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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 ...

Monday, 16 November 2020

Relatively Speaking (Company of Ten)


Relatively Speaking

Live stream - 12th November 2020


Cracking theatre from a classy company.


I did something very strange last week but, after all, it is a strange year. I went to the theatre or, more to the point, the theatre came to me. Company of Ten live streamed their latest audience denied production and, being an Alan Ayckbourn, I decided to tune in. With a little help from someone far more techno savvy than me. Live streaming, a phrase that would have been alien in 2019 trips off the tongue in virus torn 2020. You watch an old fashioned but incredibly clever and funny play from the 1960s via your modern state of the art tablet, and studiously watch the actors socially distance their complex mask free parts. It’s a funny old world at the moment but at least you escape parking charges, petrol costs, and oodles of ice creams for your friends. And the drinks from the bar are free. Or that is what I tell myself.

I missed the first bit of the first scene of Relatively Speaking but knowing the play well it did not matter. Besides, set in Ginny and Greg’s London flat it is merely there to set up the delicious confusions that follow when the action moves to leafy Buckinghamshire. I shan’t regale you with the plot, I would be here all day, other than to say that Greg thinking that Ginny’s middle aged lover is her father leads to tortuously comic misunderstandings in spades. It is a rich seam which Ayckbourn mines beautifully with logical precision. You never for a moment think that one word or one line could explain all. Hence the play’s continuing charm.

Director Angela Stone had a cracking cast. Ben Cammack was an engagingly geeky Greg and Emma Barry, far too common for a Buckinghamshire family, a feisty Ginny. Both played their parts with super pace and delivery. But the stars of this, and all productions of the play I have seen or heard, were the so called ‘parents’ Philip and Sheila. When Philip, thinking that Sheila is Greg’s lover rather than Ginny, learns of a thirty year older man in her life he assumes he must be eighty. It was a delightful comic piece, both in delivery and reactions. And Sheila innocently questioning her so called ‘daughter’ Ginny about how she was brought up and where she lives was exquisite in timing and responses. Suzie Major and Russell Vincent, acting talents I have seen before, both bring exceptional skills to their rich parts even if, as I said earlier, I really should not try to explain the plot.

The play was excellently directed and staged by Angela Stone on Judith Goodban’s impressive patio garden set and, thankfully, the camera operators were not too intrusive. All in all a classy production from a company I have regularly admired. More so in these current challenging times. I only went to my private bar once, and that was in the interval, and if there are not many laughs in this semi-serious blog I assure they were in abundance at the Abbey. A reminder, think Rosemary Leach, Celia Johnson, and the Michaels, Hordern and Aldridge et al, of what we are all missing. Many, many, thanks, Ten.

Roy Hall

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Finborough Theatre - Jane Clegg


An absorbing evening of lockdown theatre

It’s a funny old world. Being an old bird I don’t venture out much these days. Especially in the evenings. So lockdown changed little. But as a grumpy old sod one of my constant bleats in recent years has been the lack of anything decent for geriatric theatre lovers to watch on the telly. I fondly remember Play for Today, The Wednesday Play, Saturday Night Theatre, Armchair Theatre, and Play of the Month. I could go on but I am in danger of being boring. Oh all right I am boring. You got Priestley and Rattigan, Galsworthy, Chekhov, Turgenev. And TV master playwrights like Potter, Rosenthal, and Alan Plater. In spades. And they would be aired in the three or four TV channel era. Halcyon days. Nowadays bugger all. Hundreds of channels and nowt to watch. But as I say it is a funny old world. Come the dreaded virus and along with the plethora of singing birds in the garden we get plays, if not in battalions at least not single spies.

Finborough theatre in West Brompton has never figured on my radar till now. In horseracing terms, I can’t resist it, if the National Theatre is Arkle or Frankel (google them), then this modest 50 seat pub theatre is down amongst the claimers. I mean that kindly. Small is often beautiful and, recommended by a theatrical friend, this very much proved to be so. Dipped into it for an absorbing ninety minute Jane Clegg and both enjoyed and learned. My ignorance constantly amazes me. I knew not the play, the writer, or the company. I left an expert in all, or that is what I shall now pretend. Gaining such theatrical knowledge in this virus has its compensations.

