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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 ...

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