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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, 26 May 2013

Into The Woods - St Andrew's Players

Reading programmes can be very useful when you are a lazy blogger. Snitch a couple of the director’s choice phrases and you can sum up a show quicker than any original thought. Useful approach. Leaves more time for the serious things like which nag is going to run fastest at Epsom Downs on Saturday. But, as it is with horses, be careful what you wish for. Especially if you are a character in Sondheim’s Into The Woods. Idyllic realised dreams quickly turn to painful ash. Or that’s the gist of it. Don’t stray off the path, be late leaving the ball, or buy a bag of doubtful beans. A moral for life. It says so in the programme.

Into the Woods is no Company or A Little Night Music, too theatrically lite for that, but it has Mr Sondheim’s sumptuous musical tones and rhythms. And scintillatingly clever words. I’m a big fan of this marmite composer, and yes that is in the programme. And he cleverly links the fabled fairy tales with the narrative glue of a likeable baker and his seemingly barren wife and an omniscient narrator who presides over both charm and chaos. Do it badly though and it would be a pretty dreary evening for those of us who feed off stronger dramatic fare. Thoughts of painted wooded backcloths and weak performers make one shudder. There was never any danger of that here. St Andrew's Players wheeled out Alistair Brown from the Rep. And he has serious inventive form. We got a magnificent towering wooden structure to frame and highlight all the action, some ingenious staging moments, and a neat split narrative from the Brothers Grimm. Mr Brown is a clever bugger, and no it does not say that in the programme. Perhaps it should.

But no matter how you wrap it up you need folks to perform it. Individually I could be sniffy about one or two but collectively this company zinged. Acting was generally strong and singing even better. Too many good numbers to list but amongst the best were Hello Little Girl (Wolf and Red Riding Hood), Giants in the Sky (Jack), Agony (Princes), Witch’s Lament (Witch), Moments in the Woods (Baker’s Wife), and No One is Alone (Quartet). In acting terms Jenna Ryder-Oliver (Witch) and Emma Orr (Red Riding Hood) were outstanding for richly crafted portrayals and they were well matched by excellent performances from Jamie Pritchard (Jack), Frances Hall (Baker’s Wife), and David Mills (Wolf and Prince). Andy Whalley and Adam Butcher combined nicely as the Grimm brothers and I particularly liked Mr Butcher’s secondary role as a very camp royal courtier in fetching top hat. It’s my age. Hayley Vaughan sang beautifully as Cinderella but she needs to sharpen up her acting skills to totally please and the Baker of John O’Leary, engaging and convincing as he was, seemed a little unsure on lines in some of his scenes. Happens to us all, live theatre is like that. In the smaller roles, there were a lot of them, I particularly warmed to Amy Hansford (Cinderella’s Stepmother) and Stephanie Overington (Florinda) for supremely controlled performances of two rather nasty folk. The very young and highly talented Miss Overington is, in my opinion, destined for greater things on the stage.

Mr Brown is probably thinking he is too old to be destined for greater things but he can be well pleased with this one. Crackling from the mikes irritated at times and, surprisingly, some of David Houghton’s generally excellent lighting was occasionally late on cue. Must be that Saturday night, last night, feeling. But overall, aided by smashing musical director (Beth Thomas) and clever and eye catching choreography (Lynette Driver) he gave us a show that rarely flagged and generally tingled. I loved the depiction of Grandma Wolf’s bed, extremely clever, and even if not original in conception the execution of it was magnificent. Am told he got the idea whilst wandering around Regent’s Park. Nothing wrong with that. I get lots of my best ideas when wandering around in parks. Parks not woods. Read the Police Gazette if you don’t believe me. Certainly won’t find it in any theatre programme. Roy Hall.




Thursday, 23 May 2013

Icarus Theatre Company - Spring Awakening

I took in Icarus Theatre Company’s Spring Awakening purely in the interest of theatrical blogging. That’s my excuse anyway. Teenage sex and nudity lost its appeal years ago. But you don’t often get a major nineteenth century play famed for its controversial themes dropping in on Harpenden. We are more your Rattigan and Coward types, sex wrapped up in polite conversation and nice dresses. Frank Wedekind, in a translation by bad boy Edward Bond, gives you teenage sexual repression full face.

