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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 ...

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

London Wall (Full Review) - Company of Ten


I like those inter war year plays. Priestley dramas, Coward comedies, Ben Travers farces, even Agatha Christie potboilers if done well. All have charm, elegance, innocence. Terence Rattigan’s classic murder play, Cause Celebre, appealed as much for its period setting as it did for the real life drama. And Ronald Mackenzie’s The Maitlands remains a neglected masterpiece of the age. I yearn for a revival by somebody. John Van Druten’s social comedy London Wall may have slipped under my wavering radar but its 1930’s office setting ticked an awful lot of my boxes. St Albans Company of Ten diligently tantalised and, thankfully, gave the play a Sunday matinee airing. As I told my long suffering, I had to go. Besides, apart from a small foray at Sidmouth my unwelcome oar hasn’t stuck into anything for a while.
I am glad I did. The Abbey Studio setting, against the backdrop of an impressive brick wall, ideally created the dreary and fusty atmosphere of long gone legal office life. Not a lot happens on stage, we get two deaths off it, but the play’s sheer ordinariness was part of its charm. The company drew you in both for strong narrative and rich characterisation and for the occasional glimpse of hectic activity. Usually at the end of the day when telephone bells summoned sundry personnel and unfinished post stretched to some trivial, but vital, deadline. Office life was ever thus.
And like all office life, then and now in some ways, it has its distinct pecking order. At the bottom of the hen house is Miss Milligan (Cate Brooks). This impoverished ingĂ©nue was beautifully played by Miss Brooks and all her confusions, professional and private, were internalised with consummate skill. She took her cue from the older and sadder Miss Janus, an excellent Helen Miller signalling a destination of frustrated old age. Husbands were clearly a precious commodity and you felt that this was one secretary already eyeing up the shelf. No such uncharitable thoughts entered one’s mind in regard to colleagues Miss Hooper (Katy Robinson) and Miss Bufton (Helen Goaley). The one flashed a ring and a walk with style and triumph, and the other, one supposes, flashed everything else. Both turned in rich and well crafted distinct characterisations and Helen Goaley particularly impressed for playing to the hilt, as my old mother would have said, a girl no better than she ought to be.
But good quality productions need a cast that bat long and, generally speaking, this lot did. I personally would have welcomed a little more projection from Tom McKeown’s otherwise sensitive and gentle Hec Hammond and a little bit more variety in playing from Daniel Robert Leigh’s supercilious office rake but these are tiny points. Mr McKeown’s thwarted beau of Miss Miiligan displayed beautiful stillness when surrounded by end of day office chaos, and Mr Leigh had the thankless task of playing the only unlikeable character in Van Druten’s play. And believe me he was not just unlikeable, he was odious. One of those people who think they are God’s gift to the earth and most of the rest of us would shed few tears if he was under it.
Joe Wackett was an engaging junior, swaggering with panache, and added much to the overall office ambience and Peter Bryans a commanding Mr Walker, the big legal boss with clear and concise ideas on personal and professional conduct. Not a man to be messed with. Except possibly by the daft and dotty elderly Miss Willesden. Providing a sub plot of sorts the beautifully costumed Angela Stone was simply magnificent. A performance so joyful you wanted to wrap it up and take it home. But then much of this production was. Opening scene music was a bit muted but in this London Wall it was a rare false note. Director Tina Swain had a good cast and she had drilled them with style and realism. A little old fashioned theatrical gem on a Sunday afternoon. Roy Hall



Sunday, 9 October 2016

London Wall - Company of Ten (St Albans)

Some cracking performances in John Van Druten's  social comedy of 1930's office life made for an absorbing and entertaining two hours. Cate Brooks and Helen Miller admirably lead a strong legal and secretarial cast, paced with panache and realism by director Tina Swain. An absorbing glimpse of a yesteryear in which men still ruled but women were beginning to find their feet. Light on message but rich in characters including a delightfully dotty one from Angela Stone's fiscally flush Miss Willesden. A production so good you could almost smell the inkwells. Go see. Roy Hall

Runs to Saturday 15th October 2016   8.00pm

Abbey Theatre Studio, St Albans    Box Office 01727 857861

Full review to follow

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Sidmouth Manor Pavilion Theatre - Private Lives