Edwardian housewife Jane Clegg strikes me as a bit of a dry fish. No wonder her old man was having it away with some impregnated floozie he wishes to abscond with. Trouble is he doesn’t have any money and his wife does. Inherited wealth is a pretty powerful weapon and Mrs Clegg, a beautifully restrained performance from Alix Dunmore, uses it wisely. Can’t say the same for her hapless Henry, a contrastingly powerful portrayal by Brian Martin. He gambles, embezzles, and lies with the consummate ease of the inherently feckless. A modern woman would have kicked him out long ago. But this was Edwardian England and when he finally departs, almost with her blessing, the context indicates a degree of feminine courage.

If that was writer St John Ervine’s point then I got it. Written in the age of women’s suffrage, and first performed around about the time Emily Davison threw herself under the thundering hooves of the Epsom Derby, Jane Clegg is an Ibsenesque trumpet call to women. The set is tiny, pleasingly so, and the flowery wallpaper enhances the ambient claustrophobic staging. David Gilmore had a strong cast throughout and I was particularly taken by the awkwardness of Sidney Livingstone’s office manager Mr Morrison. He conveyed beautifully his distaste and discomfort over the unpleasantness of Henry Clegg’s embezzled cheque. Neither welcomed nor relished.

I have been regularly throwing in my own non embezzled tenner donation to the National whenever watching one of their magnificent plays. Finborough Theatre deserves the same. Viewed through Youtube over the silhouetted heads of the compact audience it made for a theatre lovers pleasurable, self isolating, Saturday night in this funny old pandemic world. And that, as they say, is where I came in. Roy Hall



Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Life in Lockdown - a plea for small theatres

I have a number of passions in my life. They have changed positions as I have aged, but the overall list is pretty stable. Horseracing, theatre, old murder cases, cooking, reading, and my lovely wife are all in there somewhere plus a couple I have no intentions of telling you about. With the exception of horseracing, sadly missed, they have all come to the fore in these weird endless weeks of lockdown. For the statistically minded I am now on Day 62 of self isolation. Made bearable by a first class service from Waitrose. And all those lovely delivery drivers. Especially the ones bringing whisky and fags. Benign weather and quiet skies bring birds in abundance to our small garden and acts of kindness, small and large, are witnessed everywhere. Only the daily parliamentary briefings of grim statistics and pictures of rainbows in small terraced windows remind you that there is a battle going on out there.

Theatre is just one of the numerous casualties and for those who perform in it as well as watch it is particularly frustrating. I am trying to do my bit for the professionals, anything I watch of theirs I make a small donation to their cause. The National Theatre’s Twelfth Night was well worth the £10 a sofa seat ticket we paid. I calculated that if everyone who tuned into it did the same they would have raised around £4,000,000. I hope they did. But that does not help those who perform for fun or seasonal visitors, especially the ones that have small theatres to run. From my own small world I am thinking of the lovely Manor Theatre in Sidmouth, our favourite holiday place and the home of England’s only permanent summer professional Rep Company, and, closer to home, Dunstable Rep, Welwyn’s Barn, and St Albans Company of Ten. And further afield Hitchin’s Queen Mother and Toddington’s TADS. Been to them all in my time. How will they survive I ask myself?

It ain’t going to be easy. Even if they can perform, not easy doing a social distancing Romeo and Juliet, will anyone come in the foreseeable future? Hopefully any gloomy prognosis will be thrown into the dustbin of history before long, but commonsense tells me that the next couple of years could be pretty fallow ones in the small time theatrical world. If they do not have strong reserves and, possibly, kindly local authorities, I reckon we lovers of their art will be asked to put our hands in our pockets. I would not blame them. We will need what they offer even more when this pandemic is finally over. If they sink it will be all our loss.

The even smaller companies, those without a permanent base, do not have the same problems. They can’t perform but they do not have a stonking large building to support. And if they are enterprising they can still have theatrical fun. The small company I am involved with, Harpenden High Street Players, have spent the last few weeks doing Zoom play readings and, ambitiously, recording our own version of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. As I said to the director driving it all, it helps to keep us sane. And it might raise some money for a worthy local cause.

