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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, 19 October 2014

My One and Only (BBC Radio 4)

I have always been a big fan of the radio, right back to those days in our house when we called it the wireless. It’s the only reason I don’t rage against the BBC licence fee. I could live without television if I had to, much as I would miss the horseracing and weather forecast, but not the blessed radio. I have seven in my house. Only the lavatory escapes and I am working on that. And as I have aged, ears coping better than eyes, it becomes even more important. Being a theatre buff I avidly search for drama. We don’t get as much as we used to, apart from Shakespeare and the odd classic, and little these days that is relevant to the stage. The oiks who control output, much like their TV equivalent, see little need for a regurgitation of old Rattigans, Priestleys, and Ibsens. They used to, years ago, even throwing in an Ayckbourn, a Pinter, or an Arthur Miller. Search now and, generally, you search in vain. Most drama these days on the wireless, the radio, tends to be Radio 4’s afternoon slot, plays commissioned and especially written for the medium. Not for the stage. It saddens but it is better than nothing and, occasionally, just occasionally one turns up which grips you in a vice like hold that does not let go. You stop everything, cease those other activities, and avidly listen. When over, exhausted, you say ‘that was good, no, more than that, it was bloody brilliant.’ And you also recognise, reluctantly and grudgingly, it could only have been done on the radio. The wireless. Not the stage. My One and Only was one such play.

Written by Dawn King it concerns a complex triangular relationship in which the main character, a highly emotional Layla expertly played by Katherine Parkinson, is desperately seeking to continue an affair with self centred medic Ben whilst simultaneously trying to extract herself from one she never intended, the freaky and spooky Noah. What makes this little drama special, menace unnervingly ratcheting up with every prosaic ring of a variety of telephone noises, is that all conversations take place courtesy of Alexander Graham Bell’s little invention. Characters never, except in one nerve racking scene, meet. All angst, emotion, anger, fear, is conducted down telephone wires. On landlines, on mobiles, in home and office. Layla is unnervingly stalked by one night stand Noah and, obliquely, she in desperation and despair seemingly stalks Ben. A man she still desires. And in her desperation she ups the ante and gets Noah to stalk Ben’s wife. Her own sister. I tell you, it had my head reeling. Never did the ring of a phone contain so much venomous poison; never did a familiar homely object ooze such threats. Whatever I was doing, it went on hold for forty five heady minutes.

Director Jessica Dromgoole did a super job with all those special effects of the everyday and in Katherine Parkinson, Carl Prekopp (Noah), Simon Bubb (Ben), and Victoria Inez Hardy (Amy) she had actors’ voices which both complemented and enhanced this dramatic piece. Carl Prekopp was particularly compelling as the overtly nice Noah, gentleness laced with stalker’s menace, and the phone call between Layla and Amy was dramatic writing at its radio best. The despairing Layla could at that moment, I ungraciously thought, strangle both Ben’s cooing wife and the unseen baby being thrust down the phone as token of both fidelity and love. No wonder she put Noah onto her. My One and Only, beautifully written and directed, beautifully acted, unnervingly realistic, was radio theatre at its best. Out of the blue on a midweek afternoon. More like this and I will put an eighth radio, or wireless, in the lavatory. Roy Hall



Broadcast 2-15pm Radio 4 Monday 13th October 2014 – available until 12th November (30 days or thereabouts) on BBCiplayer

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Fiddler on the Roof (DAOS) - Guest Review

Grove Theatre-October 2014 - Review by Frances Hall

‘Tradition’ proclaims Tevye. ‘Tradition, Tradition.....Tradition!’ replies the hearty chorus. And so we are off into the downtrodden lives of the lowly milkman and his family in the Russian-Jewish community of Anatevka 1905, just before the Russian revolution.
I know this show well, I was in it many years ago, and it is like meeting old friends as each of the well-loved songs and set pieces are re-lived. And Tradition is so much a part of the first act: the Matchmaker, the Sabbath, the Wedding, the Bottle Dance, all serving to define the lives of these simple people and highlight the enormity of the changes to come. Our guide, of course, is Tevye, played with immense skill and sensitivity by Alan Clarke. Taking on a role made so famous by the great Topol is a feat in itself, but within seconds comparisons were superfluous. Everything about the character seemed so right: costume, beard, gravelly voice, wry humour, the weight of a hard life and the love of God, family and home. The reluctant acceptance of inevitable change as little bits of tradition are chipped away with each daughter’s choice of husband, until the heartbreaking decision to disown Chava who has chosen outside the faith. The most poignant moment of this production being Tevye’s quiet lament ‘Chavaleh’ sung with such depth of love and loss.

There were some rather wonderful performances around him too. Wife Golda played by Susan Young had warmth often missing from other versions, but combined with all the feisty strength of the Jewish mother this was a fully rounded character. I would have preferred her to be busier and more dismissive in the duet ‘Do You Love Me’ but I think that was perhaps a directorial choice. The three elder daughters all had their moments and worked well together. Katie Ross’s Hodel was a little under projected in her acting scenes but sang ‘Far From The Home I Love’ with real emotion. Of the suitors, Sam Rowland’s Perchick was a suitably charming rebel but James Halling’s Fyedka, the Russian soldier with a heart, was again under projected against the feisty Chava of Ellie Reay. However, Simon Rollings as Motel brought all his experience and stage presence to the meek, mild-mannered tailor. Another beautifully crafted performance. With eldest daughter Tzeitel (Kim Albone) they made a perfect match.  And there was a touch of brilliance too from live Fiddler Lynette Driver who said not a word but spoke volumes with her bow and movement.

Of the rest, it will come as no surprise to those who have seen them before that Angela Goss and Barbara Morton were spot on as the busybody Matchmaker Yente and the raging Ghost Fruma Sarah. And a quirky but likeable Rabbi (Luigi Muscella) and his smug son Mendel (Alex Wheeler) lent some much needed character to the townsfolk. MD Chris Young worked his magic on the company and was rewarded by some excellent singing, particularly in the full company numbers.

The Grove is a big stage with a lot of height and, not for the first time, I felt that in some scenes the sparse set and open lighting, though beautiful, rather dwarfed the actors. I couldn’t understand why the cottage, which I assume was hired in at considerable cost, was trucked on and off stage instead of being a focal point throughout. I’m sure Director Alan Goss had his reasons and usually his set designs are magnificent but you can only react to what you see and for me sometimes the effect was a lack of atmosphere. Usually the haunting ‘Anatevka’ brings me to tears and from then on I’m a soggy mess till the end. However with this production, beautiful and perfect as the singing was, the scene didn’t really move me. But overall this was a good tight show with a magnificent central performance from Alan Clarke, lovely music and a fittingly enjoyable 50th Anniversary production. And a real Fiddler to bring good fortune for the next 50 years. Frances Hall

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Table Manners (Full review)

Little Theatre,
Dunstable Rep,
October 2014

Just for a change I have decided to do something different with this blog. Can’t face Table Manners, the Rep’s latest offering, with my usual shafts of coruscating critical wit and dripping pearls of exquisite wisdom. Or whatever rubbish I normally post that passes for theatrical comment and opinion. Wouldn’t be fair. Not because I know this play so well, I know so many plays well. Have two Pinters, one Ibsen, and Collins pocket dictionaries of Shakespeare and Aphra Benn on my library shelves. Oh all right, I made the last one up. But I am not making up my reluctance to review John O’Leary’s commendable production of the dining room slant on Alan Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquest Trilogy. Have only recently directed this one myself and, very soon, will be moving on to the next one, Living Together, which unsurprisingly takes place in the living room. The third in the trilogy is called Round and Round the Garden and I shall shortly be releasing my first theatre blog competition with a prize for the first entrant who successfully guesses where this takes place. All three plays, cleverly mixed, are  over the same fraught family weekend and in Table Manners we see the action in the dining room.