There is a little theatrical gem down on the East Devon coast that is known only to a few of us. It’s the Sidmouth Manor Pavilion Theatre located, unsurprisingly, in Sidmouth. Regular readers, I have a few, will know that this is my favourite seaside place in all of England. John Betjeman quite liked it and renowned novelist R.F.Delderfield lived here. And further back, 1820 or thereabouts, Queen Victoria’s dad succumbed to life’s travails just up the road from where the theatre now stands. I could say popped his clogs but that would be disrespectful and the one thing you never do in Sidmouth is disrespect. Very civilised, very beautiful, very calming. And for all of the summer it offers week after week of differing plays, twelve of them, at the Manor Pavilion. Producer Paul Taylor-Mills bills it as the last standing professional weekly Rep in England. He may well be right but whether he is or not I hope he continues with the late Charles Vance tradition. Sidmouth is very special to me and many others. Dipping into the Rep on a holiday evening adds nicely to it.

Well that’s the nice and cosy bit over, now to cut to the Coleman’s. Caught the last of those twelve plays at the scrag end of the holiday season. Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Seen it umpteen times and considered a Coward masterpiece, even if for me it slips in a little way behind Hay Fever. Neither has much of a plot but the latter has dafter characters. But familiar or not you go to Sidmouth and just be grateful that the season is still going. I say that because the Pavilion Rep Company are pretty good, outstanding if you consider their hectic rehearsal schedule. The sets were sumptuous, especially the glorious French flat, some of the costumes less so. Elyot and Amanda’s night attire suggested more modern London bedsit than elegant 1930’s chic. And whilst I can just about forgive matches for cigarette lighting on hotel balconies I reckon that upmarket flat would have stretched to a posh and glassy table lighter. Lit matches jarred.

But the actors sparred with both verbal and physical aplomb and lashings of professional pace. Jonathan Ray did a fine job as a slightly manic Elyot Chase, Hannah Vesty was a spiky Amanda Prynne and Chris Kiely, arms comically akimbo at every stressful moment, an engaging Victor Prynne. But the best performance from Coward’s famous honeymooning quartet came from Jessica Kent’s thwarted and dumped Sybil Chase. She fluttered, posed, and screamed in elegant and equal proportions. Miss Kent was a well crafted self centred irritant who played her part to the hilt without ever going over the top. The cast was completed by Daniele Coombe’s eccentric maid. Her sneezing Louise had clearly been round the block a few times and the quirky portrayal, suited to this production, made an indelible mark.

I am still puzzled as to why a bright summer morning needed internal lights in Act Three; the lighting was generally so good I can only assume it was intentional. Andrew Beckett directed with an eye on the physical comedy which would not totally please the Coward purists. But he did it on a stunning set, undeservedly not credited in the programme, and with a cast firing on all cylinders in pace and delivery. A jolly evening from Sidmouth’s little theatrical gem. And that, as they say, is where I came in.

In 2012 I reviewed the company's An Inspector Calls mainly as a homage to James Pellow, a super Sidmouth player. Unsurprisingly he was not in Private Lives but click on the link above and you can read or refresh my views on him. Revered in Sidmouth and worthy of greater fame. Roy Hall

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Liz Harvey (1967-2016)

