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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 ...

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Real Arts Theatre/Slapstick (Oaklands College) - Three Odd Acts & Cabaret

I was hanging around some teenagers last week. All in the interests of theatre your honour. Real Arts Theatre Company (Oaklands College) were presenting their devised piece, Three Odd Acts, to an invited audience. Can’t speak for the rest of them but this old codger had his cerebral bits challenged. Coped with the first act, mental home for the seriously disturbed and psychopathic. Shopping in Waitrose easily conditions you for that. Second act, interesting but confusing, had me scratching my limited intellect. Hotel gangster, lady detective, dancers, singers, and a Mexican lothario with wandering moustache and hands. Murder and mayhem, liberally sprinkled. And then, as they passed the post, it all made sense. Bit like the 3.30 at Lingfield Park. The murder and mayhem takes place in the head of a mental inmate. Gangsters and dancers are really doctors and patients. Easy really, even if truth and reality is merely a personal choice of fantasy. So they hinted at the end. But whether gangsters are really doctors or nurses really gun toting killers is a matter of choice. All I know in this world is that it helps to be a little mad. Especially in Waitrose.

The intentions were good in this quirky piece of devised drama and there was some serious talent on the small stage. I would have liked a stronger production hand to focus and shape the scenes, directors are useful if irritating buggers, and I would have liked a small narrative hint that the second act was not precisely what it seemed. Perhaps there was and I missed it. It’s my age your honour. But I wasn’t blind to some serious embryonic theatre skills. Victoria Burrough was a compelling Evangelina, long blonde hair and good character internalising and Danielle Field scored for her disturbing Raven. Both had a penchant for killing, possibly in the Lizzie Borden axe manner, and both made their distinctive mark in the madhouse. They were well supported by the dysfunctional companionship of the bloody and abused Diamond (Ellesha King) and the obsessive deviancy of Julie (Roz Farmer). Both these young ladies were strong on diction and projection and completed a powerful quartet of nutcases. The rest suffered a bit against such strong characters and only Connor Mcsweeney’s bogus reporter, gliding across the stage with ease, caught the eye.

Switching to the Los Ventura Hotel, real or fantasised, I liked the opening plane journey sequence to establish characters and disparate singing and dancing was conducted with comic skill. Hostess Chloe Ahrendt (it’s all in her head apparently) had some strong moments but was not helped by being placed looking upstage in key scenes. Eyes are so important in characterisation and we lost hers at times. Aries Anders and Deborah Lopez performed an amusing competitive dance and Bryan Fawcett’s lecherous Mexican showed considerable acting talent. A bit uncontrolled and indulgent but full of stage presence and moustaches. I can see him milking many future audiences. But much as this student piece perplexed it gave us two of the best performances of the evening. Helen Abbot’s forgetful singer and Hector Hadley’s foulmouthed gangster. Rich in rhythms and depth, both are actors to their fingertips and both seriously impressed.

This is probably these young performers first taste of a critique, albeit only this humble blog. It is part of the territory when you tread the boards in earnest. Everyone’s a critic from the ‘Darlings you were wonderful’ to the ones who echoingly slam seats as they leave before the first act curtain. And in between, as you take all on manful theatrical chins, you get balanced and thoughtful stuff from nicer folk. I throw in tuppenceworth of tosh to ‘Three Odd Acts’. My wife, Frances Hall, below gives a more measured and eminently sensible take on the second night’s ‘Cabaret.’  Buy one, get one free. Can’t be bad in these harsh economic times. Roy Hall

CABARET – Oaklands College
Slapstick Arts & The Real Arts Theatre Company


This was the second evening of entertainment provided by Oakland’s first year drama students to showcase their work this term. The two companies both performed the same selection of songs from the show ‘Cabaret’ to an audience seated at tables in the hall. An interesting idea allowing us to compare the different choices the two groups had decided on for presenting each number.

Ben Simmons and the Company of Slapstick Arts got the evening off to a good stylish start with ‘Willkommen’, capturing the atmosphere of a 1930’s Berlin nightclub. Equally good were James Hart and the Real Arts Company, kicking off the second presentation. Unfortunately Slapstick Arts were plagued with technical problems as their microphones were not working properly throughout their production, however they were not fazed by this and carried on as though nothing was wrong. It just meant that some of the voices were rather drowned by the excellent backing track. We were still able to hear most of the words and the performances were generally well crafted. I particularly liked ‘Two Ladies’ performed with great energy by George Clark, Sarah Higgins and Samantha Monaghan. Very cheeky! Again they were perfectly matched by Connor McSweeney, Helen Abbott and Chloe Ahrendt for Real Arts later on. Both teams won great applause and laughter with ‘If You Could See Her Through My Eyes’ although I think the stronger vocal performance came from Bryan Fawcett in the second show.

