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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, 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