With the tragically early passing of Liz Harvey, known as Liz Caswell in my Luton News reviewing days, the local acting scene has lost a major theatrical talent. From my first seeing her in Midsummer Night’s Dream (Dunstable Rep- 2002) to watching her rehearse in Neighbourhood Watch (St. Andrews -Toddington 2015) I have been enraptured by her depth and sensitivity. My wife once told me that I could watch this lady on stage creosoting a fence and still be captivated and she was not far wrong. When 2002 ended I had also seen her at the Rep as a definitive model cum aspiring actress in Ben Elton’s savagely comic Popcorn and as the sexually frustrated Belinda in Ayckbourn’s Seasons Greetings. These performances ensured she figured on my list of best actresses of 2002 (Luton News – Review of the Year) but it was her portrayal of Shakespeare’s daughter in Alan Goss’s exceptional staging of Peter Whelan’s The Herbal Bed (Dunstable Rep – 2003) that firmly launched her, in my mind, as one of the outstanding female talents in the area. Her acutely sensitive Susanna Hall, deftly moving from maternal love to sexual awakening, absolutely mesmerised. None who saw this performance could begrudge my giving her an emphatic 2003 Best Actress award. I gave up reviewing for the Luton News in 2006 but not before I had taken in her performances in Sweet Charity (DAOS) and Little Shop of Horrors (The Rep - 2004), the former evoking the fence creosoting comment, and her wonderful portrayal of Anastasia in Royce Ryton’s The Anastasia File (Dunstable Rep – 2004). If I only quote one review I did on this exceptional actress it has to be this. 'Alistair Brown owes a considerable debt to Liz Caswell’s wonderful portrayal of Anastasia. One of these fine days this actress is going to disappoint but judged on her recent performances it is going to be a long wait. Even doing nothing it is impossible to take your eyes off Miss Caswell. The harrowing voice, the fluttering movements, and the frightened childlike expression totally convinced. Her reactions to an unseen film of the Tsar and his family depicted an actress at the height of her emotive powers.' - Luton News 11th February 2004. I took a break from reviewing for a few years but, getting technologically confident, I started my own theatre blog in 2011. One of my first reviews, and still one of the best productions I have seen, was ACT’s staging of Noel Coward’s Still Life (Dunstable – July 2011). Made famous by Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in the Brief Encounter film, Elliott Lawrence and Liz Caswell were perfectly cast as the ultra respectable Alec and Laura with the doomed desire and Ms Caswell ‘rivetingly painted a picture of a fragile woman drifting perilously out of her depth’. In complete contrast she was a superb and sexually frustrated Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (The Rep – 2012) bringing out the best in Dave Corbett’s brooding Brick and a cow of consummate depth and artistry as Ruth in Ayckbourn’s Table Manners (The Rep – 2014). I only directed Liz once but it is a theatrical experience printed indelibly on my mind. In 2011 Dunstable Rep invited me to direct with a play of my choice. I knew the play I wanted to do and I knew who I wanted to play the main part. Alma Rattenbury in Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre is a sexually frustrated, sensitive, and artistic woman trapped in a nightmare not of her making. Based on a real life famous 1930’s murder case the play grips for slowly emerging narrative and claustrophobic courtroom drama. Liz relished and consumed the part in a performance that still lingers in my mind. Her talent, hard work and professionalism did not surprise me, I had seen it so many times in other productions; her modest and gentle manner, her fun loving personality, her generosity with other actors did. Never a tantrum, only smiles and a wicked sense of fun. I saw all that again when we both were late replacements in what, sadly, turned out to be her last stage performances in Toddington last year. It was then that I also saw her immense and inspiring courage. A super, super, gifted actress taken from the stages on which she so brilliantly shone much too early. She will be sadly missed for a long time. Roy Hall
Liz Harvey 2nd December 1967 to 8th August 2016. (Aged 48)
She leaves a husband, Simon, and a son, Max. Sincerest condolences to both.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Dear Daddy - Letters to a Late Father (Roz Farmer)


Dear Daddy – Letters to a Late Father

Derek Farmer was, for over twenty years, one of my best friends. Indeed in Harpenden he was my finest neighbour and my best friend. We shared a passion for theatre and horseracing and an unhealthy interest in malt whisky. We came from different backgrounds but had a disconcertingly similar oblique sense of humour. Basically we gelled. Tragically, in awful circumstances still not understood, he killed himself in the Spring of 2006. He left behind a loving family who still revere his memory and still, thankfully include him in many of their conversations. One of those left behind was his 12 year old daughter Rosalind and she has spent the last ten years coping with an event you cannot comprehend and consequences you cannot explain. She has had all the normal teenage problems writ large but she also has talent. Both as an actress and a writer. All she lacks is confidence. In the month of May, for a charitable cause and laudable self denial of certain pleasures, she wrote to her father every day. Her diary is funny, sad, courageous, and revealing. And it shows that passion for theatre that her father instilled in her from an early age. The Beags referred to is her mother, and no I have not a clue where the name comes from. You can find a link to the whole at http://deardaddy93.tumblr.com I am posting here the last two days. A piece to Derek illustrating her obvious love of theatre, and the last letter where she says goodbye again. Wherever she goes in life it is clear from these two days and all the rest of the diary that this young lady can write. I think, in fact I know, her dad would have been proud of her. Roy Hall

Dear Daddy,
This might be quite long and maybe a bit tedious but I really want to tell you some of my favourite theatre that I’ve seen. If I told you everything I’d seen in the last 10 years then it would take 9 hours to write this. Thanks to you, I love going to the theatre and I’ve seen all sorts over the years. Musicals, Shakespeare, modern plays and I’ve loved all of it. Well, there’s been the odd fail but overall I’ve seen some amazing things. (As you may have noticed, I like to categorise things and this is no different).