The next two numbers in the programme were performed very differently by the two groups. ‘Mein Herr’ was cleverly done as a double duet by Slapstick Arts, but I think the stronger version came from Real Arts with an outstanding solo from Roz Farmer supported by a team of dancers, all with real attitude. On the other hand I marginally preferred the full company version of ‘Money, Money’ with George Clark as the MC, over the duet version performed by Connor McSweeney and Alice Smithson. Both were good but Slapstick Arts won out on balance. However, a word for the ladies in excellent freeze pose that framed the duet for Real Arts, very effective.

The big solo ‘Maybe This Time’ was well crafted by both Sarah Higgins and Victoria Burrough. Victoria probably gave the stronger vocal performance but I thought Sarah had more of the vulnerability of Sally Bowles, and for me the choice of a dress worked against Victoria. In all the other portrayals of Sally the various girls chose to merely augment their outfits with a ‘Sally’ accessory which worked very well.

Rounding off with ‘Cabaret’ both companies gave rousing finales to their pieces. Overall, a fascinating piece of theatre with a few rough edges but plenty of enthusiasm. Frances Hall


Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Female of the Species (Dunstable Rep) - Review


I have been musing on The Female of the Species over a snowy weekend. Nothing much else to do when you are full of cold and the horseracing is off. Don’t reckon it is that special. It caused a fuss when first performed because of its associations with Germaine Greer but, as a play, nothing to write home about. There’s an irony there, I am full of ‘em when I have nothing better to do, as Joanna Murray-Smith’s piece is all about a writer and her feminist writings. But although farcical at times it ain’t a farce and though rich in some acerbic lines, many of them filthy, it ain’t a rollicking laugh. I suppose it’s a comic drama, nothing wrong with that, but the drama is fairly low key and the characters and speeches pretty formulaic. In a feminist way.

So if I were not enamoured by the horse, how did I rate the jockeys? Generally pretty good. None were irritatingly weak and one, Angela Goss, was outstandingly strong. Not an original comment but it gets increasingly difficult to be original with Miss Goss. She is so bloody marvellous in practically everything she does you soon run out of superlatives. I once said that the Rep should erect a plaque to her. I have changed my mind. They should give her a complete row starting with her Beverley in Abigail’s Party a thousand years ago, and finishing up with this one. Her Margot Mason, creative blocked feminist writer and spitter of pithy prose, was a joyful and totally believable personification that Ms Greer would have instantly recognised. Magnificent in both form and delivery. But I get ahead of myself.

Margot Mason is trapped in her upmarket house, excellent and realistic set from Mervyn Wilson, by a gun toting student full of bitterness and a desire for revenge. I shan’t relate the whole plot but I reckon having someone pointing a gun at you who states you killed her ovaries and her mother, the latter obliquely, must be pretty unnerving. Trouble is this set up wasn’t. Ally Stafa did a competent job as the disturbed Molly Rivers but you never for a moment felt that she would pull the trigger. And I think we should have. Perhaps it was the writing, perhaps it was Julie Foster’s direction, but real fear was never on the agenda. This was black comedy lite and the first act suffered for it.

After that we got a variety of characters wheeled in at suitable intervals to up the comic levels and provide various slants on feminism. Lots of clever speechifying, little dramatic drive. Only my opinion but, again only my opinion, they all did them extremely well. Those jockeys and horses again. Christine Hobart was a nice dysfunctional daughter, costume contrasting cleverly with her more elegant mother and spouting maternal and marital frustrations, and Joe Butcher’s Doolittle taxi driver spun homilies that Shaw would have been proud of. Women are only interested in men for foreplay and taxes he said with barely a wink. Or something like that. I know I laughed. And equally I laughed at the nerdish son in law (excellent portrayal from Joshua Thompson) and the languid publisher of Roger Scales. Mr Scales, in a welcome return to the Rep, oozed obligatory decadence and the malapropisms of Mr Thompson, toblerone instead of testosterone, tick boxed his character. When he told his wife that he mounted her on a pedestal only he, in the context of this play, mistook the meaning.

