Mindgameby Anthony Horowitz; dir Anne-marie Greene
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
1 – 8 February 2014
A Rare Gem

Mindgame is an appropriate title for this piece, which attempts to toy with the perceptions of the audience. Styler, a popular writer, has apparently turned up at an asylum for the criminally insane, hoping to be able to arrange interviews with serial killer Easterman. He meets Dr Farquhar, who is initially intransigent but whose behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing, and Nurse Paisley, who seems desperate for Styler to leave. Events overtake Styler, however, and he finds himself at the mercy of Farquhar, who has revealed himself to be Easterman and murdered the nurse. Not that the mind game itself is over by then, but you get the idea.

In practice, what we got was a show that kept the audience riveted to the edges of their seats, mouths agape, breath hushed and hardly daring to blink – even screaming at times. This was theatrical immersion of the best; what more can I say? Not everyone who left the theatre may have enjoyed the production, but they would all have been stirred up and would think about it for days at least.

The set was low-key, clinically white, with the audience raised around it on three sides – somewhat reminiscent of those medical lecture halls you see on TV and appropriate to the kind of surgical butchery we almost see. A speaker on the wall would intermittently spark into life and play a bit of ‘elevator’ music before dying out once more and there were also some very brief snatches of low-key, suspense-type music – both added to the disturbing effect very well.

Of course, all this would be pointless without strong performances from the cast and they did not let us down. Jon Elves as Styler smoothly progressed from confident writer to terrified victim to unhinged patient with consummate skill, whilst Craig Shelton as Farquhar performed the same feat, progressing from urbane doctor to disturbed psychopath to obsessed psychoanalyst. It is these two who held us so rapt, supported well by Jan Nightingale as the trembling Nurse Paisley, apparently being murdered twice before revealing her true identity.

The only aspect of the whole production worthy of criticism was the projection of images onto the white wall during the nurse’s first ‘murder’. This, I feel, was a mistake and risked cheapening the whole sequence. It would have worked so much more effectively to have relied just on Jan’s screams from off-stage and allowed us to use our already fired-up imaginations to fill in the details. Negative point though that was, there were more than enough positive points to overwhelm it.

This was a great production and all involved should feel very proud of it and pleased with themselves.

Millicent Short


Hypnosisby David Tristram; dir Phil Quinn
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
3 – 8 February 2014

Hypnosis eh? I want you to close your eyes and empty your mind. It is 1954 and you are stuck in Clacton on a wet Tuesday in June. Fortunately you have a ticket for the show at the end of the pier. This is where the Talisman’s current offering would be at home. This is a play which comes from a world when television was black and white and footballers had a full head of hair.

This is merely descriptive of the genre and should not be seen as a criticism. There is a place for the retro, and here, thanks to director Phil Quinn, we have a gentle enough piece, well handled by all involved.

It is short, highly implausible and at times amusing enough. Just three actors; an alcoholic hypnotist, a psychotic detective with a gun and his wife, a libidinous banker, have devised a plot to rob her bank. It doesn’t go smoothly.

John Francis gives us a rather deranged detective. An effective piece of acting as he offers a very energy packed performance. Throughout he puts one in mind of a mad axe man on the edge of committing mayhem. There might, however, have been some benefit, at times, in considering the gloved hand approach rather than presenting the bare knuckle. This would have offered him a richer palette.

Kathy Crawshaw invites you to see bankers in a different light – a very revealing one at times. Another well considered performance full of pace, venom and urgency. Given the low regard in which bankers are held these days we might have hoped for a clear invitation to chuckle when she invites our respect by saying, “after all I am a banker”.

The hypnotist at the centre of the play is Graham Underhill. His bumbling incompetence in his chosen craft suits the play well and, at times, he attracts our concern for his welfare. A nicely varied performance and he succeeds in driving the rapidly changing and unlikely events upon which the play depends.

The evening is made the more enjoyable by June Malcome’s delightful black and white set which clearly defines the two locations demanded by the plot.