Les Miserables; this is my very favourite musical. I learnt some of the songs in primary school in singing lessons and just fell in love with the music. We have a recording of the original production and I get shivers just hearing the overture, (I’m so jealous that you actually saw the original production). I’ve seen the show 3 times and “One Day More” always makes me cry. We were lucky enough to see the 25th anniversary concert which had special guests and they were joined by the original cast at the end. It was glorious. I think I know the entire score off by heart but I will never tire of it.

Evita; I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I just really love the music. It’s got some great solos for Evita and she’s such an interesting character. Plus I love a bit of Argentine Tango!

Wicked; this is the story of before, during and after the “Wizard of Oz” but from Elphaba, the wicked witch of the west’s point of view. The music is stunning and so exciting. It is a story of friendship and however much you try, things just sometimes don’t go your way. There’s a particular song called “Defying Gravity” which is extraordinary. It gives me shivers and is so powerful. I can sing it on a good day and it’s so much fun if I hit all the notes!

Once; this was an interesting one. It’s not so much a musical as a play with music in it. The story is about struggling musicians who have this incredible relationship in a moment through their music. All of the actors sing and play instruments. It’s a beautiful love story without being soppy. There’s a duet called “Falling Slowly” which is just breathtaking, I can listen to it over and over again.

Sweeney Todd; now this was amazing. Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, need I say more? They were AMAZING! I never thought I could find Michael Ball scary but he was. They were both unhinged and creepy. I remember at the interval, I turned to Beags and just looked gobsmacked. It was incredible.

Kiss Me Kate; I’m so glad that we saw a good production of this as it’s a big ensemble cast that need to all be good. Everyone was good and my God was it funny. It was quite hard not to get up and join in with “It’s Too Darn Hot”.

Top Hat; Beags introduced me to the movie when I was quite young and since then I’ve always wanted to basically be Ginger Rogers. Seeing the show live was so magical. I know it sounds weird but it was strange seeing it in colour! But the costumes were so beautiful, that’s how you dress. I love the plot and the songs and I wish I could tap dance like that.

Privates on Parade; I guess this is technically a musical, I mean there is singing. When we saw it, it was starring the wonderful Simon Russell Beale whom we adore (more of him later). Of course he was brilliant, camp and silly one minute and then doing a moving monologue the next. I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing him dressed as Marlene Dietrich though.

Straight plays:

Hamlet; I’ve actually seen 2 Hamlets but the best was at the RSC in 2008 starring David Tennant as the Dane. He is my Doctor so I’m a tad biased but it was amazing. No one in the production was weak which is quite unusual. I loved the staging, it was in the round and used minimal scenery. But the way they used lighting was great. They had a double mirror at the back of the stage and used torches to bounce light off of the floor. It was all very effective. It was nice to see something actually at Stratford upon Avon. When the theatre was renovated, you could sponsor a seat and have someone’s name on it. We got one for you, it says ‘In loving memory of D. J. Farmer’, now you can always be at the theatre.

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre; I first went there on a school trip when I was 15. We saw Macbeth which was pretty rubbish but I loved the theatre. It’s outside! I find this fascinating, I think because you can’t hang any scenery from above and there’s something magical about seeing something outside. We’ve seen some amazing things there. My favourites are; “Into the Woods”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Lord of the Flies”. I think they’re my favourites as they are all actually set outdoors so the setting really lent itself to the show. “Into the Woods” had an incredible cast, including Dame Judi Dench as the voice of the giant. It had simple scenery but was so effective. “The Dream” is my favourite Shakespeare play and it’s so magical to see it in the woods once it’s gone dark. You really feel like you’re a part of it. “Lord of the Flies” had a similar feel, as it grew dark you could really feel their paranoia and frustration. They had half a plane on stage as part of set and they used the space so well. I always look forward to seeing what the staging is like at Regent’s Park as its always fascinating,

National Theatre

You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve seen MANY things at the NT over the years. It’s one of my favourite places and it was hard to narrow down my absolute favourite productions. You’ll also be pleased to know that whenever we go, I have to have a look in the bookshop.