Knowing every line and every move, almost by heart, it is inevitable that one makes comparisons. Doubly so in my case as the original 1977 Thames Television production, a stellar cast including Penelope Keith and Richard Briers, is also indelibly printed on my mind. They did such things on TV in those days, but don’t get me started on that. But I brought so much baggage with me into the Rep’s splendid Little Theatre with this one it is a wonder that there was room for anyone else. I thoroughly enjoyed my evening and Mr O’Learys excellent cast hardly hit a false note, but I ain’t going to review it. One needs to distance oneself from the stage and the actors for that. Entertain me, engage me, draw me in, surprise me, you say. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But at least they, initially, hold all the theatrical cards. With Table Manners I was up there with them, anticipating every move, every line, every subtle nuance. So no review which, seeing as this is a blogging review site, leaves me in a pickle. Perhaps I should talk about horses and what may, or may not, win the Newmarket Cesarewitch.

I did have the splendid idea, well it seemed splendid at the time, of having an imaginary discussion with director John O’Leary on the various characters in Ayckbourn’s East Grinstead shenanigans. But as that wandered into the respective merits of the legs of his Sarah (Jenny MacDonald) and the famous Penelope Keith I wisely decided it was best abandoned. Legs apart, if you know what I mean, I thought Miss MacDonald did a super job. She was very feisty as bossy snob sister-in-law Sarah, her of civilised dinner parties and tantrums, and the guilty way she envisaged sexual trysts was spot on. She made a nice foil for the laidback persona of husband Reg (lovely portrayal from Matt Flitton, rich with the dirtiest laugh in Dunstable) and you seriously questioned how this ill matched pair ever got together. But that applies to all in The Norman Conquests. Reg’s sister Annie, homely and suffering, is stuck with hapless and dull vet Tom and dysfunctional librarian Norman, the bringer of emotional chaos to all he touches, is married to the insufferably upwardly mobile Ruth. A cow of any description. How they all cope with Norman’s intended conquest of Annie is what passes for a weekend plot. But that matters little in Ayckbourn. It is all about how his richly drawn characters react, both to each other and the situation.

Mr O’Leary’s interpretation had a gentle and subtle feel to it; commendably neither he nor his actors were intent on any unseemly manic rushing. If the chaotic third scene dinner party lost a little impetus as a result, this was my only regret. Elsewhere nuances were well fleshed out by all. Kate Johnson etched a pleasant and helpless Annie, lacking only in projection of her nicely observed character, and Anthony Bird was a keenly crafted Tom. I like this actor, he is rich in variety of tone and subtlety, and never more than when he delivered an aggressive threat to Norman. Pigeon arms akimbo, or something like that, his expelling air spoke volumes for its difficulty. Sometimes you don’t need words, just an actor clever enough to flesh out the nuances. This Tom was miles out of his emotional depth and in that one instance he encapsulated it. And in Norman’s wife Ruth, sister of Reg and Annie, Liz Harvey gave us that cow of consummate depth and artistry. She gave the dinner party scene considerable venomous zest and it was a joy to see this accomplished actress back on the Dunstable stage. And what of Norman, lumbering dysfunctional and engaging Norman, creator of emotional chaos and priapismic longings. In this interpretation he didn’t so much seize the moments as gently wrap them in his shambling likeable persona. I rather took to him, he both flagged and underlined Mr O’Leary’s concept of the piece, and left the theatre thinking that Alex Brewer had given his best performance yet for the Rep.

So a pretty gentle and pleasant evening, nicely staged and nicely lit, of a very familiar piece. It could have been turgid for me. That it wasn’t owes much to Mr O’Leary’s intelligent direction and his highly skilled cast. But, as I said, I ain’t going to review it. I shall leave that to others. Roy Hall








Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Table Manners (Dunstable Rep)

Alan Ayckbourn’s Table Manners is a lot of fun for both actors and audience. Part of the famous Norman Conquest trilogy it tells the tale of clandestine trysts with clarity and a large dollop of acutely observed humour. Director John O’Leary did a fine job for the Rep and a classy cast headed by Alex Brewer’s engagingly dysfunctional Norman made for a pleasant evening, easy on both eye and ear. With a play so familiar to me I could easily tear it apart if false notes registered. None did. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. And so I suspect will you. Roy Hall

Runs to Saturday 4th October 2014  - 7.45pm

Little Theatre, High Street South, Dunstable.

Tickets £9 - £13

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Cilla ( ITV1 )


Forgive me. Life has been quiet on here for a little while. Not a thing since Aspects of Love and not a lot for me on the horizon. Can’t stand the library theatre so swerved The Ladykillers, am giving our local musical a miss for the usual reasons, and much as I fancy TADS On Golden Pond with its equally fancy Rep players, Toddington is a bloody long way for a lazy old wotsit. And everywhere else in the usual locations seem to be doing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Don’t grab my Rattigans, play snob that I am. I should get out more some say, especially in a late summer of warm September sun, and I will dip my reviewing pen into the Rep’s Table Manners. That should be interesting. I am an expert on Ayckbourn, can spell his name anyway, and recently directed this one. So Mr O’Leary’s slant should induce the theatrical juices. But staying in as opposed to wandering the evening streets of local theatricals can have its compensations. Stuck by the box of general awfulness and triviality I got to watch Cilla.

Sounded my sort of thing. I grew up in the age of Billy J Kramer, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and the cloakroom girl who was a friend of the Beatles. The Liverpool sound swamped my teenage days and in a couple of vibrant years eclipsed America and its fifties rock n roll. The Cavern Club and all it spewed out became pop’s hottest tickets. And obliquely and distantly, me and my teenage friends were part of it. It was the same all over England. When Brian Epstein, The Beatles manager, died at his own hand at the height of their fame we all shared in the sorrow. If we’d had facebook or twitter we would have swamped them in mournful return.

I watched it for two principal reasons. The young Cilla Black was good, not Dusty Springfield or Connie Francis (google them), but the one true female Liverpool sound. She transmogrified (google that as well) into Surprise, Surprise and Blind Date for the later masses but at her young height she was magnificent. I still tingle at Anyone who had a Heart and, rightly or wrongly, think of her as the female Beatle. The second reason, yes I am coming to it, was Sheridan Smith. This lady is a sublime actress and she digs so deep into her characterisation of Cilla you can almost smell the Mersey. Watch her and you feel you know this feisty young cloakroom girl who writ large in your teenage life. She traces the emotional ups and downs with awesome skill and sincerity and, for good measure, she sings the trademark songs magnificently.

