Cider With Rosie

by James Roose-Evans, adapted from the novel by Laurie Lee; dir Richard Sandle-Keynes

Second Thoughts, Civic Hall, Stratford

27 – 30 July 2011

Cider With Rosie is a much-loved autobiographical novel by Laurie Lee, a collection of reminiscences of a small boy growing up in a Gloucestershire village in the 1920s. Not an easy book to turn into a play, then, although there have been a number of attempts. In this version, it is approached by having the character of the adult Laurie Lee narrate an abridged version of the book to the audience, while around him scenes are enacted by an ensemble cast taking on roles as required.

In this production, the cast were not confined to the stage, and in fact most of it takes place on the floor of the auditorium in front of the stage. That’s all to the good, but some consideration should have been given to the audience seating. The slant of the tiered seating, perfect for looking at the stage, was totally wrong for seeing what was happening on the floor, and for those audience members not at the front and not able to see through skulls, much of the action was hidden; the seats were not even staggered, but placed one directly behind another. Coupled with this, the noise made by the ensemble walking and moving chairs, etc on the wooden floor of the auditorium was very intrusive.

The success of a show like this depends heavily on the audience being captivated by the narrator, holding them spellbound with Lee’s fine words. Unfortunately, although David Derrington seemed generally to be performing this part creditably, he was much too quiet and was difficult to hear throughout the first act, leaving us to rely for the most part on the ensemble. Yet, the ensemble pieces were generally rather wooden and unimaginative; the lovely chaos of a house full of children just failed to come across, and the contrast with quiet, reflective scenes was generally absent. In the second act the narrator was easier to hear, whether because of us having got used to it, his being louder, or the fact that there were a number of empty seats after the interval is hard to tell, but it made things a bit easier to follow. The enactments were much the same though.

The book conveys the excitement and wonder of a small boy as he grows into young adulthood in a bewildering world among a loving family. The biggest let down of this show is that it doesn’t really convey any of that feeling and, although the adaptation itself may take some blame for that, much could have been done with attention to technical problems and a more imaginative director. One felt there was untapped potential in the cast, how much is hard to say. As it is, my advice would be to stay home and read the book.

Festival 50

Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry

9 – 23 July 2011

Festival 50 is a collection of nine one-act plays, presented as three sets of three plays each, being produced by the Criterion Theatre to celebrate its 50th birthday. As you would expect, it is a mixed bag, but there is at least one gem in each set and the concept is to be encouraged. Check the theatre’s website for the dates each set is performed.

Company A

The Monkey’s Paw

by Jonathan Holloway (adapted from the story by WW Jacobs); dir Ruth Miller

A supernatural horror tale of ‘be careful what you wish for’. The monkey’s paw of the title grants its owner three wishes and is brought to a man and his family by a friend who warns against using it, but to no avail. The wishes made are granted, but the repercussions are shocking. Or should be.

Unfortunately, the play falls rather flat and, although it chronicles the story well enough, it fails to build a feeling of tension and horror. The presentation is flat and unimaginative – much could have been done with staging, lighting and sound. The cast make a reasonable attempt, but ultimately, it fails to convince.

Resting Place

by David Campton; dir Nancy Silvester

An elderly couple stop to rest on a cemetery bench on their way home and muse about mortality, remembrance and their past life together. There is a lot of humour in this touching and down-to-earth play and the two actors are entirely believable as having grown old together and their mild bickering is underpinned by a seasoned love.

Doug Griffiths is excellent as the slightly hen-pecked husband, keen to know what’s in his wife’s shopping bag. Maureen Copping is truly wonderful and spends time berating her husband for not having earned enough to afford a nice grave together. A lovely short play brought to life by skilled and experienced actors.

Chinamen

by Michael Frayn; dir Bill Butler

A farce, with two actors playing five characters (plus two unseen children). Jo and Stephen are having a dinner party and have accidentally invited both members of a recently separated couple. Whatever happens, they must not meet.

Fast-paced and full of laughs, this is a very physically demanding play for the two actors, with many quick costume changes going on behind the scenes. John Elves and Becky Fenlon handle this with apparent ease and still manage to present us with five very different, funny and believable characters. I particularly enjoyed Becky’s Julie-Walters-like Jo, and John’s drunken Barney. If you’re not in a coma, you will laugh.

Company B

Sure Thing

by David Ives; dir Anne-Marie Greene

A short piece about two young people meeting at a cafe. They get chatting, as you might expect, but each time either one says anything that might scupper the potential romance, a small bell is rung off-stage, time effectively takes a small step back, and the conversation continues again from the earlier point – allowing a slightly different path to be followed.

The re-tries often invoke a change of character, making it a tough one for the actors, Joe Fallowell and Olivia Holmes, who make an acceptable job of it. I would have preferred the many American references to have been anglicised, making it easier to identify with the situation.

Afterplay

by Brian Friel; dir Jane Railton

Two lonely people meet in a Moscow cafe for the second night in succession and chat about their past and present lives. The man embellishes his story by promoting himself from busker to concert violinist and in a number of other ways to try to impress the woman. He later comes clean and we find that the woman has some deceptions of her own.