Hitchcock Blonde

Hitchcock Blondeby Terry Johnson; dir Darren Scott
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
22 January – 1 February 2014

Hitchcock Blonde tells a hypothetical story of two modern-day researchers finding some scraps of film shot by the famous director in 1919 (before his film career) which seemed to presage the shower scene from Psycho. Parallel to this is a story of Hitchcock himself and the blonde who played the body double for that scene in 1959.

The stylish set showed the former story in the foreground with the latter played upstage on a raised platform in front of a large screen which created a slightly unearthly quality to those scenes and was used to display some of the film frames the researchers were working on. This looked promising. Our interest was further piqued at the start by a film clip in the style of the ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ introductions asking us to turn off mobile phones.

Sadly things were rather a disappointment from then on. The 1959 story was the more interesting of the two, with the Blonde, driven by ambition for fame and money, attempting to turn Hitchcock’s comments about the disposal of murder victims against him by dumping a body on him that unconvincingly turns out not to be dead after all. The motivations of the Blonde could at least be grasped at and the forceful performance by Karen Brooks certainly helped with that. But she was fighting in a losing cause and the story as a whole was disjointed and confusing. It didn’t help that Hitchcock himself was played in a most distracting manner: mouth permanently agape and head leant back as though in the grip of a badly-fitted neck brace. It is always difficult to portray such a well-known and distinctive figure, but there are many available examples of the man himself to study. This was not so much Hitchcock as Hitchcock’s corpse.

The modern-day story saw a university lecturer inviting his much younger student to a holiday in a Greek villa to investigate and preserve the decomposing remnants of film from 1919 – his ulterior motive was to also get her into bed with him. This whole story lacked credibility in so many ways, the combination of those two things not least of all; valuable decomposing film is treated in controlled conditions, not over a glass of wine while chatting someone up. The characters had little credibility too and not only due to the performances, although these were poor: the lecturer being too laid-back and the student over-acting as though her life depended on it.

At the root, it was difficult to identify with or believe in any of the characters from either story and consequently we didn’t care what happened to any of them. Add to that the generally tenuous and convoluted story and you end up with an experience that I just found boring. Judging by the gaps in the audience during the second act, I was far from the only one.



Betrayalby Harold Pinter; dir Sue Moore
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
12 – 16 November 2013

It has become something of a rarity to have a opportunity locally to enjoy any of Pinter’s plays, which, given his status as a Nobel Prize winner, seems a sad omission.

Pinter has a reputation for being complex and obscure, but apart from the events of the play being in reverse order, this is not the case with ‘Betrayal’ which takes us through the nine years of an affair from youthful exuberance to experienced and disillusioned  middle age. The piece is famously autobiographical in that it tells of the long-term affair of Pinter himself with Joan Bakewell.

In the first few minutes of the play David Crossfield (aka Pinter himself) and Libby McKay get an opportunity to play a few of Pinter’s famous pauses. Not here an embarrassing hiatus, but moments which gather weight and purpose. We know we are safely in the hands of skilful actors. The pair are at the centre of this piece and we share their compulsive attraction, desperate duplicity and ultimate exposure. Here we have two powerful performances which make for an engrossing and absorbing evening.

The cuckolded husband is no less sensitively played by Richard Ely with a growing sense of unease as his suspicions develop. We get moments of strange ‘male bonding’ between the two men who are long-term friends. Moments laced with an undeclared subtext of awareness of the events outside that friendship.

The Loft studio takes a maximum of about fifty people and was full, but unfortunately, unless you were sitting in the front, this made for problems in following the action. Heads were swivelling as audience members tried to see past the heads of those in front. The cost here was a loss of some of the intimacy that studio theatre promises. Surely this might have been a play which could have been presented in a less conventional proscenium arch style.

The director, Sue Moore, must be congratulated for offering us an opportunity to enjoy one of our finest dramatists. Her control of the pace and rhythm of the play made for an evening well spent.


