Hello, they say? Who they are I have no idea but they say it all the same. What’s he doing trolling around Welwyn? Come on here expecting an insightful piece on Dunstable Rep’s Abigail and stumble on this. Barn Theatre? Sounds a bit shabby. And in Welwyn for God’s sake, wherever that is. One of those snobby garden cities somewhere south of the B653 that we of the Bedfordshire ilk rarely visit. Might do John Lewis in the sales on a wet day but nothing else. Don’t even have a football team as far as we know. Grumble, grumble.
Or something like that. My excuse, if needed, is that I did not fancy my umpteenth viewing of Abigail’s Party, good as I am sure it was, and if I didn’t post something soon regular readers would think I had been washed away with the Christmas sherry. My abiding memories of Mike Leigh’s piece are a stunning Alison Steadman (TV) and the equally brilliant Angela Goss (Rep). Consummate fag in mouth Beverleys from yesteryear. My abiding memory of The Ladykillers is that team of beautifully crafted gangsters, forever captured on celluloid with the innocent old lady of Katie Johnson. A classic 1950s film of the kind they do not make anymore. Taking in a latter day stage version of those iconic villains on a free Saturday afternoon seemed like a good idea. Better than a cold night drive to Dunstable for my seventh Abigail. Besides, in daylight you could see that the Barn Theatre, Welwyn, is a bloody long way from being shabby.
And so was their set. Director Rosemary Bianchi designed it and this lady has seriously good form. Her creation for Hitchin’s Hay Fever was the icing on the top of a very rich cream cake. And in The Ladykillers, solid and crammed King’s Cross terraced house oozed reality and seedy locality. The closeness of the essential railway line where more than coal gets despatched to Newcastle was cleverly hinted in the sloping slate roof. No detail was spared, including the old fashioned front door beautifully slammed in the face of a gushing guest, and my only grouse is that the acting space for five fiddling musicians would require a pretty skinny cat for even a modicum of swing. But you can’t have everything and overall Miss Bianchi’s set pleased. One got the impression that this Barn lot do not do things by halves. No poncy black curtaining and two symbolic wooden boxes for them. They did have a curtain. A downstage, rather tatty, grey one. I shall draw a veil on my thoughts on that except to say that it took gloss off a classy production. Highlighted actors would have been better served by clever use of lighting. The company were well capable of it.
So what about those actors, highlighted or not, in a theatre and on a set bereft of barely a smidgeon of shabby. The motley crew of villainous musicians generally did a fair stab from a script by Graham Linehan that laid heavily on crude visual comedy. None of the Ealing subtlety here. Wasn’t their fault if I cringed a bit at cross dressing majors and desperate folks crammed in a downstairs cupboard. It’s my age I suppose. Eamon Goodfellow gave arch villain and mastermind Professor Marcus tremendous oomph and gave all of his scenes that injection of pace that, sometimes, his fellow conspirators lacked. He had a touch of Gyles Brandreth (google him) about him which was engaging , even down to the slightly overdone nervous laugh, and his second act speech justifying a travesty of musical orchestration almost convinced even me. I formed the impression that this was a fine actor thoroughly enjoying himself. No bad thing in such a load of nonsense.
None of the other villains matched Mr Goodfellow for skill but all, even if not totally erasing memories of Herbert Lom and his mates, made their mark. If I single out one it has to be Adam Dryer’s Louis Harvey. This was the quintessential squat foreign spy beloved of cartoonists. All black beard, threatening hat, and metaphorical bomb under arm. Meet him on a dark night and you would promise to always kiss and love your mother in law. Mr Harvey did not always project lines with cutting flair but he looked, and sounded, every inch a very nasty piece of work. Well worthy of a trip to Newcastle on the nearest convenient train. And there were a lot of them. Chris White turned in a nice cameo as a policeman richer in plod than imagination and Wendy Bage led a plethora of elderly ladies with a nice refined aplomb. I loved the slamming of the front door on her gushing face but, as I have said that before, I will not repeat myself. These blogs don’t come cheap you know.
And what of Mrs Louisa Wilberforce, that gentle old lady of Katie Johnson fame? Maureen Davies did not eclipse her, who could, but she certainly matched her in a performance both refined in its portrayal and faithful in its interpretation. I loved her and the finest compliment I can pay Miss Davies is that, not for a moment, did I make any comparisons. She contrasted and complemented her extremely dodgy lodgers with a beautiful, old fashioned, dignity. And that, in The Ladykillers, is how it should be. So Barn Theatre, neither shabby in edifice nor in presentation, entertained on my inaugural reviewing visit. Tainted with my opinion some would say. I hope they like it. But, mindful of self preservation, I shall steer clear of Newcastle bound coal trains for a little while. Just in case. Roy Hall