Punk Rock

by Simon Stephens; dir Gennie Holmes
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
23  – 25 February 2012

 

The theatre’s youth group get an airing on the main stage in this play set in among the sixth form of a private school in Stockport and they are to be commended for a bold choice. Amidst the trappings of adolescent love, bullying and exams is a story about boiling over explosively. There is an early indication that it is going to be bullied-boy Chadwick (Ben Lancashire) who this is going to happen to but, although he does ‘turn’, he does so rather eloquently, if bleakly.

Ben played this character well, most notably in respect of taking the time that his lines deserved. Sadly this was not generally true and most of the cast appeared to be in a race to get their lines out as quickly as possible. This not only made comprehension difficult but pulled the rug out somewhat from the build to the explosive climax. Granted the cast are young and inexperienced and may have been a bit nervous, but the director needed to make clear the difference between speed and pace and the effectiveness of pauses.

One of the effects of this is that the later-exploding character William (Pete Meredith), who was and should have been played as quite jumpy and unpredictable, didn’t stand out as such among the others. This is a shame as Pete was particularly good when William ‘flipped’, but much of the shock of this was watered down by the earlier rush.

All of this shouldn’t detract from credit where it is due. This is a clearly a talented bunch of youngsters (plus one adult, Pete Gillam, playing a marvellously calm and understated psychiatrist in the last scene). With a bit more nurturing and development, it bodes well for the coming generation of young Criterion regulars.

Rope

by Patrick Hamilton; dir Chris Ward
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
6 – 11 February 2012

 

Most famous as the 1948 Hitchcock film, this play from 1929 is said to be inspired by the 1924 murder case where American university students Leopold and Loeb murdered a schoolboy just for the thrill of it.

In Rope, the setting is England and two university students, Brandon (Calum Speed) and Granillo (Dan Searles) have just murdered a fellow student – for the thrill of it. They hide the body in a large chest and proceed to hold a small dinner party, serving a buffet from on top of the same chest as a way to drag out the thrill. Among those invited are the dead student’s father Sir Johnston Kentley (Alexander Robertson) and their old schoolteacher Rupert Cadell (Graham Underhill).

The story is filled with taut suspense as Cadell slowly but surely homes in on what is in the chest. The suspense was spoiled somewhat, however, by the preponderance of caricatures on stage rather than real, believable characters. This was so widespread one feels that the director’s recent history of directing whodunits, where caricatures are more at home, has had a strong bearing. Brandon appeared to have been modelled on Dr Evil, and Kenneth Raglan (James Robert Peakman) and Mrs Debenham (Lynda Lewis) had been reduced to comic characters. This is such a shame and took most of the wind out of the story’s sails.

Out of the bunch, Alexander Robertson as Kentley was clearly the most realistic character and Dan Searles performed well as Granillo, although I was a little confused by the accent. The play is largely saved by the quality of the script and Graham Underhill’s Cadell in the last scene as things rise to a crescendo.

An ok evening out, but don’t worry too much if you missed it.

The Hound of the Baskervilles

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by Steven Canny & John Nicholson; dir John Evans
Priory Theatre, Kenilworth
1 – 11 February 2012

 

The Hound of the Baskervilles is probably Conan Doyle’s most famous Sherlock Holmes story. This play attempts to give it a treatment somewhere between the recent adaptation of The 39 Steps and The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s version of The Complete Works of Shakespeare: very tongue-in-cheek and all parts performed by a limited number of actors – in this case three.

But those two plays took very different approaches which worked well with their subject matter. By trying to combine both styles, this one succeeds in achieving neither. The minimal set and the lighting were very good and atmospheric, the cast were loud and clear and there were even a few moments that were funny, but after that it becomes difficult to say much for this production.

There was little feeling of suspense or terror at what should be rather a scary story, even if played for laughs. The cast appeared to be racing through their lines without spending the time to develop characters or suspense, whereas a few meaningful pauses and expressions and a bit more time spent developing ‘business’ could have made such a difference. It’s as though the cast didn’t believe in what they were doing and they and the director felt that the script was funny enough to be practically read out to the audience.

There were some bright spots, such as Marc Alden Taylor’s frantic panicked charge round the auditorium at the start, the sleight of hand (or leg) where Marc manages to lose his trousers while seemingly in plain view, Marc and Alec Brown sinking into the mire, and Mike Tildesley’s many quick changes. But not enough to save the production from being rather dull overall. One example of lack of attention is perhaps a joke at the start of the second act that relied on the Sherlock character having spoken with a Spanish accent throughout, but Mike only used the Spanish accent when playing Javier the actor and not as Sherlock Holmes.