David Copperfield

David Copperfieldby Charles Dickens; adapted by Alastair Cording; dir Keith Railton
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
19 – 26 October 2013
A Rare Gem

David Copperfield is a long, rambling novel by today’s standards; there is just too much to enact it all. Yet this production makes a worthy attempt at covering the main elements.

The lovely, multi-purpose set had a nautical theme, with sails, ropes, even a jetty, and enough bare, weathered wood to build the Peggottys’ boat-house. It included a wheeled apparatus that, through various attachments, served as a cart, beds, boat-house, prison, etc. Wheeled on and off by the cast, scene changes rarely disturbed the flow of action. At the back of the stage was a screen showing thematic stills and having the only real technical flaw; it seemed at times to be moving, causing the projected image to distractingly grow or shrink.

Dickens’ characters tread a fine line between caricature and realism and, for the most part, the representations here got that delicate balance correct – an exception being Edward Murdstone’s incredible eyebrows, prompting the need to suppress guffaws at first sight. As nothing else appeared to fall into the realms of the absurd, I’m surprised this wasn’t rectified. This is no reflection of the actual performance by Richard Copperwaite, who, despite being a little young, was suitably cold and menacing.

The whole cast performed admirably, from the headline roles to the schoolboys and bottle washers. Many also contended well with playing two parts, necessitating clear differentiation – and some very quick changes. Clear favourites among the audience were those who have to tread that fine line mentioned above most carefully: the Micawbers (Craig Shelton and Cathryn Bowler) and Uriah Heep (David Butler). Mr Micawber’s pompous and wordy affability and his sudden and dramatic descents into self-harming despair were marvellously captured in that theatrical style we imagine when reading the book. Mrs Micawber, comically tiny baby always at her breast and at every opportunity repeating her declaration to never desert her husband, was a perfect match for him, earnest and with an amusing lisp – perhaps a shade too much rouge (or ‘wouge’). Heep’s menacing, gangly form again ran just the right side of the border with pantomime (the desire to boo and hiss him was present, although not overpowering). His machinations and vindictiveness were barely covered by his obsequiousness, from his spider-like entrance, emerging from a box, to his defeat and expulsion in the same box.

David Coppefield himself was played by two actors: Nicol Cortese playing the younger with much energy, in bright-eyed awe among friends and cowed tearfulness among tormentors, and Pete Meredith playing the older confidently, from the marvellous storytelling in the younger David’s bedroom to the stumbling, awkward youth declaring his love. It would take too long to go through the delights of each character portrayal individually, but other favourites include Mr Dick and Mr Creakle (John Hathaway), Emily and Dora (Sarah Cribdon), Peggotty (Annie Gay) and Jane Murdstone (Cathryn Bowler).

I am told the production was sold out before opening night. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one glad to have got my ticket early. Rollicking stuff and a credit to all involved.

Millicent Short

An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Callsby J B Priestley; dir Vicky Whitehill
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
21 – 26 October 2013

An Inspector Calls is probably J B Priestley’s best-known play, set in 1912. It examines the callous way in which the moneyed and powerful classes use and abuse poor working class people. The Birling family are comfortably self-congratulatory about their wealth and prospects until the inspector arrives and demonstrates the role of each of those present in the destruction and death of a poor girl who had worked in Birling’s factory. Yet the inspector’s presence is ethereal and, once this is discovered, we see that, although the Birling daughter and son have had their consciences stirred, the others had been merely concerned with bad publicity.

The initial complacency of the family gives way to fear, regrets, recrimination and panic during the inspector’s revelations and this should be reflected on the stage. There should be a steady escalation of tension and stripping away of social niceties to reveal the ugly creatures below. Then the re-donning of the mask by Mr Birling in particular would have an effective grotesqueness. Although this production made some efforts in this direction, I felt that it really needed that extra level to give the audience a memorable experience. On the whole it felt not much different from a whole host of drawing-room plays: interesting and amusing, but not gripping.

