converting a carport to a hairdressing salon, we follow a journey of two complex hairdressers, two cranky customers, and a mother and daughter united in the latter’s fateful journey. I would have liked a prominent and striking salon door to both welcome the customers and facilitate stronger entrances from the actors and I would have liked, personal nitpick, a telephone that rang realistically. Here we had a play in Eaton Bray and a phone ring from Whipsnade. Oh all right, I exaggerate, but you get my meaning. Good theatre should draw you in, generally this well acted play did, but little things can detract from that desired illusion of reality. I said I was nitpicking.
Having said all that I have few quibbles with the acting skills on show. Front Row Theatre Group may be a small village company but, on this showing, they have some serious actresses. Mandy Lindsay was a totally believable and wise cracking Truvy. ‘There ain’t such a thing as natural beauty’ was her mantra and she attacked her ladies and her lines with consummate aplomb. This lady only wrong footed once, and sinfully drew attention to it, but overall her performance was an absolute joy. Susan Young matched her all the way as Annelle, flowering from hesitant assistant to confident companion on her journey of damascene conversion. Never dropping her guard, this was a sensitive portrayal throughout. Clairee (Donna Hughes) and Ouiser (Barbara Morton) were chips off the same acerbic block and both played their characters to the full comic hilt. I shall never look at chaps into track lighting and called Steve in the same way again. Oh, read the script. Barbara Morton, beautifully and quirkily costumed, scored heavily in every scene she was in and both she and Miss Hughes hit the southern drawl lines with expertise and clarity. I am still laughing at tinselled ‘Keep off the Grass’ signs as Christmas decoration.
Just in case this is beginning to sound like a homely village piece I have to warn you that this blog ain’t like that. I don’t do rubber stamping of worthy theatrical causes. Ask Wheathampstead Players and Dunstable Rep if you don’t believe me. You have to earn your stars from me. And truth to tell I had problems with both the mother and the daughter. Bernadette Freed as M’Lynn initially lacked the ease of the others mentioned, in character development and line delivery, but magnificently came up trumps in her last scene. Her quiet retelling of her daughter’s final moments, a rejection of the kidney she had donated, followed by her anger and despair at the unfairness of life, was a compelling piece of acting. A difficult scene to play, and this was the best interpretation I have seen of it. More variety in her first half delivery and she would have been up there with the best of them on stage. She probably wasn’t helped by Sonia Dean’s portrayal of the ill fated daughter Shelby. This wasn’t a bad performance, in parts it was quite touching, but her diction was low key and her delivery and characterisation was hampered by the southern drawl accent. You felt for her passing but not as much as you should.
I hope that does not sound cruel. I hope not because overall I greatly admired this feminine ensemble. Eaton Bray are blessed to have such a good acting company in their small village. Director Christopher Lavin had clearly worked his actors very hard and he had a pretty good cast more than capable of realising his expectations. I intend to view them again in November, I travel adventurously wide in the cause of blogging, when they are doing Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular. The men in that, this time on stage, are a bunch of shits as well. Roy Hall

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Wheathampstead DS - Calendar Girls

I must be a very strange man. Never quite understood why folks get so upset about nudity. Do it all the time when pruning the roses on a hot day. But not everyone has a streak of exhibitionism and, if you ain’t of that ilk, being naked can be daunting. Even in a good cause. So those Women’s Institute Ladies of Calendar Girls fame were pretty brave. They took their knickers off in memory of a nice man who loved sunflowers and died of cancer, and Tim Firth captures it all in his very funny and sad play of the same name. The performers who evoke that spirit on stage are theatrical chips from the same Yorkshire block without the excuse of a charity cloak to hide  blushes. Fortunately the play is skewed to convincingly cover most of the undraping and in Wheathampstead Dramatic Society’s splendid production it was mainly emotions which were laid bare. The dirty mac brigade must have been bitterly disappointed.

I wasn’t. I loved director Julie Field’s slant on this piece which shamelessly played with your senses. One minute you were laughing your head off at pithy and acerbic lines, sharply delivered, and in the next, to evocative music, you were suppressing large gulps in your throat. There was hardly a moment in the evening when you did not feel totally involved with the people on stage. The major strength was those six ladies who shed their clothes to buy a memorial sofa. In an impeccable piece of casting the sextet combined beautifully to present magnificent individual flawed characters and collective northern grit. This was teamwork of the highest order. Jan Westgarth (Chris) expertly led the team and revealed a private ambitious agenda and Viv Fairley (Annie) matched her with a sensitive portrayal as the grieving widow. Their opening in Act Two, addressing the Women’s Institute Conference, beautifully combined helplessness and aggression. Sarah Brindley (Cora) was a feisty organist with a troubled domestic life, Mary Watkinson (Celia) was a Miss September woman revelling in the recognition of her obvious attributes, and Sheila Scull (Jessie) a sharp and outrageously funny retired school teacher. On this performance Miss Scull can teach timing to a grandfather clock. Almost eclipsing them all was Barbara Suggitt as the inhibited and prudish Ruth. It was long odds against her taking her kit off and when she did the audience cheered almost as loudly as they did when she told her philandering husband’s beautician lover (a very nice cameo from Hannah Reeve) to ‘fuck off’. But as harsh as that retort was it rang as sheer and heartfelt truth. And that is what I admired most in these ladies. There was not a caricature in sight. All were flesh and blood and flawed. Under the laughter and the tears you could almost smell the Yorkshire pudding.

I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t find something to quibble about. The doc is giving me tablets for it. The episodic scenes were not always seamlessly linked and, on a composite set of church hall and fields, actors were often unimaginatively grouped. But frankly I did not care. I was captivated by the play and the highly crafted performances. In a cast in which there was not a serious weak link Jonathan Field also stood out for his loathsome tacky TV director and, especially, Robin Langer for his sensitive and well judged dying John. His last wheelchair scene almost broke your heart. He loved those sunflowers and he loved life. I reckon he would have liked what those women did in his memory. They scattered his beloved seeds and delivered a clever and poignant end. Lovely play, beautifully done. I left applauding those skilful and courageous ladies and a resolve to buy some sunflowers. Hides a lot more than roses on a naturist summer day. Roy Hall

Friday, 15 February 2013

Calendar Girls (Wheathampstead) - Preview

Wheathampstead Dramatic Society has turned out an absolute cracker with their latest production. Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls, the tale of those famous Women’s Institute Nudies, is rich in laughter and pathos and director Julie Field extracts every ounce of a variety of emotions. Jan Westgarth (Chris) and Viv Fairley (Annie) head an almost impeccable cast in a production which ticked most of my theatrical boxes. Strip off your clothes and put a sunflower in your hair. It just might get you a ticket for the last night.

Last performance Saturday 16th February at 8.00pm.
Full review to follow