A shame really as I think that a bit more work could have given it the spark to make a good night’s entertainment. As it is, it felt like a wasted evening.

Single Spies

by Alan Bennett; dir Jane Railton
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
4  – 11 February 2012

 

Single Spies is actually a collection of two short plays by Alan Bennett, both concerning members of the ‘Cambridge Five’ spy ring which caused such a scandal in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Both plays are rich with the dialogue that Bennett is famous for and explore an interesting side of these infamous characters.

An Englishman Abroad sees Guy Burgess (Phil Reynolds) several years after his flight/defection to Russia. He has a grubby little flat in Moscow and is being visited by Coral Browne (Cathryn Bowler), who is performing in Moscow as part of a touring show. Guy wants Coral to visit his tailor in England and have some suits sent out to him, the ‘comrades’ not being up to scratch in tailoring quality. But behind the mundane chat emerges a portrait of a sad and lonely man, naturally gregarious, who has been cut off from friends and high-living by the actions he has taken due to heartfelt beliefs.

The second play, A Question of Attribution, features Anthony Blunt (Mark Wiszowaty). Unlike Burgess, Blunt had remained in Britain and been discovered as a spy; however, to avoid scandal, this information was not revealed to the public and he was allowed to keep a job as ‘Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures’ (the Queen’s art adviser). The plot here is more complex and so is the subtle layering of meaning. Blunt’s time in the play is divided between being interviewed by MI5 man Chubb (Peter Brooks), who shows him photographs and asks him to identify people who may also have been spies, and pursuing the question of authenticity of a painting purportedly by Titian. The painting, which appears to be a portrait of two men, turns out, after cleaning and x-ray to also contain three other men who had been painted over – with clear parallels to the discovery of the spy ring itself. The central theme is around the nature of fakes and this is brought out well in a roundabout conversation between Blunt and the Queen (Anne-marie Greene).

Both plays are marvellously intricate and deep and well presented – with a short slide show at the beginning to fill in any of the audience who are unaware of the spy ring story. All the performances by the cast were good to excellent and it is hard to single out individuals, but I should particularly like to commend Elliot Relton-Williams as the Russian lover assigned to Burgess, Peter Brooks as the security man forging his own amateur way through the history of art, and Anne-marie Greene as a young and feisty Queen Elizabeth.

A great evening out all round.

The Miracle Worker

by William Gibson; dir Mary MacDonald
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
25 January – 4 February 2012

 

Helen Keller was a remarkable woman whose activities and opinions are very relevant to today; a look at her Wikipedia entry will give you something of an idea. One of the least remarkable things about her was that she was deaf and blind and yet that is the period this play focuses on. It seems rather like writing a play featuring Stephen Hawking and only concentrating on his disability.

To be fair, the play is really about the eponymous Miracle Worker, Anne Sullivan, and her attempts to give the seven-year-old Helen a means of communication with the wider world (although she already had a system of signs that had been developed within the family). In itself that could make a good play; it has a number of problems however. It tries to tell the story too accurately and it does so with an overabundance of sentimentality. A difficult play to present in a meaningful and entertaining way then.

The result presented by the Loft doesn’t overcome the problems inherent in the script. It is a fairly dull affair with little to interest anyone other than those people with an emotional range limited to watching videos of puppies. The whole thing was very pedestrian with no spark to it. There were long periods where very little happens in dramatic terms, such as long, silent fights between Anne and the child. I’m sure that’s probably accurate, but it does nothing on the stage, and the tension and exhaustion undoubtedly present when these events really happened just did not come across.

Rachel Ratibb as Anne Sullivan makes a strong effort to draw the audience in, but is hampered by the script and, to be honest, a large part of the cast, who seemed bored and uninspired. The part of seven-year-old Helen was shared between teenagers Alisha and Indianna Long – I can’t identify who it was on the night. Again, she tries hard but it doesn’t really come off. At that age they need a lot of extra coaching and concentration from the director and it was not apparent that this had happened.

All in all I’m surprised the Loft even chose this play in the first place. They certainly failed to pull it off and it probably should have been left where it belongs, with schoolchildren in America.