Within those constraints, the performances were generally good. I particularly liked Nadia Parkes as Sheila Birling and Gill Bowser as Sybil Birling. Inspector Goole was played with style and control by John Dawson, but I could have wished he had been more commanding and perhaps a little scary.

I admired the moving wall at the front of the set and liked the idea of having the dead girl appear under the streetlamp in her various guises as each person was questioned. This was played by the same actor as played the Birlings’ maid, Fay Staton. Something perhaps could have been made of the fact that the characters were also alike in many ways; the maid could have been destroyed by the Birlings as easily as the dead girl.

So, enjoyable as it was; but I feel it could have been more.


Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleynby Howard Brenton; dir Jane Railton
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
11 – 18 May 2013
A Rare Gem

Anne Boleyn is a name known to us all, even if most of us know little of the details. She was at the centre of a major upheaval as Henry VIII sought to defy the church, which stood in the way of his divorce, by basically becoming the church himself. It was a time of plots and machinations when it was a triumph to ‘keep your head while all around are losing theirs’. Anne failed in this endeavour at the next shift in intrigue and in Henry’s affections.

So, how does a play capture all this without becoming a dull historical and political pageant? Surprisingly well as it turns out. The play is set in two time periods – during Anne’s time itself and also 6 decades later with the Scottish James I newly arrived from Scotland to take the combined English/Scottish throne.

We begin with Anne addressing the audience and enlisting them to view the story with her. Nicol Cortese’s portrayal of Anne was full of such youthful vivacity and charm that it was evident she could twist a lusty but frustrated Henry (excellently played by Craig Shelton) around her little finger in order to secure the marriage bed rather than that of the concubine.

Anne plays a dangerous game, consorting with the heretic protestant William Tyndale (nicely done by Mark Wiszowaty), reading his outlawed books and even standing up to the dangerous Cardinal Wolsey (Hugh Sorrill, who seemed made for the part). On her side were that these writings were the key that would allow Henry to break with Rome and that Thomas Crowell (Brian Emeney), arguably the most powerful man at court, was also a protestant supporter.

The speech is modern, allowing easy access for a modern audience, and there is much humour in the telling. Much of the latter was reserved for the James I scenes, which formed a light-relief counterpoint to the deadly time of Henry. If there is a stand-out among the many top-notch performances here, it is Jon Elves as James. Playing him as an outrageous libertine with tourettes (of the twitchy variety rather than rude) he was a delight to watch. He was ably backed up by court official Robert Cecil, played with a masterful comic touch by Keith Railton, and courtier George Villiers, the object of James’ amorous attentions, well played by Joe Fallowell.

Most of the rest of the cast performed a solid supporting role, although there were some weak points. In the religious debates in James’ court, some of the antics of the supporters in their ludicrous false beards distracted from, rather than adding to the main activity. And in the scenes with Tyndale’s supporters, characters had a habit of stepping forward to speak and then hovering backwards into line again. It feels that not enough time was being spent by the director with the supporting cast and it took some of the shine off and almost reduced the rating to four stars.

A delightfully entertaining evening out and a demonstration that even a large cast can excel (mostly). I even learnt a lot about the whole story of Anne Boleyn.


Fawlty Towers

Fawlty Towersby John Cleese & Connie Booth; dir Wendy Anderson
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
15 – 20 April 2013

It’s a great formula. Find a hugely popular TV series of thirty or forty years ago, collect a bunch of actors who look something like the originals and get them to do an impression. Here we have three half hour episodes which few will not have seen at some time or other. Not any real acting involved, of course, but a promise of an evening of entertainment.

There are three well remembered characters from the original where some physical similarity is essential. Bill Davis seems about seven foot tall and has a manic instinct hard-wired into his DNA – Basil sorted.  David Draper, short, confused, improbably dark-haired and sporting the sort of moustache that wowed them in the aisles when Hitler was on the comedy circuit in the 30s is a recognisable Manuel. Most successfully recreated is Sybil. Jill Laurie not only has the hair and voice pretty well nailed, but also has a repertoire of mood, stance and movement that does full justice to the original.