This gentle play rewards a lot of attention. It is sensitively played by both actors; Peter Bagley is superb and very moving; the woman is well played, but could do with some work on positioning and gestures.

The Zoo Story

by Edward Albee; dir Greg Cole

Peter is sat at a park bench enjoying a book when along comes Jerry, who assertively strikes up a conversation. After extracting details of Peter’s home life, Jerry tells his own story, about his apartment, neighbours, landlady and her dog, and about his visit to the zoo. Towards the end, he picks a fight and the outcome is surprising and shocking.

This is a very intense piece of theatre that leaves you breathless. Calum Speed as the disturbing, edgy and unpredictable Jerry and James Wolstenholme as the pleasant, confused and sometimes indignant Peter both excellently bring a good piece of writing to life.

Company C

Blackout

by Davey Anderson; dir Doreen Belton

In this piece from the theatre’s youth group, James is in a jail cell and narrates the events of his adolescence that led him here, covering his gradual alienation from friends and family, school and home.

The two young actors playing James, Sam Taylor and Peter Meredith, tell the story, sharing the narrative dynamically: in perfect sync, in turns or with one enacting what the other narrates. At these times, the amorphous chorus of other actors, come forward from the shadows to become necessary characters. The staging, lighting and fight sequences are first-class and Sam and Peter are astoundingly good; full of raw power, attitude and emotion. Weaker characterisations from some of the chorus narrowly keeps this from getting five stars.

The Bear

by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Brian Friel; dir Helen Withers

Elena has been shut away in her house, in mourning for her husband, for a year now, when the boorish Gregory, the bear of the title, arrives, demanding payment of a debt, owed him by the late husband, in order to pay his own debts. The antagonism builds and then subtly turns into mutual affection, while family retainer, Luka, provides comic interludes.

This dramatic, but touching and humorous piece is played creditably by the cast of Christine Evans, Matt Sweatman and Annie Woodward. A little too much played out to the audience instead of each other, though, which would be the responsibility of the director.

In Camera (Huis Clos)

by Jean-Paul Sartre, adapted by Hugh Sorrill; dir Hugh Sorrill

Three people arrive in hell to find it isn’t what they expected. They are led into an ordinary room and left there together. They soon come to realise that this is where they will spend eternity and that “Hell is other people”.

It fails to be all it could, however; the dialogue felt raced through, almost like a competition, making it near impossible to identify with the characters. It seems unsure whether it wants to be realistic or stylistic and flounders somewhat between the two. In consequence it doesn’t really bring out the bleakness and horror of their situation and makes the whole thing drag somewhat.

Daisy Pulls It Off

by Denise Deegan; dir David Hankins

Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa

6 – 16 July 2011

Daisy Pulls It Off is a parody of old-style boarding school novels for girls; the kind of thing that has evolved into Harry Potter stories and the like. Unlike the ruthless send-up that is St Trinian’s, this is rather affectionate towards its roots; it is a world of wholesomeness, sportiness, jolly japes and, above all, enthusiasm.

The mood is set from the moment you arrive and find the cast in the auditorium preparing to put on a school play – the ‘teachers’ chatting together and keeping an eye on the ‘girls’ who are flittering around excitedly, whilst the music teacher (Lynda de Long) vigorously conducts the off-stage school band and mugs at the audience. At ‘curtain up’ time, everyone rushes off into the wings as the School Head (Helen Ashbourne) welcomes the audience and introduces the play.

The story centres around new girl Daisy (Rachel Cooper) at the fictional Grangewood School for Girls – the school’s first scholarship pupil. On arrival, she is placed in a dorm with marvellously effervescent Trixie (Katharine Bayley), who immediately becomes her best friend, and toffee-nosed Sybil (Katherine Crawshaw) and toadying Monica (Amy Haynes), who immediately set about trying to get this upstart common girl removed from ‘their’ school. Daisy is the typical ebullient heroine of this kind of story, but Sybil’s sabotage ensures that she gets a name for being a cheat and a sneak. Through various escapades, including helping the school win the hockey final, rescuing Sybil and Monica from a cliff, finding the long-lost school treasure, and being at death’s door herself, Daisy ‘pulls it off’ and all ends happily.

That’s the basic story. What you actually get from this all-female cast is a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours’ entertainment. The pace is good, the timing and ensemble work is excellent and the bubbling enthusiasm of the girls permeates all and really does put you into that storybook world. At the same time, it maintains the feel of being a school play: the stage is mostly bare and the girls become various pieces of furniture as needed; the adult roles are played by the ‘teachers’, complete with comical false moustaches where necessary; and the space in front of the stage is used to good effect for the dramatic cliff-top rescue and for the caretaker’s (Elaine Freeborn) regular comical sojourns across the auditorium. And a lot of fun is to be had from things as simple as the class sitting down together or the school bell being rung by Hilda (Morinsola Duntoye). There are a number of debuts here, but you’d be hard-pressed to identify which ones without reading the programme. It’s all well put together and played with such enjoyment; much credit is due to the director.

Daisy Pulls It Off does exactly what it says on the tin. No deep meaning and very few surprises, but a thorough immersion in that fantasy world of gymslips, hockey sticks and being a good egg. Not only Daisy, but the whole show ‘pulls it off’.