So life in lockdown has not been too bad. Those interests listed above all help with my sanity and as I only walked into town to visit the local betting shop, closed, I can cope with talking to the odd duck on the riverbank every day. I worry, as we all do about all the usual things in these unusual times, wouldn’t be normal if I didn’t. Spent one night fretting that if I had toothache I would have to pull the bloody tooth out myself and spent another fretting about an imagined power cut spoiling all the lovely food I had stocked up in our freezer. And they are just the ones I can tell you about.

I don’t fret about theatre, or not yet. But I do hope they are all still there when the virus is in the history books. The National will survive, as will the Harpenden High St Players and their ilk. But what about those others I have mentioned. The ones with expensive buildings but no high profile and no income. They are scattered all over the country. And in my own small part of the world that means the Company of Tens and Dunstable Reps. So, if asked, add them to your list of ever growing deserving causes. The NHS, God bless em, help us when we are ill and are deservedly at the top. But theatre helps to keep us well. If they fold we will all be the poorer.
Roy Hall

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Love From A Stranger (Wheathampstead DS)

Love From A Stranger
Feb 20th - 22nd 2020


Cruising happily down my blogs I see that I have not thrown my incisive, or irritating, theatrical opinion through Wheathampstead’s ample doors for nigh on eighteen months. They gave us a cracker (My mother Said etc.), lovingly scribed, and a damp squib (The Herd), sensibly silent. I love to praise, or at least commend, and found little in the latter. But they clearly miss me, given all the get well/stuffed cards I never received. Wait Until Dark may have been good, I am told it was, but thrillers on stage do not do a lot for me. Explains why in over forty years of directing I have only ever done two. And one of those was the real life Rattenbury murder case. Much more fun. But you should support local theatre and they do not get much more local than WDS. On a dreary Saturday night I threw my twenty quid for two into their collecting tin and prayed that the only murders on stage would be welcome ones.

Love From A Stranger may have Agatha Christie’s illustrious name on it but it is no Gaslight or Shadow of a Doubt. The main character is clearly a killer, probably a serial one, but there the similarity ends. The others have tension and narrative thrusts in spades, this Stranger had little. Teasing clues should engender a growing awareness in the prospective victim to deliciously engage a breathless audience. It’s a given. I am blowed if I could sense much in this script, not a great help to actors, and what there was suffered from muted direction and prosaic presentation. Director Robin Langer’s first port of call with an old fashioned pot boiler should have been to create oodles of menace in which to immerse the characters. But lack of atmospheric music and unimaginative country cottage setting scuppered that particular trick.

So it says a lot that most of those on stage turned in more than passable offerings and one or two were exceptionally good. Given some fine and spooky packaging they were skilled enough to add a grip the play never delivered. Or so I thought whilst contemplating a few more of those get stuffed cards. Damon Pattison was skilled and confident in his creation of the mysterious stranger who wins the heart of gullible and nouveau riche Cecily Harrington      (Lisa Fitzgerald). Eminently watchable, Mr Pattison’s too good to be true Bruce Lovell hinted at menace and danger almost from his first entrance. But if there were any warning bells in Ms Fitzgerald’s portrayal of the innocent prey they were pretty well muffled. Clues, some of them clunky, abounded but it was only in a slightly overwritten last scene that pennies seemed to finally drop. A signalling of earlier doubt would have enhanced an otherwise competent performance.