Elsewhere there are moments to enjoy.  Miss Tibbs (Maureen Jones) and Miss Gatsby (Cynthia Anderson) have little enough to do, but make each second precious. Damian Storey offers three well defined ‘likely lads’ and John Fenner’s  crooked Lord Melbury was significant in making the first of the three plays the best.

Plenty of promise then, pity about the delivery. The evening simply became less funny once we had got over the pleasure of the identity parade. Basil never quite had the short fuse and danger of imminent explosion that John Cleese gave us. Some comic moments failed to deliver because of lack of clarity or precision in the timing. Some gags were so deliberately contrived that any pleasure in their realisation had gone. Where was the desperate invention to cover moments of potential embarrassment? Why was there not a gathering urgency as the story developed and became more improbable? The cast were clearly capable of meeting those demands and it can only be assumed that actors were left to ‘sort it out’ by themselves. Authoritative, competent, diagnostic direction would have made a real difference and, sadly, this can only be assumed to have been lacking.

If we are to make a judgement on the size of house then this has done well. Certainly the night that I was in, the theatre was close to full. Nevertheless I feel that I must be guided by the fact that laughs became fewer and less enthusiastic as the evening wore on. Relief that there was not to be a fourth episode was palpable.

In offering three stars I am steering a route between The Scylla of misplaced enthusiasm and The Charybdis of easy disdain for this theatre overtly aiming for the popular.

Dombey & Son

Another view


Fawlty Towers is one of the best loved and most timeless of British TV sit-coms. There must be few people in this country who have not seen at least once all twelve episodes that were made. The modern availability of TV programmes via the internet also means that a reproduction on stage cannot be with the aim of reviving a lost classic. Instead it forms an opportunity for us to indulge with an old favourite. There is little room for innovation here; depart far from the TV episodes in characterisations and the audience are likely to be disappointed.

So what are the chances of substituting for actors like John Cleese and Prunella Scales? Well, this production does surprisingly well in the face of this daunting task, helped undoubtedly by some of those key characters having already played the same roles when The Talisman previously performed three other episodes from the series. Bill Davis does a remarkably good job of reproducing Basil Fawlty’s speech , mannerisms and expressions, although was a bit weaker in the manic moments and this did feel frustrating as time went on. Jill Laurie as Sybil Fawlty was also a good counterfeit and carried off her officiousness with ease, and her strident call of ‘Basil!’ and braying laugh were both very effective. Of the other ‘regulars’, David Draper’s Manuel and Tim Eden’s Terry reminded me most of their TV counterparts.

Three episodes were performed here, with intervals between, and there was freedom for a bit of interpretation of the ‘guest’ characters. In ‘A Touch of Class’, a con man under the guise of Lord Melbury (played with a suitable air of haughtiness by John Fenner), exploits Basil’s snobbishness in an attempt to con him out of money and valuables. In ‘The Hotel Inspectors’, an obnoxious spoon salesman (played by a suitably pompous Colin Ritchie) is mistaken for a hotel inspector by Basil. And in ‘Basil The Rat’, Manuel’s ‘hamster’ (played by one or more enormous glove puppets) goes on the rampage during a council food and health inspection.

All in all an enjoyable evening if you are happy to get into the spirit of the thing and accept that it won’t necessarily match the original.

Hari Kitson

Entertaining Mr Sloane

Entertaining Mr Sloaneby Joe Orton; dir Tim Willis
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
3 – 13 April 2013

Entertaining Mr Sloane was first performed nearly fifty years ago as the first stage play in Joe Orton’s tragically cut-short time as a playwright. Orton delighted in shocking his audiences, especially in connection with homosexuality which was still illegal in those unenlightened days.