Much Ado About Nothing; Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wannamaker, heaven. I didn’t know the play before hand but now I love it. It’s really accessible and funny and heartwarming. I mean laugh out loud funny. And at the end when Beatrice and Benedick declare their love for each other, it’s so lovely. I really don’t do 'lovey dovey’ but this was wonderful.

Treasure Island; we know the plot. It’s the staging that captivated me. The revolve turned round and the ship rose up from below. It looked like a ship sliced in half with all the different compartments. It was a hell of a design job. The actor who played Long John Silver is called Arthur Darvill. His mother is Ellie Darvill who is a puppeteer. She played Why Bird in Playdays! It was a kids show that I loved when I was little. So when Long John Silver had an animatronic parrot on his shoulder, I was kinda distracted.

Everyman; this was a modern take on an old classic. It was awesome. It was funny and moving and thought provoking. The design was great, the costumes were great. I couldn’t tell you the plot as it’s kinda complicated but I can tell you that it had the best ending that I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen some modern theatre which is too abstract to the point that you can’t understand it. Not this. This was modern theatre at its very best.

As You Like It; being named after the main character, I’ve always wanted to see this. It’s not done very often but luckily this was on last year. I don’t know why it’s not done often because I loved it. It’s really funny and has one of Shakespeare’s greatest female characters in it. Rosalind (that’s me!) sorts out everyone’s love lives, as well as her own, and has the last word of the play. It was so funny and I’m so glad that I’ve finally seen in the flesh my namesake in all her glory.

The greatest moment of all my theatre experiences has to be the 50th anniversary of the National Theatre. They did a televised show that had snippets of their best shows throughout their history and clips and interviews and all sorts. If you were a member, you could pay for a ticket to see the camera rehearsal the day before. We were 2 of those lucky people. I will never ever forget that night. To witness some of the finest actors of several generations perform some the NTs greatest hits was an absolute honour. I cried. A lot. Judi Dench set me off. She sang “Send in the Clowns” which was stunning and made me a bit teary. Then she did a section from “Anthony and Cleopatra” which made me a bit more weepy. But at the end, when everyone took their curtain call, the flood gates opened. I balled. I had this extraordinary feeling. It was this pure appreciation, respect and LOVE for what I had just witnessed. My love for theatre all came to a head and I had this strong moment of pure love. It was visceral and real. I will never forget that moment and what that evening meant to me.

My love for theatre is all thanks to you and will never wane. I feel privileged to have seen the productions that I have and I can’t wait to find out what I will see in the future. Thank you for this passion, it means a lot to me.

Love you,


May 30th, 2016

So here we are, it’s the 31st of May and it’s my last blog. I’ve spent all month planning these and thinking about what to say to you and now I’m on the last one I don’t know what to say.

I was going to talk about the future, my future. But it’s weird as you’re not a part of it. Well, you are in a way but I have so many things I want to ask you that I’ll never know the answer to.

When I was younger, I had such an idea of what my life would be. I would do my GCSEs, then A levels, then university and then whatever career came my way. This hasn’t happened and I find myself in a ‘quarter life crisis’. At 15 you’re asked what you want to do with your life so you can choose your GCSEs. At 15! Who knows what they want at 15? Well I did. I’ve always, ALWAYS wanted to perform. To act and sing. But I’ve always been too scared to tell people about it. It’s so precious to me and I take it so seriously. It was such a big deal to go to college to try it.

But it didn’t work out and that hurts. I still really want to go to drama school and I know that if I push myself, I can do anything. But I have a voice in my head saying,

“But it’s so scary, you’re not any good, your body can’t take it”.

I have such bad stage fright which I know is common but it puts me off. At college I hoped to gain confidence and it was shattered which I find so sad. I told you I’m hypermobile and I struggle with such basic things. Just getting off the floor is hard! But I have passion in my heart, a vast knowledge of the arts and I KNOW that I have some talent.

But I also love writing. I have so many ideas and a writing course could help hone my skills. I know I have good ideas, even if they are Doctor Who based. Writing would be physically easier but it takes me a while to make myself sit there and write.

So what do I do? I wish you were here to help me with these decisions. I don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t even try to make it as an actor. I’d hate to look back on my life and think, “but what if I had tried?”