Nothing wrong with that providing you do it well. And this young company, on a stark but imaginative set, can act their German rustic socks off. Pastoral youthful passions writ large. David McLaughlin was an excellent and assured Melchior, the boy who knows and writes about sex, and Christopher Smart a compelling Moritz riddled with guilt and repression. Both boys, at fourteen or fifteen, have discovered puberty and it is their reactions to it that is the heart of this demanding, but absorbing, piece. The one impregnates a girl, the other kills himself. Still happens all over the world but rarely depicted on stage as raw and disturbing as this one. Gabrielle Dempsey was a beautifully fragile and confused Wendla, Nicole Anderson a sensuously provocative Ilse and, in outstanding virtuosity, Gemma Barrett a feisty schoolgirl Martha and an unflinching buttoned up mother. In the best scene of the evening Miss Barrett’s Frau Bergman failed beautifully and miserably to spell out the facts of life to her daughter. When fourteen year old Wendla fell pregnant she poignantly tells her ma that she couldn’t be. She wasn’t married. She was that sort of girl; it was that sort of play.

Max Lewendel and Adam Purnell, director and set designer, combined to produce a compelling piece superbly lit and costumed. It was also episodic and wordy and you needed all your concentration powers to relate action to characters. Mine wandered a bit at the two gays in the wood, where did that come from I says, and at the teacher’s meeting to expel the sexually rebellious Melchior. Absurdist theatre beautifully conducted by Zachary Holton as a weird Chairman but, almost, completely mystifying. I blame my age, Elvis and Cliff obsessed my distant teenage years. But the heart of this Spring Awakening shone like a beacon. Mainly because this group, collectively, gave us an abundance of powerful and sincere acting of the highest class. Sex reared its complex head and young and old floundered in its confusions. Just like here in Harpenden. So I am told. Roy Hall


Wheathampstead DS - Entertaining Angels

I was seriously underwhelmed by this one. After an ambitious and laudable Helen and a splendid Calendar Girls, four stars for that one folks, I found Wheathampstead’s latest offering about as gripping as a limp lettuce. Richard Everett’s Entertaining Angels is full of exposition but little else. Five characters inhabit the vicarage garden stage and have enough skeletons to fill half a dozen cupboards. Trouble is none of them were that interesting. A now dead vicar impregnated his wife’s missionary sister, he was more seduced than predatory, and thirty years later it all comes pouring out. That’s the central plot and, to labour the emotional angst, sundry characters spell out their own traumas. A psychotherapist daughter is scarred by a failed marriage and a new female vicar, replacing the dead one in both church and home, got knocked up by a French polisher with a nice arse. The foetus died and her husband grieved for a child that wasn’t his. All no doubt gobsmacking in therapy sessions but as drama on a stage, in which folks stand around aimlessly spouting, it gets very tedious. The one slight dramatic slant, resilient widow chatting to dead husband, merely served to underline the paucity of a dreary script.

Given that I was not enamoured of the play it is easy to dismiss the performances. That would be unfair as none were less than competent. But plays like this need grabbing by the throat and bustling along to retain even a modicum of interest and if the actors were ill served by the script they were not much helped by Jan Westgarth’s less than imaginative direction. Other than walking on to the garden and delivering their latest bit of bottled up guilt the actors did little else. None seemed to have a life offstage, forgivable in the deceased vicar I suppose, and none did much on stage other than motionlessly churn out the script. I was almost screaming for someone to knit a cardigan, read a book, do some weeding, ruin a meal. Creosote a fence. Anything to suggest real lives in a real world. All here seemed to be performing in a vacuum of religious therapy.

Pip Dowdell did a fair job as the resilient and spiky widow Grace, delivering most of her comic lines with aplomb, but she has often impressed more when doing less. Viv Fairley’s missionary sister Ruth and Irene Morris’s female vicar Sarah did their best but, devoid of imaginative help, characters were depressingly one dimensional. When two such good actresses flounder you can be pretty sure that they are riding a bit of a plodder. Julie O’Shea was far too young to be an embittered thirty four year old Psychotherapist, I worked that out, and it was left to the sole male, Robert Naylor-Stables, to give us the most pleasing performance of the evening. He could be forgiven in his speechifying, there was a lot of the in Mr Everett’s script, and he had the dual advantages of looking every inch a country vicar and of being unmistakeably dead. A lone outsider can counterpoint the action. Trouble is, the action in this piece was as rare as hen’s teeth.

The lighting was good, especially in scenes of old memories, and the lawnmower effective and realistic. And Len Skilton had meticulously designed a pleasing set. I am not a fan of painted backdrops but this one was seriously good. But overall not one of the Wheathampstead’s best productions. Only my opinion of course. The house was so full that they had to lay on extra chairs and many left saying how wonderful it all was. So perhaps it’s me. I have the same problem with Emmerdale and Eastenders. Watched and loved by millions, spurned in our house. But I have a sneaking feeling, though they would never admit it, that some of the sharper theatrical brains down the B653 might agree with me. Entertaining Angels ain’t much of a play and, ultimately, it defeated this fine company. In a theatrical race where Narrative Drive and Dramatic Conflict were non runners this script was tailed off before the third fence. Roy Hall