The subject and her performer would probably have been enough on its own to keep this old curmudgeon gripped, shamelessly wallowing in his lost youth, but ITV’s latest flagship drama comes with a battalion of bonuses. Personally I thought the limited Beatles portrayals a bit one dimensional and the Epstein gay scenes a bit Tom of Finland ( yes all right, google him as well if you dare) but the central family performances were absolutely spot on. John Henshaw and Melanie Hill turn in richly rounded portrayals as Priscilla White’s parents and Mr Henshaw is particularly good at conveying fatherly concern and mystification on his Cilla’s rise from the typing pool. A man truly, and touchingly, out of his depth. But best of all is Aneurin Barnard’s portrayal of the hapless Bobby Willis, erstwhile Co-op bakery man and budding entrepreneur. A beautiful performance which captivates for its realistic simplicity. The relationship between him and Miss Smith’s Cilla rings so true you could wrap it up and eat it. Add in Andrew Schofield’s raw and impressive Willis father and Ed Stoppard’s enigmatic and brooding Brian Epstein and you can see why I am hopelessly hooked.

One episode to go and I cannot wait.

Super TV drama.

From ITV.

And when, folks, did I last say that.

Roy Hall

Cilla – Episode Three ITV (Monday 29th September – 9.00pm)

Saturday, 2 August 2014

ACT - Aspects of Love

ACT Theatre Company
(Dunstable Rep Theatre - July 2014)

Someone said to me in the bar, I know not who but my concentration levels were flagging by then, that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love is a bit of a marmite musical. You either love it or hate it, he says superfluously. I mused on this, cerebral soul that I am. May be true for avid Webber fans but for the rest of us, I am not so sure. I neither loved it nor hated it. I fell more into the camp of absorbed and irritated. Absorbed by a storyline which flagged up endless possibilities of the human condition and, ultimately, irritated by its copping out of their resolve. I am not sure whose collar I should finger, novelist, composer, or director but I do know, believe me, that if you have a bloody great subtext clomping across the stage in hobnails boots it ain’t a bad idea to hint at its presence. This Sondheim-lite musical, for all its entertainment, never did. Or if it did, I missed it.
I should think by now that I have completely lost you. If you did not see it. So let me summarise, and I mean summarise, the complex permutated plot. Rose is a struggling actress, Alex an avid teenage fan. They meet, they bonk, they part. Two years later they meet and bonk again and, skipping over lots of peripheral bits, Rose proposes to and marries Uncle George. Alex’s Uncle George, not hers. There may be hints of incest in this play but not in that quarter. Many years later Rose is now a celebrated actress and Alex has a moustache. Not much to show for twelve years of soldiering but life is like that. Rose has a twelve year old daughter, note the age, and incipient youthful yearnings herald a reprise of earlier drama. Three years later the daughter, Jenny, throws herself at cousin Alex and George dies. I think the two facts are related. Rewriting the script, the plot lines and dates point you in that direction I says in my defence, the demise of George could now release skeletons from numerous cupboards. Is Jenny Alex’s daughter? Is such a thing possible? Does Alex consider it? A rich stream of angst is sadly and tantalisingly left un-mined. Selfish and self centred Rose wants a new lover; Alex declines and goes off with one of those peripheral bits referred to earlier. The possibilities of an honourable man sacrificing all is realised as a self centred shit finding an easier and more accommodating lay. I said I was irritated.
So, as the saying goes in such matters, how did they do? Pretty well actually, given its challenge certainly worth four stars. The show is all music and singing and, to Sarah Farrar’s splendid accompaniment, the performers trilled exceptionally well. Jenna Ryder Oliver’s actress Rose was never less than watchable and if I jibbed a bit at her funeral attire, that was my only caveat. She sang this difficult piece with strength and style and her acting etched a woman who, selfishly, used all around her. Jaymes Sygrove also sang his Alex with style and passion and, whenever the script allowed, created hints of subtle depth. His ‘Love Changes Everything’ musical theme trotted on stage far too many times for my ear but the fault for that lies firmly at the door of Mr Lloyd-Webber. Stuart Farrar adopted a nice easy style to the lecherous Uncle George and his eyes signalled many bedrooms and, late on, a look of fatherly protective hate at the hapless Alex that could have stopped a train. He also, for good measure, gave us a sincerely touching ‘Other Pleasures’ which pleased for its simplicity.
The fourth main character in the musical chairs of sexual shenanigans is an Italian sculptress with the splendid name of Giuletta Trapani. I assume she was Italian as with her name and looks she would have certainly been out of place in Grimsby. Her latent lesbianism was marginalised almost to the point of extinction and this enigmatic character, lover of Uncle George and anyone else who took her fancy, hovered on the edges of the central trio in true peripheral bit style. I reckon his Lordship did not have a serious clue what to do with her. But he gave her a couple of good numbers, ‘Hand me the Wine and the Dice’ being one of the musical highlights, and in the superb Anna Carter-Brown an actress you could not take your eyes off. A beautiful performance, beautifully judged, and expertly presented. I could have warmed my socks on her.
We also got very pleasant Jennys from Rachel Ridout as the twelve year old with fetching pigtails and from Charlotte Tabert as her more mature self. The confusions of sexual awakenings were nicely conveyed in the latter and, whoever was her dad, the drawing of metaphorical daggers did not surprise. Alan Clarke’s Hugo was suitably decorative and useless, as all gigolos should be except in the important department, and Paul Rogers fretted and flustered to some effect as the almost equally useless actor-manager Marcel. In the even smaller roles Frances Hall impressed for fine singing and the realism of her homely housekeeper and ensemble player Reece Lawton scored numerous brownie points for a variety of roles. His clown juggled his balls beautifully and there aren’t many ways you can say that.
I admire ACT Theatre Company, always have, and I ain’t going to knock Alan Clarke for trying something different in the musical stakes. There are only so many Oklahamas and Guys and Dolls a feller can take. And for us non musical types a play with music can have a lot going for it. But this one had more scene changes than you could shake a stick at and, commendably quick as they were, they underlined the longeurs of the evening for those with limited attention spans. Thankfully to carry an interesting dramatic plot that ultimately short-changed it had a pretty strong group of performers and beautiful, and vital, piano accompaniment from maestro Sarah Farrar and her admirable assistant Clare Hood. The whole knitted quite nicely for me even if, when I left, the only tune I was humming was the one lamenting the loss of an ultimately satisfying plot. Better than Love Changes Everything’ any day.
Roy Hall


Sunday, 27 July 2014

Aspects of Love (Preview)

ACT Theatre are not known for selecting easy theatrical options and in Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Aspects of Love the company run true to form. A small scale musical with strong themes of introspective passion, the laughs are few and the hummable tunes even fewer. But strong playing from the principals and sublime musicianship made for an evening of absorbing drama. Intricate love permutations had me mentally writing my own script for self centred actress Rose and her hapless student lover Alex. In a generally fine cast Jenna Ryder-Oliver and Jaymes Sygrove lead with impressive sustained singing and Stuart Farrar and a superb Anna Carter-Brown lend solid support. Wonderful accompaniment from the pianos of Sarah Farrar and Clare Hood link every mood and line in Alan Clarke’s faithfully directed piece. You won’t dance in the aisles at this one but you will be gripped by its themes. Roy Hall

Runs Tuesday to Saturday

29th July – 2nd August 2014


Little Theatre, High Street, Dunstable.

