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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 ...

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.