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Children's Hour - Dunstable Rep

Talk to anyone who knows me and they will tell you I am an expert on everything. Politicians, murderers, horses, daffodil bulbs. Know everything I do. Can spot a dyke at a mile off. There were two in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, Dunstable Rep’s latest production. Two teachers. Wore matching brown shoes, very heavy and butch, and unflattering attire. Must be lesbians. Obvious. Told you I was an expert. So is the nasty little schoolgirl who points a poisonous finger at them and destroys their lives. Aided and abetted by a grandmother who, with unseemly haste, backs her tale and starts the mass exodus of pupils. The offstage wagging tongues in this splendid production were almost as loud as the constantly ticking clock which framed each scene. Apparently the play is based on a real case in Edinburgh in 1810 when these fictionalised events actually happened. Oh all right I ain’t an expert on that. But google is. Tells me dyke is offensive, if it is I apologise, but the two in this play certainly weren’t. Theatrically and dramatically they were the bee’s knees. By the way I am an expert on bees. Oh, shut up Roy and get on with it.

I have always admired Annalise Carter-Brown. Cracking actress who occasionally gets short changed. Not in this one. As the frustrated and embittered Martha Dobie, unloved and unlovely, she fired on all her emotional cylinders. Every line was razor sharp and clear as crystal and her last scene, recognising unspoken desires, was both powerful and gripping. A super performance of the highest class. Against such firepower it would be forgivable if the object of her suppressed affections, fellow teacher Karen Wright, suffered in comparison. It says a lot for the abilities of Kim Albone that this never happened. In a beautifully crafted portrayal Miss Albone held her corner at every twist and turn. Here was a woman with dignity and poise and astute recognition that mud, however undeserved, irrevocably sticks. These two actresses created a compelling, understated, relationship which absorbed for its ordinariness as much as its underlying drama. I take my hat off to them both.

But you don’t get four stars from me if the leads sparkle but the rest are desultory dross. They weren’t in Lucy O’Hare’s beautifully crafted piece. Rona Cracknell was absolutely superb as the shallow and self centred Lily Mortar, ageing actress and temporary teacher, and young Victoria Moyle gave a breathtaking performance as the odious twelve year old Mary Tilford. I expect assurance from Miss Cracknell, an accomplished actress to her fingertips, to get one equally good from such a young performer was a delightful bonus. Miss Moyle oozed malice and manipulation in equal, and completely believable, poison spitting proportions. We also got skilled and believable portrayals from Matt Flitton in the thankless role of Dr Joe Cardin, it’s thankless because he is so bloody nice, Julie Hanns as a no nonsense Agatha, and Anne Blow as the intransigent Mrs Tilford. In her best performance to date Julie Hanns was a totally convincing vinegar laced domestic and my only caveat with Anne Blow’s interpretation of the grandmother is that I would have liked a little more steel in her determination. I quite liked her, and I reckon I should have loathed her almost as much as the young viper she held to her bosom.

Lucy O’Hare, a director I enviously admire so much it is time I spread malicious rumours about her, rarely put a foot wrong. She got an interesting set from Cameron Hay, private house turned into private school, lovely atmospheric music, and some nice ensemble playing from the schoolgirls. Delilah West’s Peggy and diminutive Claire Gower’s Helen were the best of them for audibility and projection but all performed with discipline and teamwork. Wobbly and confusing lighting in Act Two irritated and the leitmotif ticking clock of time intruded at times. But these are minor niggles. The Children’s Hour was an absorbing couple of hours. Noel Coward’s famous quote on a play that bored doesn’t apply here. Or only obliquely. He said that they should cut the second act and the child’s throat. Theatrically speaking, I and some others would endorse that latter comment. It was that good. I am also an expert on theatrical quotes. Did I ever tell you that? Roy Hall

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Dunstable Rep - The Children's Hour (Preview)

When an obnoxious child points an accusing finger at two female teachers she sets off a chain of events that would task even her fertile imagination. True or false, the whiff of lesbianism is writ large in Lillian Hellman’s famous The Children’s Hour. The Rep are on top form with this absorbing piece and director Lucy O’Hare pulls out a string of first rate performances from her cast. Kim Albone and Annalise Carter-Brown turn in riveting portrayals as women forced to face unwelcome truths as the loathsome twelve year old Mary Tilford (A magnificent Victoria Moyle) spreads her poison. This is a must see gripping production littered with class. I shall give it at least four stars and a willing hand around the child’s throat. Roy Hall
The Children's Hour by Lillian Hellman
The Little Theatre, High Street South, Dunstable
7.45pm  Tickets £9 £11 £13
Box Office 07940 105864
Runs to Saturday 18th May 2013