Tickets £13, £11, £10
Box Office 07940 105864


Full blogging review to follow

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Lest We Forget - Dunstable Rep (Full Review)


For those of you who pay little attention to such things, racing at Haydock Park and the footie World Cup are very time consuming, many Brits have been commemorating that little bash in Belgium of a century ago. Forgive the flippancy, but its bloody awfulness is beyond the comprehension of most of us. World War Two makes some sense, given that Hitler marched into Poland, but World War One seems mainly distant mud and mayhem, trenches and slaughter, and a plethora of consummately gifted poets. Its centenary has changed all that. BBC One did a brilliant dramatisation called 37 days, marking the time from an unfortunate assassination to declaration of war. I rarely praise the BBC but that, and a couple of others, was worth the licence fee on their own. And everywhere somebody, somewhere, is marking the date. 1914. The year the world went inexorably dark, to misquote Sir Edward Grey. It is hardly surprising that one of the best dramatic companies in the area decided to get in on the act. Dunstable Rep did their bit for the war effort, or at least for that collective remembrance which constantly stills the heart, and they did it proud.

Devised and directed by Angela Goss, Lest We Forget was both clever and evocative. Clever because it effortlessly mixed the horrors with the humdrum and evocative because of its small Yorkshire market town setting. Rather than watching history we became part of it as ordinary folk lived through the massive upheaval to their lives. Best illustrated by the fading filmed backdrop of an English summer day on the cusp of relentless guns, A Perfect Day, emotions were constantly toyed with. Interspersed with a variety of songs from a century ago and genuine letters to and from the front, Miss Goss’s seventeen strong cast, beautifully disciplined, etched small scale tales onto a global stage. From the colourful music hall to the bleak trenches we could almost smell, as well as see, this past.

In such a collective show it is almost unfair to single anyone out. But since when was I fair? Besides, the show is written to allow it. William (Sam Rowland) and Mary (Grace Reinhold-Gittins) are star-crossed young lovers and Fred (Anthony Bird) and Rose (Stephanie Overington) are the second, slightly older, romantic twosome. One boy dies, the other seriously wounded. The essence of a bloody war wrapped up in two small town tales. It is writ large on village memorials all over England, and elsewhere. All four actors gave first class dramatic portrayals that totally gripped and the central twosome, William and Mary, practically tore your heart out for sincerity and depth far beyond their years. And Susan Young’s Anne (William’s mother) turned in an equally impressive performance of depth and dignity. I like suffering and troubled women, only onstage of course, and Miss Young played hers to perfection.

My minder, a very nice no nonsense lady who takes very few prisoners, threatened me with her own personal version of trench warfare if I suggested even a smidgeon of nitpicking. So I won’t. Except to say that I would have preferred that seventeen strong cast to change their own set, and putting up a video of music hall star Lily Morris, as the actress playing her sang the same song, was a mistake. I could not take my eyes off the Edwardian original. It was only when she was faded out that I realised what a good job Deborah Cheshire was doing. If I had been her I would have thrown a rehearsal strop.

Nit picking over, a couple more plaudits even if an excess gets a bit boring. Except for the company. Barbara Morton (Edith) sang beautifully, Liz Blower was a delightful Marie Lloyd, Phil Baker (Arthur) was exceptionally good as the music hall compere, very Leonard Sachs, and the soldier solo in the trenches from Bert (Dave Hillman) was a stroke of directorial genius. A plaintive single voice after raucous, false bravado, singing. One of many moments in this excellent show which totally touched the heart.

I could go on but I won’t. Alan Goss cleverly staged it, accommodating set, nice boxes and a spread of poignant poppies, and Fred Rayment and Graham Elliott provided all the important light and sound. Vital in this episodic piece and I doubt if they put an inch, let alone a foot, wrong. I loved the way the back picture diagonally changed from colourful English summer country to grey desolate Belgian landscape. It summed the evening up in a moment. Chris Young was musical director and, to my untrained ear, he and his sidekick never put a note wrong. And one of those many right notes was in the final graveside ballad to William McBride, their fallen soldier. It may have been rich in theatrical licence but, by God, it was even richer in dramatic punch. The vigorous company singing, and the reason for it, literally tore your heart out.

I think I have said that somewhere but, as I have also said, this Lest We Forget toyed with your emotions. 1914. Remember the date. Angela Goss, magnificently mixing her team, ensured that at least for a while that we do not forget. It is the least that those lost anonymous souls deserve and I praise her for it. Roy Hall




Wendy Says:   This was so good it does not deserve a single nitpick, not even a smidgeon of one.





Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Lest We Forget - Dunstable Rep (Preview)

Dunstable Rep’s latest production impresses for coherence, emotional punch, and the ability to splash detailed portraits of humanity onto the backdrop of a terrifying war. Devised and directed by Angela Goss, magnificently mixing her seventeen strong cast, this tribute to a lost generation cleverly intertwines the songs and letters and tiny dramas of an unknowing world plunged into the darkness of 1914. Best illustrated by the fading of an English summer day on the cusp of relentless guns Lest We Forget constantly, and effectively, toyed with our emotions. Susan Young, Stephanie Overington and Anthony Bird wring every ounce out of their dramatic roles and Grace Reinhold-Gittins and Sam Rowland are simply superb as the young lovers who supply the piece its central heart. I shall, probably, occasionally sniff in a fuller review but last night I was happy to wallow and weep. Those who can’t get a ticket should weep for other reasons. Roy Hall

Runs to Saturday 19th July 2014

Little Theatre, High Street, Dunstable

7.45pm (Sold Out)  Returns 07940 105864

Friday, 23 May 2014

Eurobeat - St Andrews Players (Guest Review by Lewis Cox)

St. Andrews Players,
Library Theatre, Luton.
15th-17th May 2014

I was at Wheathampstead seeing The Thirty Nine Steps when my wife came home raving about this one. Seeing as she is their vice-chairman any review from her could induce feelings of bias. Never wishing to miss any opportunity for my blog I invited a theatrical friend, well versed in all aspects of theatre, to pen a small piece. He has strong views on theatre and knows nothing about the company or anyone involved in this production. Judged by his comments I reckon it must have been pretty good and worthy of four coveted red stars. Coveted by whom I have no idea but it should make some blog readers happy. Roy Hall

The Eurovision Song Contest is deeply polarising. My admission, even to close friends, that I have watched it provokes audible gasps. My further admission that I haven’t missed a contest for fifteen years would likely send them over the edge. Now and then, you stumble upon an acquaintance who has a similarly guilt-ridden love for the event, and you’re away, reminiscing about those Latvian pirates from how-many years back. St Andrews Players bravely accepted the challenge to stage Eurobeat - a musical that lives and breathes Eurovision. Some may describe it as a spoof, but that would be an injustice - not least because absolutely nothing can send up Eurovision as well as the annual song contest itself.

No, what director John O’Leary has fashioned here is much cleverer, and dare I say it much harder than an out and out spoof: This is for all intents and purposes the Real McCoy. Unless Auntie Beeb suddenly defies all expectations and sends out a winning formula, I imagine this is the closest I will get to being present at the contest itself. Our hosts are two of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s finest figureheads: Sergei and Boyka (played by Stuart Farrar and Michelle Wiltshire). A glorious script crackling with poor jokes and unwitting innuendo is played gloriously straight (Well, as straight as a Eurovision host can be) and is all the better for it. Any hint that they are sending up the process and the atmosphere would be lost.

