Rumours

by Neil Simon; dir Graham Underhill

Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth

27 June – 2 July 2011

We are used to seeing farces penned by British playwrights, but here’s one from an American. That may seem a difficult pairing, but this American is the prolific Neil Simon, probably best known here as the writer of The Odd Couple, and he takes on the genre with ease.

As farces rely a lot on quick action, misunderstandings, mistaken identities and a ridiculous combination of events crammed together in quick succession, trying to explain the plot would take almost as long as seeing the play. So I’ll just get you started.

A government minister, Charlie, and his wife, Vivienne, are hosting a dinner party to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary and have invited four other ‘professional’ couples to attend. At the start of the play, the first couple, Christine and Ken have clearly been present for a while. What soon becomes clear is that Vivienne has disappeared and Charlie has been shot through the ear, seemingly in an attempted suicide, and is now lying injured upstairs. Realising that a scandal may arise over a suicide attempt by a man in Charlie’s position, Ken is keen to keep the whole thing hushed up, even from the other guests, at least until Charlie is in a fit state to explain what has happened.

Before long, the other couples start to arrive and each is given a short time to introduce their characters and add some new complication before the next turns up. The characters are more stereotyped than real, but that’s what you’d expect in a farce. The complications include a car crash, a number of injuries (in the car, the kitchen and the driveway), more gunfire, a deafened guest, accusations of infidelity, and so on. No-one in their underwear however; perhaps that’s how we can tell it’s not a British farce. The arrival of the police raises the confusion to a new level, at least among the police officers, as the guests attempt to come up  a comprehensive explanation of events and we enjoy their discomfort.

Whether the script was adapted by the director or has been published that way, I was pleased to see that it had been anglicised in terms of place names, accents, etc. rather than sticking with original New York setting. It made the characters more familiar.

Does it work? Yes, on the whole. It was a little down on pace, not too much, but a bit more would have made a big difference. Maybe this will improve later in the run. For the most part, the cast did a competent job and worked well together; there was an ensemble-like feel in many scenes. Coupled with that ensemble feel is a tendency for individuals not to stand out, but I particularly enjoyed John Nichols’ ebullience and Des Cole’s manic explanation to the police.

Rumours is a pleasant night out and should give you a few laughs at the very least.

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The Unexpected Guest

by Agatha Christie; dir Alec Brown

Priory Theatre, Kenilworth

22 June – 2 July 2011

As you would expect from Agatha Christie, The Unexpected Guest is a murder mystery or ‘whodunit’. A quick scan through the TV listings confirms the enduring popularity of this genre and the Christie name is virtually guaranteed to get the punters in.

The story begins with the murder already committed and the house in darkness. Out of the night arrives the eponymous and very laid back stranger (Tim Hughes), catching the victim’s wife (Sally Cox) with the murder weapon in her hand. Out of apparent chivalry, the stranger concocts a story with her and manipulates the scene to make it look like revenge by an outsider. Before long we meet the rest of the household; the usual kind of hodge-podge that you expect in a whodunit. The police are called and proceed to investigate. As you might expect, the identity of the murderer becomes unclear and the plot revolves around keeping you guessing until the end; red herrings aplenty.

If whodunits are your thing, there is enough to keep you occupied. If you’re looking for realism, however, you won’t find much of it here; most of the characters are rather one dimensional and a general lack of experience is all too evident. The opening scene drags along, with the intensity that is evident in Christie’s words failing to be represented in the action. Things don’t improve when the rest of the household discover the body, and the incredible attempts at shock and grief are almost painful to watch. Unacceptably for this day and age, the curtain came down for some minutes between the two scenes in the same room. A number of audience members thought it was the interval.

Eventually we get to meet the one truly convincing character of the whole performance, Inspector Thomas (Graham Shurvinton), and his barely intelligible partner, Sergeant Cadwallader (James McNulty). The following scenes start to relieve the tedium as each character has their moment in the spotlight to reveal their possible motives, although the denouement comes as no real surprise.

While I accept that this is a genre piece and not expected to be ground-breaking, surely some more believability could have been worked into the characters. It seemed poorly directed and I felt that many of the actors were capable of more if the director had brought it out of them. Notably Ben Wellicome, as Warwick’s ‘simple’ brother and David Eardley as the wife’s bit-on-the-side. As I indicated above, though, the star of the show was Graham Shurvinton as the inspector; engaging, natural and believable, he clearly had enough experience to not need the director’s help.

Unless you’re a die-hard whodunit fan or know someone in it you’re probably better off waiting for some well-played Christie on the TV.

My Boy Jack

by David Haig; dir John Smith

Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa

1-11 June 2011

My Boy Jack is a very moving play, dealing with the expectations that parents can place on their children. The story is based on actual events and the family is a famous one, that of Rudyard Kipling (played by Phil Reynolds), and centres around him and his adolescent son Jack (Luke Jackson Miller). Kipling’s wife, Carrie (Julie Godfrey), and daughter, Elsie (Kate Thorogood) make up the rest of the family.

The first act follows Jack from shortly before his 16th birthday in 1913 until 1915. Jack is desperate to escape the cloying atmosphere of the family home and, to satisfy his father, plans to join the military. Kipling, steeped in a belief in the glory of the British Empire and the nobility of the warrior, is right behind his son, pushing hard. There is a sense of vicariousness about Kipling’s eagerness for the boy to be a hero. Things are not so easy, however, for Jack is extremely short-sighted.

At the start Jack is being badgered by Kipling in preparation for the army medical while Jack veers between frustration and resolution. The lightly humorous scene of the army medical ends in inevitable rejection and is followed by a touching scene between Jack and his sister Elsie. Eventually, Kipling manages to pull enough strings to get Jack enrolled as a Lieutenant and, before he leaves for the front, we get a contrast between the two parents; mother Carrie caressing her son whilst Kipling, bursting with pride,  maintains his stiff upper-lip. The act ends with a transformation of the back of the set into a front-line trench as Jack and his platoon prepare to ‘go over the top’; a combination of speaking from the back of the stage, shaky Irish accents and having to shout over gunfire made this scene lose some impact.

In the second act, Jack is ‘missing in action’ and the family endeavour to discover his fate. Kipling struggles between pride and despair. A flashback to ten years earlier makes plain the love for Jack that he has difficulty showing, and he later laments that men in India are free, and even expected, to show their feelings. In a very moving scene, Carrie, torn between her pain and guilt for her acquiescence, recriminates Kipling for bringing about this situation. The scene where shell-shocked soldier Bowe (Calum Speed) tells of the battle is also powerfully charged. There were few dry eyes in the house after these scenes and, in the well-used silent pauses, you could hear a pin drop.

The issues dealt with in the play, irrespective of the war setting, are still relevant today. Although some less-experienced cast members were a little jittery, standards were high. All the main characters were convincing and easy to identify with; I particularly enjoyed young Kate Thorogood, whose realistic character portrayal was on a par with the experienced hands of Phil Reynolds and Julie Godfrey.