Other than Mr Pattison the best bit of acting came from Julie Gough in the role of best friend and London flatmate Mavis Wilson. Ms Gough has impressed before and her crystal cut accent created a character with brains and poise. I reckon she would have soon sent an incipient American killer and his mysterious suitcase packing. Her warning bells were decidedly not muffled. Viv Fairley made for a very nice Auntie Loo-Loo, even if the sniffy critic in me sensed a requirement for a more comic portrayal, and Sheila Scull was a pleasing country cottage maid. If she wasn’t making Cumberland pies offstage, everything about her suggested she should be. Steve Leadbetter struggled with his posh accent in the thankless role of Ms Harrington’s ditched boy friend and John Simpson, looking every inch the benign country doctor, merely struggled. I have no wish to be unkind and if Mr Simpson had relaxed into his role it could have been an absolute scene stealer. Especially in the scene where notorious past murderers are lovingly regaled to the unbelieving Ms Harrington. Malcolm Hobbs did a splendid job as the curmudgeon country gardener Hodgson and created so many alarm bells, buried peroxide bottles and financial chicanery, the heroine should have been out on her bike long before the last scene.

But Love From A Stranger is not a logical play. It is a bit of 1950’s thriller nonsense, adapted from a Christie short story by Frank Vosper, and needs mixing up in sign posted menace and dangerous atmosphere to make it work. Mysterious suitcases, prohibited cellars, the sinister bottles, and books on notorious murderers, are all very fine. They can provide a solid and pleasingly vicarious base to the most prosaic of plots. Christie does it in spades in her books. Wheathampstead had a pretty good cast overall but rather than murder most foul we got murder most bland. I quite enjoyed my evening, they deserve my twenty quid. But I shall of course, given my less than enthusiastic review, look warily for the get stuffed letters and any number of peroxide bottles. I reckon Crippen had similar problems. Roy Hall

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Alligators - Company of Ten

Company of Ten,
St Albans
Sun 26th January 2020

Another top class stunner from Company of Ten.

Andrew Keatley’s ‘Alligators’ is a searingly good and topical play and St Albans Company of Ten were on top form with some cracking central performances. As readers of this blog can see I don’t review much these days. Laziness and an unwillingness to be unkind limit the temptation to scatter the old keyboard. But the Abbey studio on a rainy Sunday afternoon often appeals. And this one ticked a few of my dramatic boxes. And, boy, it did not disappoint. 
Daniel Turner is a typical thirty something schoolteacher, married to an engaging and sprightly wife, and father to two young children. Toys and games litter the sparse but cosy flat and husband, wife, and seven year old daughter briefly live their equally cosy and anonymous lives. I say briefly because early dark hints suggest that, as the old song goes, there may be trouble ahead. An unseen headmaster not being his usual friendly self, a summons to chat about his position at the school and, most tellingly, an indication in lightly played games with his wife that schoolgirls have sexual appeal. 
An accusation from the past brings Daniel’s world crashing down on his less than saintly head. Teachers and fourteen year old schoolgirls are a potent and dangerous mix when the finger is pointed, particularly in post Saville times, and Mr Keatley’s play graphically illustrates how fragile respectability can so readily crumble. Few of us are as white as driven snow and the sexual skeletons in Mr Turner’s cupboard are fuel to an all consuming fire. He may be innocent, indeed he is innocent, but any man who watches adult schoolgirl porn and once engaged in a drunken student orgy must be guilty. Besides the papers say so and they are never wrong. And it could be anyone of us. It just wants that wavering accusing finger to point in a different direction.
Matt Hughes-Short gives a riveting performance in the central role of schoolteacher Daniel Turner. Always watchable, his descent into rage and despair beautifully etched the gradual crumbling of an ordinary man consumed by events beyond his control. A forgotten offstage schoolgirl, seven years on, jumped on a strident bandwagon and destroyed his life. He wasn’t a saint, in fact his sexual devilry was slightly overegged in the writing, but he did not deserve that all consuming and pointing finger. If, in his final desperation, he thought of Arthur Miller’s magnificent Crucible, I would not blame him. 
Katherine Steed was equally convincing as his supportive and troubled wife Sally. The scenes between the two were as sharp as razors and you were drawn into a private domestic drama so realistic you, occasionally, felt like apologising for your presence. Ms Steed effectively created a wife who loved her man, was not blind to his faults, and expunged all doubts. Or you hoped she did. And Darcy Jones, the seven year old daughter Genevieve, was absolutely perfect in a controlled performance well beyond her years. Her confusion of allegations and alligators, hence the play’s title, was beautifully done. When she told the social worker, a strong and convincing Deborah Cole, you can’t be tickled without being touched I wanted, simultaneously, to kiss her and slap the social worker. That should get the police looking into my past life. Abbe Waghorn brought total believability to her sharp suited lawyer Rachel Horne, uncomfortable truths readily amplified, even if my ears yearned for stronger projection of key lines. 
But I put that down to my age. An age with a long and rollercoaster past. Do not look into it. Do not point the finger. That is the message of this riveting play. Beautifully acted, excellently directed by Tim Hoyle, and yet another stunner from the Company of Ten. I am rather glad it rained on Sunday.