The same goes for the ten mesmerising song performances. The songs are hugely derivative: Iceland sends a slightly too powerful Love Ballad (number 3A no less), the UK sends a song that spreads the word ‘love’ over far too long a melody, and Germany sends Kraftwerk in all but name, and on the night I attended managed to score a point despite possessing no lyrics.

The lyrics are ridiculous, the melodies appalling - but be under no mistake: these are not being played for laughs. The choreography (by Kate Johnson and Lynette Driver) channels real Eurovision performances and is all the more hysterical for it. A particular standout for me was the Hungarian ‘point of entry’, where The Molner Sisters (Debbie Cavanagh, Barbara Storey and Emma Mills) wailed and bawled powerfully and aggressively at an incredulous audience before suddenly embarking on a jolly Hungarian folk number that left any emotional context ripped to shreds. I was crying with laughter.

Sharing the director’s commitment and belief in the performance was the technical team who had quite obviously thrown themselves at challenges large and small and come up trumps. Whilst the audience lapped up the flashier elements, with the on-screen video link-ups to the country representatives, I certainly appreciated the subtler elements such as the on-screen live scoreboard and the country’s flag colours created with lighting at the start of each act. This was a show where the audience was a character in itself and John O’Leary successfully figured that to engage us, the performers had to be unashamed no matter what they were called to do. The result was an evening that lived, breathed and oozed Eurovision: A triumph. Oh, and those angry housewives from Hungary? They scored only 4 points. Exactly like ‘real’ Eurovision: I never can pick a winner. Lewis Cox


Monday, 19 May 2014

Sleep No More / The Thirty Nine Steps / Round and Round the Garden

Sleep No More (Dunstable Rep)

* *

Alistair Brown was on top form with his trademark packaging of this tale of theatrical ghosts but for all his presentational skills he could not disguise the paucity of the piece he was cleverly wrapping. Sleep No More is a pedestrian play weighed down with clunky dialogue and tortuous exposition. The lashings of atmosphere, haunting music and sombre lighting, required much stronger acting than we got here to even half lift the limp plot away from the page. Paul Rogers brought little believability to his part of the harassed theatre director stirring up unwanted ghosts and Jenna Kay and Alex Brewer, both capable of better, mainly walked a script that clearly defeated them. Only Tracey Chatterley’s statuesquely theatrical Jenny and Jodie O’Loughlin’s hauntingly creepy child ghost Eva seriously impressed. The cast curtain call, a merciful release, was magnificent for its imaginative theatricality. Sadly it was all too late.


The Thirty Nine Steps (Wheathampstead DS)


Patrick Barlow’s madcap adaptation of The Thirty Nine Steps is, obliquely, reverential homage to Hitchcock’s definitive 1939 film. Comic twists on that masterful narrative of John Buchan’s novel make Mr Barlow’s idiosyncratic creation a joyful giggle from beginning to end. Wheathampstead succeeded with skilled characterisation from a cast only partially let down by lack of quicksilver pace and an over fussy set. Less is definitely more when staging this theatrical piece of classy hokum and a detailed backdrop and a superfluous female performer, no men in drag here, diluted comic opportunities. But an enjoyable evening nonetheless with outstanding performances from Sarah Brindley’s collection of females, her handcuffed Pamela was beautiful for its quintessential thirties style, and Jonathan Field’s infinite variety of eccentric characters. Robin Langer and the superfluous but excellent Julie Field gave commendable support and Steve Leadbetter, just a smidgeon of nonchalance, was an impressive pipe smoking Richard Hannay. Malcolm Hobbs directed and if the hand was slightly too literal at times it created some good team playing from a surefooted cast. Jonathan Field’s regurgitation of Mr Memory’s scientific formula was worth half a red star on its own.


Round and Round the Garden (Company of Ten)


There is always a classy feel when you go to a Company of Ten production and their Round and Round the Garden was no exception. Director Alan Bobroff’s slant on this piece of Alan Ayckbourn’s famous Norman Conquest trilogy may have been a little too straight for my tastes but Denis O’Connell Baker’s staging, including impressive glimpse of house and balcony, was first class packaging. I reckon that Table Manners and Living Together have more comic opportunities than the garden aspect of the East Grinstead shenanigans and consequently actors have to work that much harder to make it totally succeed as an isolated piece. Much of the emotional baggage takes place in the other, better, plays. So it says much that I warmed more and more as the play progressed to the philandering and dysfunctional Norman (Russell Vincent), a lapdog librarian with his brain in his trousers, and the excellent performances from the irritatingly obsessive Reg (Iain Pritchard) and the hapless vet Tom (David Houston). All three men created flawed and idiosyncratic characters of total believability. Rona Cracknell (Sarah) and Claire Clegg (Annie) both turned in strong performances but a little more underlying domestic stress in the former and a lighter, less gauche, touch from the latter would have enhanced their scenes. But overall the sextet, including the commendable emergency stand in Ruth (Rosemary Goodman), combined to make a rare journey to the Abbey Theatre a pleasant Sunday afternoon diversion. I may have wanted more bite but English country gardens on summer days do not, generally, induce naked and savage drama. Even of the middle class variety.


Three reviews, all a bit po-faced by my very low standards. Rest assured normal, inconsequential, blogging service will be resumed shortly. But come on, three in a week and York races and the Masterchef finals on the telly. Give me a break - Roy Hall









Friday, 18 April 2014

Summer of 78 (Forthcoming Production)

Avid readers of this blog, I have ‘em you know, are aware that the general theme is sticking my oar into primed and polished productions strutting their individual stuff on some sundry stage. Audience opinion distilled into one shaft of highly personal piece of coruscating wisdom or woefully crass comment. Take your pick. But like it or lump it, folks come for a look. Nearly 20,000 hits and rising. I reckon it is because recorded comment, anywhere, is all theatre folk have when the greasepaint comes off and the costumes stacked away. Books, films, paintings, records, all are there forever. Live theatre remains only in the memory. So words, any words, give a life beyond the production. That is my excuse.

So what, you may ask, is my excuse for shamelessly promoting a production yet to take place? It aint my style. I am the maverick outsider confirming or denying the plaudits eagerly gathered in that culminating week of theatrical energy. All shows sweat for weeks and months, trials and traumas abound, before setting their fare before a paying public which either sings in praise or spits in disapproval. Such is theatre, a fickle beast. No, it aint my style but, in life, there are always exceptions to the general rule. In my Luton News reviewing days a constant joy was penning a piece on the Colin Smith Youth Theatre Productions. I always had a spring in my step when I went along to Stuart Farrar’s shows. Even the ones I didn’t particularly like as shows. That spring came because I knew I was in for an evening of inventive energy and incredible youthful talent. I loved their West Side Story, one of those shows I do not particularly care for, was bowled over by Les Miserables, and enjoyed a stunning Chorus Line so much I went back to see it again. Paper reviewers, even humble local ones, do not do that. And around about the time I put down my Luton News pen, Stuart Farrar and the CSYTP did the same. Called it a day, that is. In the history of local theatre in Luton it should be recorded, quite rightly, that they were much more missed than me.

