Featured post

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 ...

Monday, 28 October 2013

Lights!Camera!Music! (St Andrew's Players)

For those of you living on some distant planet, it’s been pretty rough down here lately. This week’s storms are little more than a sparrow’s fart compared with the harsh economic winds which seem to have been blowing through our wallets since Clegg and Cameron were in short pants. There was a time when folks splashing out tarted up their houses or upgraded the old motor. These days the lucky ones pay off their gas bill or shamelessly switch on their lights for a self indulgent half an hour. Or it seems like that. Given the constant media reminders of food banks for the starving and ‘eat or heat’ debates it is hardly surprising that the financial plight of local theatrical societies figures fairly low on the agenda. Parting people from their pounds for a night out gets harder and harder. And those pounds they do part with rarely reflect the true cost of all but the most basic productions. Especially musical ones for modern audiences conditioned for West End blockbusters.

They are a sensible lot down at St Andrews. You can’t do a high quality Into the Woods, Drowsy Chaperone, or Children of Eden for peanuts but that is the price you have to put on the tickets if you want a local audience. And that comes at a cost. So it is hardly surprising that in between times most societies find other means to subsidise their local blockbusters. Lights!Camera!Music! clearly falls into that category. Minimal staging, minimal props and costumes, minimal band. Rely heavily on your individual singers, sprinkle in a bit of visual trickery, and trust enough folks turn up to swell the depleting coffers and put a smile on the face of your accountants and your show choosing committee. Great news folks, we can do Miss Saigon after all.

With such shows you inevitably cherry pick. Well I cherry picked Your Song (David Mills), Man or Muppet (Luke Storey and Jonathan Mills), and Sound of Silence (David Mills and John O’Leary) as being particularly notable. And I would also have cherry picked You’ll Never Walk Alone (Frances Hall) if I wasn’t married to her and Moon River (Andy Sizmur) if they had included him in the programme. But perhaps I have anyway. But the outstanding numbers were the collective Sweeney Todd Prologue and West Side Story (Tonight) and the individual Diamonds Are Forever (Alex Colledge-Orr). All these made me tingle in unexpected places. Miss Orr has a voice as rich and brown as treacle and, against an imaginative backdrop of James Bond films, she delivered my personal top of the podium highlight.

I would have liked that filmic backdrop a bit more. It started proceedings nicely and ended imaginatively with a roll call of all the participants, including the popcorn maker, in true cinematic style. Stagers Emma Orr and Emma Mills, backed by Jonathan Mills’ lively trio, had clearly given their evening of limited resources a heavy splash of creative thought. I liked it. So did the audience, and there were a lot of them. And so did their accountants. Not many of them I am told. Far too expensive. Roy Hall

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Educating Rita ( Wheathampstead DS )

I find it easy to relate to Rita. Willy Russell’s heroine of Educating fame may have a scouse accent as thick as Mersey fog but in all other respects we are two peas in a pod.  Working class post war baby, desperately seeking culture and an escape from mind numbing council estate values. Harold Wilson’s Open University opened up a world of opportunity for the aesthetically deprived and Rita eagerly grabs it with large hands and an even larger mouth. She may have come to Chekhov and Ibsen later than I did but she gorges on it like a child in a sweetshop. Russell’s famous play is good because his monster of a mouthpiece for the changing times is a comic creation of the highest order and her tutor, Frank, an intricate fragile foil on which to bounce the narrative and drive the conflict. Get the chemistry right and it is a play that zings.

That this version from Wheathampstead almost totally succeeded owes much to the brilliant portrayal of Rita from Sarah Brindley. You believed in this woman from the moment she entered the book strewn tutorial room. Desperate to learn and sharp as a Liverpool razor, this Rita grabbed you by the throat and never let go. Scene by scene Miss Brindley created an offstage life that was both bleak and unfulfilled. You could almost see the unfeeling husband, the dreary hairdresser clients, the pathetic mother yearning for a better song. Beautifully judged, quiet reflective moments interspersed with coruscating one liners, this Rita tickled the fancies and stilled the heart. All is directed at Frank, the tutor consumed with his own quiet desperation and fraying at the edges. Alcohol is both his prop and his curse. Malcolm Hobbs could not match Miss Brindley in the acting stakes, his controlled character needed a hint of greater disintegration for that, but it was a carefully observed and measured performance. His was the firm ground on which Rita danced. A bit too firm perhaps, except in a highly comic drunken scene, but one that held your attention.