Roy Hall 

Runs to Saturday 1st February - Box Office 01727 857861

Monday, 14 October 2019

Dealing with Clair (Company of Ten)

Company of Ten
Abbey Theatre Studio
Runs to Saturday 19th October 2019
01727 857861 (Tickets £13)

A cracking depiction of Thatcherism.
The first thing that strikes you in Martin Crimp’s excellent play, rich in staccato rhythms worthy of Pinter and David Mamet, is that many of the characters inhabit various stages of unpleasantness. Mike and Liz, the yuppie couple selling their house are, as dear old Oscar would say, knowing of the price of everything and the value of nothing. Or that was how it seemed to me. Naked ambition for house price gazumping eclipsed much else. We got a tantalising hint of sexual connection in a wine induced evening of introspection but elsewhere this Liz and Mike rated money far above relationships. Ditching their unseen prospective buyers for creepy cash buyer James, laced with dubious Faustian offerings, seemed to say it all. Money may not grow on trees but its entrails were everywhere, destroying normal human values. Dealing in tens of thousands on a house sale does not stop you fretting obsessively about your Italian au pairs secretive phone calls or covering up stains on a carpet that may knock off the odd one per cent.
And in the mix of this, as well as that creepy counter cash buyer, is the ingenuous estate agent Clair. On one level strong and assertive, as estate agents are, and yet in other respects completely out of her depth. She goes along with the yuppies upping the value of their house and seems to accept cash buyer James on his own terms, almost buying in to his prevarications. And if he makes her uncomfortable, as he does, she never totally loses that estate agent high street patina. If it had been me I would have told him to piss off or put up the money. Preferably both.
Even if the programme had not mentioned it you would readily pick up echoes of the Suzy Lamplugh case when, over thirty years ago, a young estate agent disappeared after meeting up with prospective buyer Mr Kipper. A case never resolved. And neither is it in Mr Crimp’s Dealing With Clair. This play is not about the ramifications of a 1980s real life mystery but more about the naked age of Thatcherism that was the background to it. We all want to better ourselves and if we can crawl over others whilst doing it so much the better. Money blinds to motives and allows exploitation.
Under Martin Goodman’s astute and spare direction we got some cracking performances. The cast, collectively, never missed a beat in regaling Mr Crimp’s insistent and percussive narrative. Every line delivered was as sharp as a razor and as precise as a bullet. We were rarely given time to indulge in emotional introspection. Not easy for the cast, as fleshing out characters with dramatic subtext in such a linguistic context is virtually impossible. What we know of the people, other than the coruscating words, must be suggested. I got Liz (Georgia Choudhuri) and Mike (Jack Kenward) in spades. A narcissistic couple more interested in selling a house than cementing a relationship that, to me, was fragmenting under money. Whenever the poor offstage baby cried, yes they produced one, it was the put upon au pair who dealt with the problem. Selfish buggers I thought. Georgia Choudhuri was exceptionally good as a wife seemingly to want status more than emotional satisfaction.
Lester Adams’ creepy buyer James could have been a bit creepier for my tastes, perhaps I wanted that mysterious Mr Kipper, but he nevertheless unnerved. Both of my female companions subscribed to this view so perhaps it is a male thing. But he clearly unnerved Lillie Prowse’s Clair. A ‘black suited’ waitress, the sellers sexist view, Miss Prowse oozed female confidence in a male dominated world and commanded the stage in all her scenes. If you got the feeling that this Clair was playing a role, the confident estate agent desperate for advancement, you would not be far wrong. All her instincts repelled against James the buyer but the commission percentage eclipsed everything. And that probably sums up most estate agents.
Louisa Bicknell was the cracking Italian au pair Anna, totally believable in everything she did, and Zodiac O’Neill particularly impressed in the third of his small roles. Estate agent Toby, full of all that bullshit that such folks are capable. Sitting where I was I could have hit his sharp suited persona in the face, and frankly I was tempted. I cannot pay the actor a higher compliment. Lighting and Sound were impressive and both Don Hayward and Ian Crawford are to be congratulated, especially for their combined efforts in creating the trains rushing by Clair’s small and claustrophobic bedsit. Very realistic.
A slight play in some respects but rich with beautiful dialogue delivered with consummate ease by a skilled cast. I expect nothing less from Company of Ten. And if they spread little light on the Suzy Lamplugh mystery, not their fault, they gave us an illuminating glimpse of old world Thatcherism. Roy Hall




Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Pagliacci - Irrational Theatre Company

Irrational Theatre Company
Harpenden Park Hall
10th February 2019

An uplifting touch of small scale opera class


In my younger days, I did have some, I used to go to a lot of opera. Working in London had its compensations and the ENO Coliseum frequently beckoned as a change from my beloved straight theatre. I am no musical purist but boy could that lot sing. Tickets cost a fortune and you occasionally had to draw a veil over some iffy acting, but voices and music from a Verdi and Puccini heaven eclipsed all. Theatre in its purest form and no way could I do it. Which made it all the more enjoyable. Watching skills alien to your own theatrical comfort zone is a special pleasure. Sadly my days in the city of sin and smoke are long over and opera in the sticks are a rarefied beast. Musicals, Webber and Sondheim, abound, but opera is about as rare as turkey twizzlers in Waitrose.
So that is why I take off my extremely tatty old hat, yes I was wearing one, to Irrational Theatre’s small scale production of Leoncavallo’s masterpiece in the equally small scale but packed hall of my local town of Harpenden. A one off performance which gave us seventy five minutes of powerful acting and singing so close you could have re-arranged the buttons on the colourful and clownish costumes. The evening zinged and tingled and all we watchers could, inadequately, say at the end was ta muchly. And come again. You enriched a wet weekend.
Shan’t regale you with too much of the plot. In this Wikipedia age you can look it up for yourselves. Actors playing clowns and, tragically, bringing their real life drama to the stage. All ends in blood and tears. Bit like most operas I suppose, or at least them without consumptive women. But I will regale you with the performances. If they do not earn a living from their singing then this quintet bloody well ought to. Sadly there were no CV’s in the simple programme so I can only guess. Randy Nichol was a mesmerizingly powerful Canio/Pagliacci, he gave us a scorching dramatic rendering of the famous mid act aria, and created a convincingly troubled man you would not want to mess with. Samantha Green in the role of unfaithful Nedda/Columbina was absolutely delightful and coquettish and clearly relished her amorous duplicity in both roles. Katy Bingham Best counterpointed effortlessly as the ugly, unloved, fool and Joao Valido Vaz acted and sang superbly as Peppe/Arlechino. A fun harlequinade character you wanted to wrap in a chocolate box and take home. And rounding it all up was Alejandro Lopez-Montoya’s Silvio/Stage Manager. This baritone had a voice to die for and a presence to match it. Nedda’s lover, stabbed at the end, sadly missed. So I have given you some of the plot whether you wanted it or not.
This superb fivesome were well supported by Gergely Kaposi’s equally first class piano accompaniment, my untrained ear never heard a false note, and Peter Jones’ astute musical direction. I noticed how he cleverly picked up one slightly missed actor’s beat but if there were any others he masked them beautifully. In a performance of clowns that would be appropriate. Paula Chitty, director and designer and costumes amongst everything else, must be well pleased. I know I and my companions were. And one of them so Italian she never once glanced at the subtitles. I did, pedant that I am, but I did not need to. The passion and the power and the music were beautifully displayed. And no more than three feet in front of us. You did not get that at the Coliseum. Roy Hall