But now they are back. It may only be a one off given precarious finances but Stuart Farrar is reviving the group for a summer special at the Library Theatre. It is called Summer of 78 and, given the synopsis, looks very much like Back to the Future with music. Some pretty awesome young talent went through the company’s hands in the earlier days, three members have performed in the west end and others have appeared on television. The new group is made up of aspiring 13-18 year olds being given a chance to perform on stage. You can guarantee that amongst them there will be two or three of exceptional talent. Mr Farrar has a nose for quality performers. Like Terry Mills with his St Andrews Stage One performers, Stuart Farrar is doing his community bit for tomorrow’s theatre performers. And like the estimable Mr Mills he is doing it without any funding, as far as I know, from those local great or good who run the town of Luton. Theatre folk come pretty low in the general pecking order of financial support. It was ever thus.

The trustees of the defunct Wheatsheaf Players are going to do their bit with a slice of sponsorship to help them on their way. You can do yours by turning up in droves in the second week in May. ‘Blame it on the Boogie’, ‘Fantasy’, ‘When I Need You’, and many more. I reckon it will be good. It will certainly be welcome. Roy Hall


Summer of 78

Luton Library Theatre

Thurs 8th to Saturday 10th May  (7.30pm – Saturday matinee 2.30pm)

Tickets £9 (adult) £7 (child) £28 (family)

Theatre Box Office 01582 878100

Ticket Hotline (24hour) 07825 569105

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Avenue Q (DAOS)

Lots of my theatrical friends, I have one or two, say I do not like musicals. It ain’t never, ever, been true. I love a good one as much as anyone. My problem, particularly on the amateur stage, was that many were devoid of imagination in choice or presentation. Or, even worse, both. If you are regurgitating an Annie or Oliver for the umpteenth time you need to put a special twist on it to grab me by the fundamentals. But old or new, spin it with verve and creativity and I can be as hooked as the biggest musical fan. My favourite musical evenings have ranged from Stephen Sondheim to Lionel Bart, from The Drowsy Chaperone to Chorus Line, from Carousel to Chess. All different, but all with the commonality of gobsmacking style. Took one in this week. An everyday story of young folks searching for that elusive American dream in a downmarket New York City borough. The human condition writ small and detailed. Absolutely loved the whole evening and, disturbingly, went home thinking deeply about their emotional frailties and traumas. So what, you may say, good theatre does that. But this was a group of woolly puppets, a bit of colourful cloth with hands up their imaginary backsides, for God’s sake. Avenue Q, the smash hit puppet musical and its richly rounded and flawed characters surprisingly touched me as deeply as any in a well crafted drama. I really should get out more. Or maybe less. Am seeing my shrink tomorrow. In saying this I am applauding the actors who were on stage with them. They were the ones saying the lines and singing the songs, but it was the colourful puppets you concentrated on. Those actors would not have had it any other way. You felt for Kate Monster (Lucy O’Hare) as she desperately and willingly threw herself at the man of her dreams, the likeable and troubled Princeton (Ashley Mead). He searched frantically for his purpose in life and, along the way, had the most amazing on stage bonk with his Kate. You could only do it with puppets. My favourite character Rod (Simon Rollings) was so uptight about his obvious homosexuality that his pitiful self denial led to him throwing his flat mate Nicky (James Halling/Helen Maile) on to the streets. You have made that nice boy homeless, you bastard, I felt like shouting. And homelessness, like racism, homophobia, internet porn and money were key features of this Sesame Street for adults. Even Schadenfraude, look it up, got a mention. It pleases me immensely not to tell you what that means, unhelpful soul that I am. But I will tell you that as well as the main puppet characters we got a wonderfully gross and foul mouthed Trekkie (Joshua Thompson/Anna Woods), the neighbour from hell, and a feisty Scottish schoolteacher with the super name of Mrs Thistletwat (Alana McKenna). Billed as Mrs T in the programme but I am sure I heard this right. I sincerely hope so. I wasn’t a big fan of Blue and Yellow Bear (Kim Albone/Katy Elliott). Nothing to do with those ladies, both fine actresses, but their screechy bad idea consciences for Princeton interfered with an absorbing story of street folk. Just my opinion but I reckon those characters would appeal more to kids and a kids show Avenue Q is not. You wouldn’t get Lucy the Slut (Jenna Ryder-Oliver) at any kiddie’s party. This diva flaunted sex as a weapon of choice and necessity. And she flounced offstage in beautiful symmetry with her shadowy puppeteer. Two flounces for the price of one cannot be bad. Perhaps, on second thoughts, modern, computer savvy, five year olds would like that. They flounce around a lot in Waitrose. In a show rich in ethnicity it is hardly surprising that we also had humans in a variety of shades. Only three, but they mingled well with those of the puppet races. Oh that real life could be like that, he says wistfully. Paul Rogers was a little too underpowered as the well meaning but pretty useless comedian Brian but Susan Young made for an interesting slant as a Japanese Christmas Eve and Damien Winchester was an engaging Gary. Childhood success followed by dismal adult failure was the downward theme of Gary’s troubled life and in a show with many subtle and not so subtle messages this young man’s was one. Mr Winchester sang brightly and acted sprightly. His is a local name to watch. Remember you heard it here first. I shan’t list all the songs. Too many, and if none are hit parade material all were relevant and jolly and all sung with style and energy. I particularly liked ‘If You Were Gay’ (Nicky and Rod), ‘The Internet is for Porn’ (Trekkie Monster), ‘There’s a Fine, Fine Line’ (Kate) and ‘The Money Song’ but none jarred and the lyrics were clever. Click, click, hold your dick, won’t win any literary prizes but it appealed to my dirty mind. Overall director Chris Young and Choreographer Lynette Driver did a super job with a show which must have been fraught with technical and presentational difficulties. They had the essential tool in Paul Jomain’s quintessential puppets but, helped by a clever technical team, they had to sell it to an audience in which disbelief has to be suspended and a special narrative embraced. That they succeeded owes much to their precision, let down only briefly in act two scene changes, and the commitment and talent of the actors controlling the puppets. After the first few minutes on stage I was not conscious that they were there. I was in thrall to the joys and frustrations, the pleasures and the pain, of the lives of Kate Monster and Princeton, of Nicky and Rod. That is the heart of the success of Avenue Q. Do it right, and DAOS did, and we believe in and love those bits of cloth. I am telling my psychiatrist tomorrow. I think she will change my tablets. Roy Hall

Wendy Says - ' I just loved the Trekkie Monster, so wonderfully foulmouthed.'







Sunday, 23 March 2014

Out of Order (Dunstable Rep)

I have been doing a lot of thinking this week. I often do a lot of thinking. Usually along the lines of ‘Where have I put my bloody car keys?’ or ‘Why has that stone cold certainty at Haydock Park come stone cold last, gasping for breath?’ Doesn’t do to be too cerebrally demanding at my age. But, as I say, I have been thinking. Mainly about farce. Seems appropriate in budget week even if, for a change, that annual event was less farcical than usual. Except for the spat surrounding a beer and bingo poster. That was fun. But I digress, as they say in the best circles. No, the farce I have been thinking about is those of a theatrical variety which seems appropriate seeing as this is a theatre blog. Notwithstanding those occasional intrusions about horses gasping for breath. Oh do get on with it for God’s sake; her indoors is losing the will to live.