For the cultural snobs amongst you, Rita was Galatea to Frank’s Pygmalion. For those who know theatre and Willy Russell, she was Breezeblock Park’s Sandra writ large. But whatever Rita was, she and her Frank made for an absorbing evening. Individual acting merits aside, you believed in them both. Pretty important that, as plays with only two characters can be enormously difficult. Not that I know, I have never done one.
But I reckon director Steve Leadbetter quietly considers himself fortunate to have a pairing that had clearly worked their socks off. His packaging will improve as he gets more directorial experience, unfocussed sound and hasty and confused lighting changes displeased, but his first shot at it was a bloody sight better than mine. But however many plays he directs he will rarely get an individual performance as consummate as the one delivered by Sarah Brindley. This Rita roared. Roy Hall

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The God of Carnage (Dunstable Rep)

My mother was a fierce defender of her kids. A full time job as she had a lot of us. First sniff of bullying and she was up our school quicker than you could say litigation. Not that she used such words. Working class, council estate, sort the little buggers out was her maxim. I reckon she would have been useful to the adult characters of Yasmina Reza’s The God of Carnage. They finish up squabbling much more than the two offstage fisticuff kids who launch and drive the onstage plot. And these parents are middle class and French. The French isn’t relevant, could be anywhere south of Watford, being middle class is. The ostensibly nice and civilised parents of the one bashed about the head with a stick invite the ostensibly nice and civilised parents of the juvenile aggressor for meaningful talks on the problem. Doomed to failure of course. You could see that the minute the curtain rose. Meaningless small talk lightly cloaked a delicate issue in which views and positions were entrenched in slabs of concrete. But what makes the play an interesting and entertaining evening is that the foursome spatting and sparring constantly switched allegiance. The couples warred as much with each other as they did with the other side. I reckon those unseen kids would have enjoyed the mayhem almost as much as the stick bashing event which sparked it. Kids are like that. Ask my mother.

Veronique (Jenna Ryder-Oliver) is a bohemian Hampstead type with cultural snobbery and social conscience stamped all over her attributes. Gets up your nose the minute she opens her mouth. Husband Michel (Dave Sims) is a downmarket toilet salesman with a nice unfeeling line in killing hamsters. Or at least giving them a map and dumping them on the open road to search for adventure. An ill matched pair if ever there was one. Him and her, not the hamster. Annette (Christine Hobart) and Alain (Dave Corbett) are no better. She is a power dressing hypocrite and he is an unfeeling drugs lawyer obsessed with a constantly ringing mobile phone. Much of the fun is watching the thin veneer of respectability disintegrate, beautifully illustrated when Annette throws up over one of Veronique’s arty books, and wondering how on earth such disparate couples stayed together long enough to produce and rear two healthy and feisty eleven year old boys.  I kept musing, as the rum flowed and tempers got increasingly frayed, on how it was all going to end. But it didn’t end, it just unsatisfyingly stopped. They could still be fighting now for all I know.

Thanks to some cracking pacing from Director Anne Blow and excellent teamwork from all four actors the evening whizzed along entertainingly. It is always nice to see folks savagely having a go at throats other than your own. Jenna Ryder-Oliver’s Veronique took the largest chunk of the acting honours for richly rounding out her complex character and for her beautiful observed decline into drunken introspection. It was her kid who got whacked on the head and if he was anything like his mother you could see why. Dave Sims’ Michel was too formal and precise to approach Miss Ryder-Oliver’s stagecraft but in a strange way his uncomfortable persona added rather than detracted from his performance. Here was a man totally out of his depth in his marriage and the situation and his relationship with rodents. You left the theatre feeling a bit sorry for him.

Christine Hobart did her usual dependable job for the Rep in the role of a woman more concerned with abandoned rodents than dodgy drugs on which her husband makes his considerable living. She threw up with ease and raised many a silent cheer when she dunked that bloody mobile phone in a tulip vase. Completing the quartet Dave Corbett etched out a watchable insensitive lawyer. Are insensitive lawyers watchable I ask myself? His well cut suit and handsome beard certainly were. A lighter touch on occasions, teasing the hapless Michel on the virtues of toilet ephemera for instance, would have enhanced his innate cruelty. But Mr Corbett’s staging strength was that he was part of a closely knit team that had clearly worked its collective socks off to create an interesting evening. The credit for that must go to director Anne Blow who had taken four actors of differing abilities and banged them into a coherent and pleasing shape.

Alan Goss created a realistic middle class Parisian living room and Fred Rayment, crucially, delivered the many realistic ringings of the mobile phone. Almost a fifth character in Yasmina Reza’s short but pithy play, she has previous form, this sound effect seriously impressed. You always learn when you go to the theatre, no matter how old you are. This one taught me, as it never did my mother, never try to solve your kid’s playground problems. And if you need a mobile phone to ring on stage, get Fred Rayment. Limited career for him I am afraid. Shakespeare and Ibsen never had one. Roy Hall

Wendy Says:  I could have done with another hour of this. Worth at least three stars, probably more.