These are big life decisions and I can’t even decide what box set to watch next. You are meant to have careers advice at school but it’s always rubbish. I know I could never work in an office, I’d get so bored. I HAVE to work in the arts in some capacity as I just adore it.

If all else fails I could run a cat hotel.

Anyway I guess this is goodbye. That sounds weird. I said goodbye 10 years ago. But in another way, I never said goodbye as I think about you and talk about you often. I think about how similar we are which is great. I’ve never believed in heaven or any other equivalent but I hope that somehow you can see me and approve of how I’ve turned out. It’s not all been plain sailing but I’m here to tell the tale. I don’t have the best luck in the world but I always tell myself that I could be far worse off. I’m rambling now. I don’t know how to finish this. Hmmmmmmmmm. I’ll resort to my default setting which is humour.

So long and thanks for all the fish.

Love you,


“You’ll be with me like a handprint on my heart”.

May 31st, 2016

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Ladies in Retirement (WDS)

Ladies in Retirement,
Wheathampstead Dramatic Society,
May 2016

These ladies failed to grip.

I suppose I have only myself to blame. Should have gone elsewhere, better plays, better seats, better everything. Steel Magnolias up at the Barn, Six Characters searching something at the Rep, Romeo and Juliet trolling in Toddington. Now that is class, or ought to be. But, as patient readers bereft of a blog know, I am lazy or getting that way. Too dark, too far, too cold, too loud. Any excuse to curl up with a book or an old film. But Wheathampstead? Only just down the road. Nice lot, did a bloody good Weir, The Weir to be exact. Worth every one of its four stars. Give it a whirl. Time you got out. Someone said that at another good one I missed, Pump Boys, time he got out, he’s becoming a boring old fart. Shan’t name her. Oh on second thoughts I will. Di Newman. Lovely lady and spot on right. (That’ll get her reading this post – named without performing takes skill). So I got out. Only two miles or so. Ladies in Retirement, old thriller, old Ida Lupino film. Undemanding, won’t tax me like Pirandello or Shakespeare. Old fashioned Victorian, or is it Edwardian, thriller. Just the ticket, even if these are now ten quid. So I dragged myself out, still light at eight o’clock, never knew that. And waited to be thrilled. I am still waiting.
It ought to grip. Grim companion strangling a flighty and theatrical homeowner and bricking her up in a wall so she can provide for her batty sisters is a pretty solid base for tension. Especially when a ne’er-do-well nephew sniffs out the plot and tries to turn it to his advantage. Good old fashioned drama and narrative. Done right, a nice dollop of theatrical yesteryear. Sadly you didn’t so much grip your seat with this production as slowly sink into it, ground down by Robin Langer’s flat depiction of scenes and characters who, in the main, delivered uneasy lines and little else. Little, individually or collectively, was fleshed out and all we really got was a reading without books of Edward Percy and Reginald Denham’s atmospheric thriller. Cloaked in sound effects, I will come to them later, which detracted rather than enhanced. I felt for the company and the better players. There were some of the latter and I came away wishing they had been in a better production. They won’t say so, but I reckon they might be thinking the same. Either that or why doesn’t Di Newman’s boring old fart stay on his sofa. Or go to Toddington. We’ll give him the ten quid.
Jan Westgarth was a commanding murderous companion with a rich voice resonating pleasingly on the old ears. Her diction and character impressed and it was not her fault that few of her scenes came to life. And Julie Field’s batty sister Emily, even allowing for a wig redolent of Ronnie Barker at his women’s institute choral best, was an equally strong performance laced with quirky humour. Best of all was Irene Morris, this actress rarely does anything wrong in my eyes, as the agoraphobic Louisa. She walked and talked her troubled character with consummate skill. Constantly on the edge of madness. Placed in a production with well crafted scenes of light and shade and gradually increasing tension these ladies would have shone. In a limp vehicle with wobbly wheels they merely flickered. I will say little of the rest other than that I have seen Viv Fairley (Leonora Fiske) and Bruce King (Albert Feather) both do considerably better in the past so in this case, I say charitably, something in the Thames water defeated them. It wasn’t the script, merely its interpretation. And those bloody sound effects.
I said I would come on to them and, as my wife says, I always fulfil my promise. With horses and money anyway. The piano electronically clunked before it played, the peripheral sound effects came more from the back of the hall than the stage, and thunder conveniently roared only when doors were opened. Worst of all, Edwardian carriage sounds, good as they were, never synchronised with actors moving off and on stage. Horses manfully galloped as characters came and left and one had the disconcertingly imagined vision of leaps to the door or, even worse, folks grimly hanging on as they swiftly departed. If sounds were depicted as such in the script they should have moved them a line or two. Or five. Verisimilitude is key in such dramas.
Such failures gave the feel that this was an amateurish production. And I don’t often say that of Wheathampstead Dramatic Society. And, in spite of what folks say, I prefer to be nice. Especially as these days I rarely get out. Except to Waitrose and Ladbrokes. And, possibly, Di Newman’s. Reckon she owes me ten quid. Roy Hall



Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Weir - Wheathampstead Dramatic Society

Wheathampstead Dramatic Society,
Memorial Hall
February 2016
‘A fine piece of ensemble playing.’

I reckon I am a bit of a sucker for theatre which draws you in to its own private world rather than socking you in the face with oodles of glitzy glamour. Yes I know there are loads in between but, as they say in the best court circles, I am just laying out my case. With intimate pieces you can, if done well, get absorbed in the minutiae of small lives and small happenings and reap emotional rewards far beyond the expectation. Huge dramas with a massive sweep can make you tingle with excitement and knock you back in admiration, but pound for pound, tiny drama poetically written can do it just as well. Conor McPherson’s The Weir is one such case. A play widely acclaimed in London when first shown it was given its own small airing down the B653 and I, and a pleasing full house were glad we went. For two hours nothing happened and we were gripped by it. Either that or they were all asleep and I am buggered if I heard anyone snore.
Apologies for the language, it goes with the territory. There was a lot of ‘fecking’ on stage but as The Weir is a coastal pub in a remote part of County Sligo this is probably understandable. The various inhabitants smoked a bit, drank a lot, and talked more. And some of them paid for their drinks even though mine host Brendan (Steve Leadbetter) was far more generous with the free rounds than any barman I ever met. The regulars were feisty and irascible Jack (Malcolm Hobbs) and the tight fisted and uptight Jim (Robin Langer). A sad and lonely pair, the pub and a winner at Cheltenham the only meaningful focus of their desolate lives. That’s what I felt anyway as I waited patiently for Jim to put his hand in his pocket for his round. Maybe he would on another night, as you felt this evening was only one of many such evenings of introspection. A young woman from Dublin (Julie Gough) is introduced to the pub and its inhabitants by one County Sligo lad who had made good, Finbar Mack (Jonathan Field), and as the drinks flow to the sound of the weir, ghostly and lonely tales are told.  
If the telling of various tales are the heart of the piece it is the fleshing out of the tellers and listeners that makes the play gripping. All are flawed, all are vulnerable, and all carry lots of emotional baggage. We learn of a drowned child, a house built across a fairy road, and a dead child abuser choosing a grave which feeds his predilections. And of a man, Jack, who lost his only love and, seemingly, has spent a lifetime regretting it. But then, almost in his own words, he saw youth as a time for shagging. Nothing was resolved by the time the enigmatic and genial Brendan shut up the bar but that, as they say, is life. You bare your soul and trust that sleep will bring a few hours of oblivion. All to the sounds of the unrelenting weir.
The strength of director Jan Westgarth’s excellent production was the beautiful pacing and the easy way in which all the characters interlinked with one another. The sheer emptiness of most of these lives was full of poetic imagery and pleasing realism. A fine piece of ensemble playing in which we, the audience, were eavesdroppers on a complex slice of Irish life. I would have liked a pub more cluttered, the well stocked bar was good, but walls were sparsely dressed with just a few photographs. And the weir, or was it the wind, suggested little more than a flittering of fairy farts. Atmosphere was writ large, the restrained use of dimmed lighting plied to good effect, but it could have been writ a little larger. But that is theatrical nitpicking. I thoroughly enjoyed the absorbing evening for the realism of the characters and Conor McPherson’s sumptuous text. All the five actors played their part in bringing a difficult play to full and bursting life and Malcolm Hobbs (Jack) was outstanding for the richness of a character riddled with bitterness and comedy in equal proportions. Like me, I hope he has a good Cheltenham. Roy Hall