Get on with it I will. Farce, of the theatrical variety, is bloody difficult. Do an Ibsen or a Chekhov or a Rattigan and there are various degrees of satisfaction. Outright misery at an excruciating turkey to unbounded joy at a masterpiece of presentation. And in between, subtle levels of appreciation. It ain’t like that with farce. It either works or it doesn’t. You either fly or fall straight off the cliff. Hit the heights or sink without trace. Choose your own metaphor. Just my opinion of course but I have been certified. This one, Dunstable Rep’s Out of Order, for those of you who have lost the thread, worked beautifully because it had leads who were completely believable, support that worked as a team, and a director who knitted them all together with first class pace and verve. Rarely were we allowed to think over the couple of hours of nonsense fun. That was vital. If the laughter stops and the audience grey cells start working, a die of doom can be cast. Have seen it many times in theatres up and down the land. They think farce is easy. It might seem so but it’s not, and that is why I take my hat off to director Roger Scales and his team. Good job really. It’s a pretty battered, unflattering, black one. My hat that is.  And it clashed dreadfully with Mr Scales’ colourful shirt in the foyer.

Hang on? Is that it? Aren’t you going to say anything about the plot? About the actors? About that team who toiled so hard and well? About the set? Well yes if I must but it is all so glowing I might get a bit boring. We like blood on this blog, if only of the theatrical kind. No bloodshed here. Joe Butcher was absolutely superb as Richard Willey MP, junior government minister bent on a clandestine hotel tryst. I cannot think of a local actor better suited to such a fruity part. He does harassed comic blustering with effortless aplomb and yet, crucially, always works as part of a coherent team. And that was a must in Ray Cooney’s frenetic piece on thwarted sexual coupling. His Willey, if you will pardon the phrase, was well matched by Anthony Bird’s cleverly observed portrayal of the hapless assistant, George Pigden. His was the sort of part you could imagine Claude Hulbert or Jonathan Cecil, you won’t have a clue who they are, lapping up. Well meaning and useless. If I would have liked a little more panic to be flashed in Mr Bird’s eyes at times that was my only nitpick. He was a simple and floundering foil for an increasingly stressed political master and together he and Mr Butcher spun the farcical script with style. And he jumped into sundry welcoming arms with gusto.

I shan’t regale you with the plot. Suffice to say, on an Alan Goss realistic and pleasing hotel suite set, a supposedly dead body and an over active sash window put paid to any prospects of horizontal activities. Hayley Vaughan impressed as the object of a politicians very non PC desires, Richard Garrett for an elderly waiter making unseemly fortunes at every opportunity, and Dave Hillman for a harassed hotel manager gleaming with liberal tins of Westminster polish. But with practically every daft entrance and exit from a variety of characters, including the delightful flashing of naked bottoms, there was not a serious weak link in a well drilled cast that fired with energy and pace. Alex Brewer, as the dead body, had neither naked bottom nor energetic pace but he made for a richly convincing corpse. It was all a load of rubbish of course, but if the play ran slightly out of steam at the end the playing never did. Nonsense of the highest order and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is nice, occasionally, not to have to think. Roy Hall

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Out of Order (Preview) - Dunstable Rep

The Rep’s latest production is a joyously funny romp from beginning to end. An inconvenient body thwarts promised sexual couplings in Ray Cooney’s classic farce. Joe Butcher superbly leads as a harassed and philandering politician and Anthony Bird makes for a splendidly fey and hapless assistant. Richard Garrett, Hayley Vaughan and Dave Hillman add fun to an accomplished supporting team which effortlessly serve up the mayhem. Knitted almost to perfection by director Roger Scales, this nonsense of the highest order was an absolute tonic. Grab a ticket if you can. Roy Hall

Runs to Saturday 22nd March (7.45pm - High Street, Dunstable)

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Bridge and The Killing (BBC4)

I have never been a great subscriber to populism. Prefer to do my own thing rather than follow the latest trend. If I had been born a greyhound I would have been so slow out of the traps I reckon the hare would have lapped me before I got going. Take your time I says, assess the situation, gather the facts. Form your own opinion. Stunningly astute or plain bloody lazy? Take your pick. I have no idea but it has saved me wasting a lot of precious time on things that, when you sweep away the hype, are patently abysmal. Following this sensible maxim has saved me from the worst excesses of Fifty Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code, Britain’s Got Talent, Downtown Abbey, The Daily Mail, November Moustaches, and Nick Clegg. To name but a few. Equally I have no desire to bungee jump for charity, wear a badge proclaiming my beliefs, or do anything on television. If it’s the fashion, the perceived wisdom, or the popular view I tend to veer the other way. Sheer bloody mindedness and a strong desire not to be controlled. Probably explains why I loathe practically all government initiatives. Especially the ones telling us what to do or think.

Does have its downside, of course. Except for Nick Clegg. Being so stubborn in my refusal to join in with fashionable hype or hysteria I have missed out on a few things. Took me years to discover the joys of an iPod, Calvin Klein underpants, and Robert Goddard’s cerebral mysteries. But I soon catch up. Eventually. Bt Infinity, Stieg Larsson, and Quantitative Easing are a cinch at my dinner table discussions. I particularly like Stieg Larsson. The success of his Millennium Trilogy obliquely launched numerous Scandinavian dramas and, belatedly, the TV executive suits woke up to a blindingly obvious fact. A lot of us can actually cope with subtitles. Suddenly BBC4 was awash with cerebral crime dramas which a few years ago would have not got a look in. Took me a while to find them but Arne Dahl and The Bridge on Saturday nights soon became a must see in our house. Belatedly I have been splashing out on sundry Nordic Noir DVD’s and it will surprise few who lap up this genre that I am completely hooked.

The Bridge (Series One and Two) still ranks as my favourite in spite of over stretched plots. The chemistry between the autistic Swedish detective (Sofia Helin) and her philandering Danish counterpart (Kim Bodnia) is quality acting of the highest order. In narrative that grips throughout, detailed police procedure interspersed with pleasingly complex storylines, attention is permanently held in a way that British TV crime drama rarely does. The Killing (Series One and Two) matches, and probably exceeds, The Bridge for in depth relationship and convinces me that my first taste of this latest fashion was no happy accident. These Scandinavians know how to craft and develop gripping stories that require a heavy dollop of attention span and trust they have an audience capable of applying it. Sofie Grabol as Sarah Lund, famed now for her unprepossessing jumpers, gives a performance that deserves every award thrown at her. Her dysfunctional detective is surrounded by quality actors, Morten Surballe is superb as her boss Lennart Brix, and in series one Ann Eleonora Jorgensen gives a riveting performance as the murder victim’s mother. If you see no other modern Scandinavian crime drama you could do worse than try series one of The Killing as a taster. It is long, twenty episodes covering twenty days, but its mix of police procedure, political intrigue, and domestic grief and recriminations gains a hold on your attention that never lets go. Or it did for me.