So thanks to the performers, especially the divine Miss Goss, and Julie Foster’s generally sharp direction it was not a wasted evening. I didn’t like the clich├ęd ending as, beginning to sound like the script, I could see it coming and manfully swallowed it. But I did like Molly River’s feminist student plea for equality. Whoever wields the gun, male or female, do the decent thing and get down on the floor. That made me laugh, as much as anything in this play. But its feminist polemics, words subverting drama, never really drew me in. And all good plays, comedy or tragedy, do. Roy Hall

Thursday, 21 March 2013

The Female of the Species (Preview)

Joanna Murray-Smith’s The Female of the Species is not really my sort of play. It beats you about the head with relentless feminist diatribe from a variety of viewpoints. Julie Foster’s production would have benefited from a darker slant in act one but, in fairness, the action and the lines rarely flagged. Joshua Thompson made for a nice nerdish husband and Roger Scales, an effete and languid publisher, returned to the Rep with style. But the undoubted star, not for the first time, was Angela Goss as the writer with a creative block. From first filthy word to the last, Miss Goss was magnificent. Roy Hall
Full review to follow
Runs to Saturday 23rd March (Little Theatre, High Street, Dunstable -  7.45pm)

Sunday, 3 March 2013

All Theatrical Roads lead to Cheltenham

I get around a bit on my theatrical travels. St Albans, Sidmouth, Eaton Bray? Been everywhere, man. Sometimes I even push out the boat to Luton but, given soaring petrol prices and pot holed roads, I ration my visits. That’s my excuse anyway. But the A5 to Dunstable and B653 to Wheathampstead are regularly worn in search of theatrical gems, adventurous soul that I am. Always worth it if I see a cracker (And Then There Were None, Calendar Girls) and even the lesser ones are rarely totally devoid of interest. Theatre is like that if it is in your blood. And it constantly surprises. High expectations are fulfilled or dashed in equal proportions and low expectations are sometimes pleasantly and wonderfully surpassed. And I reckon all, or most of them, have their directors scratching their heads in puzzlement. Something that seemed a whiz bang hit in rehearsals fails to leave the page in performance and the one they considered a complete turkey suddenly gels and flowers. If they are honest they, or the best of them, are never sure which way the play or musical will go until they flaunt it in front of an audience. Fate is so fickle.

It’s the same with horses. The best of them, those that are fit that is, will strut their own personal stage at my beloved Cheltenham in the second week of March. Some will live up to expectations, some will exceed them, and many others will leave their trainers scratching heads and forthcoming entries. But for four days the finest National Hunt horseflesh on the planet will clash swords in twenty seven of the finest races. To put it all into context NH horses are rated 0-175 and there will not be many with a rating under 130 running at Prestbury Park. And the latter only in the handicaps or novice events. In the top races 150 would probably put you in as a likely also ran. Kauto Star (retired) and Big Bucks (injured) are two goliaths who won’t be there but there are enough other super stars to compensate. Sprinter Sacre (rated 179) is no doubt the best of them and the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday is considered a shoe-in for this awesome beast. Quevega, Simonsig, and Hurricane Fly (Champion Hurdle favourite) are just a few of the other superstars who will get the pulse racing. Even if, at prohibitive odds, you ain’t backed them. In the latter Rock on Ruby may surprise again. For me, well I like bigger prices and hopefully a couple of the following may swell my personal satchel. Even if they don’t, like those actors or plays which don’t shine when they should, I shall still love them.

Haven’t a clue about Friday’s Gold Cup at the moment (it looks wide open, but don’t tell Sir Des Champs and Bobsworth) but reckon Kentford Grey Lady could give Quevega a shove in the Mares Hurdle and I like First Lieutenant (win) and Alberta’s Run (e/w) in the Ryanair Chase. Both races on the Thursday and old Bertie is my blog poster horse. 12 years old and won around £1,000,000. He owes nobody anything and this could be his last race. Certainly at Cheltenham. He needs good going. So if it rains he may put his feet up and watch it on the telly. I shall certainly be doing that. And if Empiracle (currently 8/1) wins the bumper on Wednesday I shall be counting my dosh and toasting a very nice Harpenden man who has backed it to win £5,000. I’ll only win about £50 but I shall be ecstatic for both of us. And if it loses I won’t care, at least for me if not him, as the adrenalin will pump in glorious anticipation. And that is what it is all about. Theatre and horseracing do that to you. And in March at Cheltenham the horse eclipses all. On four unrivalled days it is the nearest you will get to heaven whilst you still reside on earth. Those wonderful equine actors have brushed up their lines and honed their characters (hero or villain) in a script yet to be written for a play yet to unfold.  As some folks say, bring it on. Roy Hall

The Cheltenham National Hunt Festival  

Tues 12th March – Fri 15th March 2013

Channel Four