Sloane, who unlike the older characters is never referred to by first name, is an amoral young man who becomes a lodger at the home of middle-aged Kath and her ‘Dadda’, Kemp. He rapidly manipulates his sexual attraction to Kath and to her brother, Ed, to ensure he has a comfortable time. And he bullies Kemp, who recognises him as a murderer, into submission. Kath and Ed tussle over the rights to Sloane’s sexual attentions and, thanks to a further ‘impropriety’ by Sloane, come to a solution that satisfies them both thanks to a little blackmail and demonstrates that we can all partake of a bit of amorality if it suits us.

What was designed to shock audiences back in the sixties hardly raises an eyebrow nowadays, so its main attraction other than for nostalgic purposes seems to be the story of manipulation and moral convenience. Unfortunately to my mind, the play seemed to be presented much in the style of a ‘Confessions of a …’ film.

Most of the parts were considerably over-acted, notably Sloane (Chris Gilbey-Smith) who also suffered from the problem of being a little too old to carry off the fresh-faced appeal that the twenty-year-old Sloane would have benefitted from – an oddity considering the wealth of young talent the Loft has at its disposal. It was hard to picture Kath as being twice his age. Kath (Kate Sawyer) also suffered somewhat from over-acting and being too much aroused by Sloane from the start, rather than letting us see this build towards the climax of the first act. We could see where this was heading from the start and began to wonder why it took so long. Again, Kemp (Neil Vallance), was an over-acted caricature, a sort of one-dimensional Steptoe whose attempts at replicating the movements of a feeble old man were not at all convincing. I don’t blame the actors much for all this as the over-acting was so rife that it must have been what director Tim Willis was looking for. I just wonder why.

The one character I have not mentioned so far was refreshingly different. Ed (Howard Scott-Walker) I think achieved the right balance of risqué and realistic and, as such, came over as a much better and more amusing character whose actions arose as a natural consequence of his character rather than appearing forced and gave much more credibility to his solution at the end.

Altogether, if you can suspend not so much disbelief as incredulity, the play is still an enjoyable romp and there is humour to be had in the way things conclude.

Millicent Short

God of Carnage

God of Carnageby Yasmina Reza; dir Helen Withers
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
23 – 30 March 2013
3 stars

God of Carnage is a play by Yasmina Reza about two couples, one of whose child has hurt the other at a public park, who meet to discuss the matter in a civilized manner. As the play unfolds we learn that kids will be kids, but when two sets of parents get together it can become absolute carnage.

The play was a success in its original French, and whilst it has been widely acclaimed as an English-translated production, I wasn’t enamoured of it. I just didn’t quite see why it was funny, and I’m not entirely convinced the cast did either. That’s not to say it isn’t worth watching, and whilst I didn’t like the script or perhaps the translation, my opinion of the production itself was mainly positive.

All four performances were strong considering what they had to work with and I particularly enjoyed Trev Clarke’s hamster rant (this bit was funny; I’d recommend going for this alone) and Annie Gay’s projectile vomit stunt, and Cathryn Bowler’s performance of a woman quickly descending from the high-brow heights of common decency into a rum-drinking, potty-mouthed woman on the edge is also pretty funny and performed very well. Jon Elves was convincing as a parent who had something far better to do than stay analysing the behaviour of his child Ferdinand, but I’m not sure if that was him in character or the actor’s true feelings coming through.

A rather large gripe of mine, hinted at above, was the translation, which I found rather odd. I don’t know if this was the theatre’s interpretation or was as written, but if you want an audience to believe and be taken in by what they’re watching then you have to make it make sense! Bruno and Ferdinand are French names (beautiful as they are), no modern man calls a woman “madam” anymore and (here I show my ignorance) what the hell is a Clafouti?

Overall I would say it’s worth watching. The performances were good and the set itself was beautifully designed and, if you like a bit of farce then I suggest you see it. Oh, and there’s no interval so you’re out and at the bar a lot earlier than normal – now that’s a bonus.