Cloaca

by Maria Goos; dir Phil Quinn

Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth

15 September – 17 September 2011

This is a translation of a Dutch play and both play and author are sadly relatively unknown over here. This is a well written play examining the interplay over a few days between four middle aged men, lifelong friends. There is humour, emotion and plenty of detail, as each pursues his own objectives. It feels like there is enough material here for two or three plays, yet everything remains clear and fits together like a well-oiled machine.

The four friends are Pieter (Hugh Sorrill), Jan (Mark Plastow), Tom (Nick Knibb) and Maarten (Colin Ritchie) and the action takes place in Pieter’s apartment. Each has problems of his own and to a large extent is obsessed with these, seeing the others’ problems as secondary. In Pieter’s case it involves a demand for the return of some paintings, worthless when given to him and now worth millions. The paintings mean everything to Pieter and he has previously been forced to sell some of them, so returning them is not easy. Yet he has no proof they were gifts. His fight to keep them forms the central thread of the play yet does not dominate.

Jan is an up and coming MP awaiting news of a cabinet job and has just walked out on his wife. Tom is a debarred lawyer who went off the rails on cocaine and, after such adventures as wandering around Amsterdam in his underwear and spending time in a ‘clinic’, is now an advertising copywriter. Maarten is an avant-garde theatre director and has cast Jan’s eighteen-year-old daughter to appear in his next play – naked.

Tom and Jan agree to help Pieter fight his cause, Tom because of his legal experience and Jan due to his political connections. But Jan, being perhaps a typical politician, later backs out when he believes it might tarnish his name. This leaves Pieter without a leg to stand on and the effect on him is disastrous.

The whole play is captivating, despite some bits played out to the audience, which broke the intensity of what was happening in the apartment. The set was stylish and I liked the idea of reducing the lighting to tight spotlights during blackouts, accompanied by snippets of punk era music. The cast were all capable and, apart from a couple of sticky moments, the pace was very good. There was a good ‘team’ feel to the whole thing. Of particular note were Nick Knibb as a marvellously manic and quirky Tom and Mark Plastow as a thoroughly self-obsessed and mercenary Jan. And Alex Waldram only appeared briefly as a stripper/hooker hired for Jan’s birthday, but was very believable and her performance will probably be the first one mentioned by audience members describing the show to others.

So, a very worthwhile evening’s entertainment sadly only shown for three nights. Well done for showing us a play that’s a little out of the mainstream; I hope to see more.

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The Odd Couple (Female Version)

by Neil Simon; dir Stuart Lawson

Priory Theatre, Kenilworth

7 September – 17 September 2011

The Odd Couple is probably Neil Simon’s most popular work, spawning two films, three TV series and this gender-swapped version of the original play – pretty much identical to that original in all other ways.

Olive is something of a slob who would much rather watch a sports game on TV while drinking beer than make her apartment neat or bother with fresh food or being the genial hostess. All the action is set in her apartment. Her five friends regularly come by to play Trivial Pursuit and socialise. One of these, Florence, leaves her husband at the start of the play and arrives at Olive’s in a suicidal mood. Rather than see her come to harm, Olive offers to let her move in. Unfortunately, Florence is a compulsively neat and efficient person, the antithesis of Olive, and the strain on them both soon becomes apparent. Things come to a head after Florence’s behaviour scuppers a potential romantic rendezvous with the Spanish brothers from the apartment upstairs. In the ensuing argument, Olive tells her to leave and Florence does so, although her final destination is a big surprise for Olive.

This is a good script with a lot of very funny lines and situations. There were points, especially in the second act, where the back and forth banter between Olive and Florence just hit the right spot. Sadly, this wasn’t the case in every scene and there was a pedestrian feel especially to the first scene when the group is playing Trivial Pursuit. My experience of having a group of friends around, playing games and drinking is that things are rather chaotic and noisy. In this case, everyone spoke neatly in turn and things dragged somewhat. This is something that ought to have been addressed by the director. A similar problem was evident in many subsequent scenes. A simple example: in one scene, Florence is entertaining the Spanish brothers while Olive is in the kitchen area getting breaking up ice with a hammer, yet not once do we hear any noise from the kitchen, despite there being no door. A small point, but it would have added to the tension in the main scene and the general feeling of mayhem.

Despite that, and once you have adapted to the sluggish pace, there is still much to enjoy here. Charlotte Froud played an excellent Florence with good comedy timing. Esther Dunn was suitably loud and obnoxious as Olive and generally played well against Florence, although her excessive hand gestures did irritate somewhat. Of the rest, Mike Connell was very believable as Manolo Costazuela, one of the Spanish brothers, his sibling needing work on his accent in particular. I also enjoyed the uptight Vera, played by Tracy Pullen.

A reasonably entertaining evening, despite the feeling that it could have been so much more.

On Golden Pond

by Ernest Thompson; dir David Draper

Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth

29 August – 3 September 2011

Ethel (Ann Richards) and Norman (John Fenner) are an elderly couple who spend every summer in their holiday home on the banks of the eponymous lake in New England and the five scenes occur neatly, one a month, from their arrival in May to their departure in September. During the summer they are visited by their daughter Chelsea (Michelle Williams) and her new fiancé, Bill (Ross Woodward), along with Bill’s 14-year-old son, Billy (Elliot Relton Williams). The old couple are persuaded to look after Billy while Chelsea and Bill go to Europe. They are also visited by Charlie (Geoff Brooke-Taylor), the lake postman and Chelsea’s childhood friend and admirer.

Norman and Ethel have nicely contrasting attitudes to their aging. Admittedly he is suffering from failing memory and strength and has a heart complaint, while she is in pretty good health. But he seems angry at himself and fate for his failing health and directs his still-sharp wit to pick on those around him. Yet Ethel, who accepts the aging as ‘better than the alternative’, knows how to handle Norman and there is a very clear and deep love between the two. Chelsea, on the other hand, has never felt close to her father because of his biting manner and resents the fact.

Norman finds that Billy can give as good as gets and isn’t intimidated by Norman’s manner. A strong bond develops between the two; Norman finding a reinvigoration in it and Billy finding a growing self-esteem. Seeing this bond, one she feels deprived of herself, adds to Chelsea’s resentment on her return, but it does spur her into seeking and finding a peace and understanding with her father.

All of this comes across very well, largely due to powerful performances from old hands John Fenner and Ann Richards. John handles a complex part with apparent ease, skilfully balancing the cantankerous with the sensitive and Ann’s Ethel clearly intends to get as much out of life as she can. The other performances were all agreeable, particularly Elliot Relton Williams seeming at ease playing young Billy and showing future promise. And Ross Woodward successfully made an intriguing character of Bill with very little stage time.

There were a couple of problems with staging, however. I felt that more physical contact between some of the characters was needed, especially between Ethel and the daughter she has not seen for some time. A bigger problem was that too much was played ‘out’ to the audience. A good example is the song and dance from Chelsea’s childhood, re-enacted by Chelsea and Ethel towards the audience and with their backs to Charlie, the only other person in the room. Given his long association, he would naturally want to feel part of this reminiscence.

Overall, though, the strength of the play and the performances allow us to not be too distracted by these drawbacks and the end result is very moving and enjoyable.