So I am now following a fashionable trend, even if a bit late in the day. Have just bought The Killing (Series Three) and Those Who Kill from the same director. So I have a lot to look forward to in the evenings when dreary British TV schedules offer up the same load of rubbish that they have been churning out for years. There are exceptions (37 Days on BBC2 was riveting World War One factual political drama) but they are like hen’s teeth. I generally prefer the radio. But I like, no love, these Nordic crime dramas. They tick all my appreciation boxes.  And, actually, I quite like Nick Clegg. Just being provocative. It’s Paddy Ashdown I can’t stand. Roy Hall

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Old Times (Wheathampstead DS)

It is not easy getting your head around Pinter. Old Harold was not renowned for plot at the best of times. The Birthday Party is rich in menace and The Lover littered with eroticism, but most of his work relies on both actors and audience mining the subtext for meaning. Wheathampstead  have form when it comes to stretching their punters and Old Times is, arguably, the least accessible of plays from a master of elusive prose and elegant pauses. On and off stage, all need to work hard to get anything out of it. Take that plot for starters. It is complicated so you need to concentrate. Deeley is married to Kate and they live in a farmhouse near the sea. Kate’s friend from twenty years ago, Anna, pays them a visit. Have you got that? Good, because that folks is all there is. On the surface. No spoon feeding here. Told you it was difficult.
The three meet in a living room and a bedroom and exchange memories of a youthful past. Or do they? I have no idea. Memory plays tricks on us all and who saw who in bed and who looked up whose skirt is never made clear. Deeley may be the man and Anna may be the woman. I have a theory, you need them with Pinter, that Anna and Kate are actually two aspects of the same woman. One sensuous and slightly tartish, the other enigmatic and repressed. It’s a popular theory and it would certainly make sense if the husband was littered with disparate memories of a dead wife. But that’s the trouble with Pinter. You enjoy the richness of his poetic prose, here delivered with excellent precision from all three actors, but spend half your time trying to make sense of it all. Old Times is not so much a play as an examination on the mysteries of humanity.
To ensure that paying punters, brains heavily taxed, do not feel short changed you need to serve up all the rhythmically pointed conversations with an excess of Pinter style. The actors did pretty well, Sara Payne was especially impressive as the languid and enigmatic Kate, but they were not helped by Len Skilton’s unimaginative set. It was bog standard natural and I reckon the production would have benefited from a touch of ethereal presentation to signpost the complexities of piece and character. And, boy, were those characters complex. Irene Morris gave us an Anna who delivered speech with automotive rhythm both disconcerting and fascinating, and Robert Naylor-Stables drove the limited narrative with short, staccato, questioning stabs. Watched by the still presence of the troubled Kate it was all very Pinteresque and accurately paced. Director Robin Langer must have been well pleased with that impression even if, like me, he may have thought that the rendering of the old fifties songs only hinted at eroticism. Personally I would have preferred Deeley and Anna to have given us lashings of hidden lust in their incongruous collective crooning. But I am very demanding.
As the saying goes, things improved when we got to the bedroom. Deeley and Anna seemed obsessed by the bathroom habits of the offstage Kate and erotic pictures of towelling and powdering were expertly conjured. This heavily charged scene was underpinned by the return of the freshly bathed wife and even if we did not know what was going on, I for one was enjoying it. I know a sex scene when I see it. Even a subtle one. If that comment even half convinces only one of you that I know what I am talking about then this blog has miserably failed. Like most of Beckett and much of Bond, Pinter at his most inscrutable is maddeningly demanding. This one impeccably delivered the poetry and left us to work out the rest. Karen Prior mixed the sounds and Bob Parry served up some impressive lighting. Especially the sudden introduction of Anna. We know not where she came from and why. And that he says, desperately searching for a sign off line, was probably the point. It’s all in the memory.
Roy Hall



Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Lion in Winter (Full Review) - Dunstable Rep

I knows my history I does. Dates anyway. Used to show off when at junior school, insufferable beast that I was. Henry II? Easy. 1154-1189. Sandwiched between King Stephen, whoever he was, and his sons Richard and John. Richard was the crusader, not half as nice as folks think he was, and devious John was famed for Runnymede and the Magna Carta. Rich period in history and the launch of the Plantagenet dynasty which lasted for at least 250 years. Given the squabbling family, father and mother and sons constantly at each other’s throats, it is a wonder they lasted more than five minutes. Put them on stage in some fictional gathering, here it is a Christmas get together, and the emotional and historical baggage hardly leaves you room to swing a cat.

The first thing that strikes you about Annalise Carter-Brown’s laudable production of The Lion in Winter is that it came in some classy packaging. Beautifully constructed with realistic stonework on a simple revolving set, and cloaked in atmospheric music and stunningly minimal lighting. This was a staging that constantly pleased the eye and pointed the action. If it did not totally please the ear, tone and delivery did not always match the presentational promise, you couldn’t fault the way these 12th century characters were dressed. Oh all right, the juvenile French king did look a bit like an overgrown chorister but that is nitpicking. All visuals generally combined to easily hold your interest in James Goldman’s dramatic slice of distilled Plantagenet history.

Trouble is there is a lot of that history by the time we get to 1183. Old Enery has been strutting his stuff for thirty years, and you need to lock into that complex baggage. We needed almost as much stamina as the actors, even those of us who snobbily swatted up in junior school. Best really to gloss over the enormous gaps in your knowledge and just enjoy a family at domestic war over who reigns when the old king has gone. And that small question had a multiplicity of solutions, amplified with touches of modernity and comic knowing. That was best illustrated by matriarch Eleanor of Aquitaine, a super Rona Cracknell, when sundry daggers were inconveniently drawn. It is 1183, she said, and we are barbarians. You couldn’t make it up, except of course, the playwright did. I liked such touches.

Other than the splendid Miss Cracknell, imposingly regal and ultra sharp, the actors who impressed most were Stephanie Overington’s crystal clear Alais and Anthony Bird’s petulant John. Miss Overington looked and sounded magnificent and Mr Bird engagingly invested the youngest spoilt son with a richness of variety and tone. Costume and hair, one flowing and the other full, added to the feeling that this young sprog should be given a good smacking and sent to bed. Alan Goss’s Henry, beautifully attired in simple rough clothes, brought admirable emotional depth to a man conscious of his turbulent past and uncertain future but needed greater vocal assurance to totally convince. The same was probably true of Joshua Thompson’s Geoffrey, but I liked him anyway. Especially his stillness. He had that air of menace and authority that pinpoints the marginalised. Nobody had a good word to say for him which is probably why, of the three remaining sons, history records he went off and died first. Probably a smart move, given the circumstances.

But all in all it was a pretty absorbing evening for anyone who likes their history. Okay some voices were a bit light in delivery for my tastes, I am an expert on how people spoke in 1183 he says, but all were sincere. They needed to be as narrative effortlessly eclipsed action in this family gathering. It generally worked because of Annalise Carter-Brown’s meticulous attention to her detailed presentation, served up with Alistair Brown and Jacob Shooter’s superb lighting and Graham Elliott’s evocative sounds. Alex Brewer (Richard) and Joe Hawkins (Philip of France) completed a cast always kept on song by Rep staging firmly out of the top drawer. Roy Hall

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Lion in Winter - Dunstable Rep

The first thing that strikes you about Annalise Carter-Brown’s laudable production of The Lion in Winter is that it comes in some classy packaging. Beautifully constructed, realistic stonework on a simple revolving set, and cloaked in atmospheric music and lighting. This is staging that constantly pleases the eye. And even if they do not always please the ear, the Rep cast consistently hold your interest. James Goldman’s dramatic slice of distilled early Plantagenet history is well worth seeing. Roy Hall 

Runs at the Rep until Saturday 25th January. 7.45pm. Tickets £9 - £13