Thoroughly Modern Millie

by Richard Morris, Dick Scanlan & Jeanine Tesori; dir Stephen Duckham
Leamington & Warwick Musical Society @ Royal Spa Centre, Leamington Spa
27  – 31 March 2012

The Leamington & Warwick Musical Society used to be called the Leamington & Warwick Operatic Society, and the name-change a few years back was in recognition of the fact that the company had long since broadened its repertoire to include more varied fare. In fact, it’s quite a while now since the LWMS produced anything resembling an opera, and over the past few years their programme of standard Broadway musicals has on occasion been spiced up by the addition of more upbeat, even daring, titles such as The Full Monty, Summer Holiday and Jesus Christ Superstar; for next year they’ve announced Mel Brooks’ irreverent crowd-pleaser, The Producers. So: an amateur musical society not afraid of a challenge.

Thoroughly Modern Millie certainly presents a challenge, and it’s one that the company almost manages to rise to. As tends to happen with the traditional musical societies nowadays, the resident chorus is augmented by a handful of imported principals; and it’s the latter who generally come off best, with Sue Randall outstanding as the title character, Millie Dillmount, the Kansas girl turned New York flapper who gets mixed up in a plot to sell orphaned girls into white slavery, managed by the evil Mrs Meers (Wendy Morris displaying exemplary comic timing). Newcomers Imogen Parker, as Dorothy Brown, and David Kilgour, as Trevor Graydon, both give confident performances; and Millie’s love interest Jimmy is a triumph for LWMS regular Sam Henshaw, who grows in assurance with every show in which he appears.

On the down side, Tabitha Bradburn is woefully miscast as Muzzy van Hossmere, the role played by Carol Channing in the 1967 film; the smaller roles are mostly underplayed; and too many of the chorus seem to find it beyond them to look like they’re actually enjoying themselves while singing and dancing. This is such a shame in what’s supposed to be a feel-good musical; the second half of the show generally works better because the focus is more on the principals, most of whom can act as well as sing.

Director Stephen Duckham provides some nice comic touches – the scene where Millie, Jimmy and Trevor alternately swap seats while figuring out a way to foil Mrs Meers’ plot is a highlight – and the music and choreography generally serve the production well. The set is visually impressive although it appears to have a mind of its own on occasion, which reinforces the general impression of a company working hard while not being fully prepared for performance. Another week’s run and the whole thing would undoubtedly be a lot slicker than it is.

Overall, though, a fun night out with some strong central performances.

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Dead Guilty

by Richard Harris; dir Doreen Belton
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
24  – 31 March 2012

Billed as a ‘suspense-filled thriller about guilt and obsession’, Dead Guilty failed to deliver other than perhaps on the first word of its title. The description brings an expectation along the lines of Bette Davis’ chilling performance in the 1965 film, The Nanny. In this case, far from being gripped with suspense, the audience repeatedly laughed at what could better have been called Carry On Murdering.

The main problem, I feel,  is that we don’t really care that the victim is going to be murdered; the character of Julia presents us with an unvarying ironic bitterness from the beginning that does not endear her to us in any way, nor does it make us feel that she is slowly falling unwittingly into a trap. On the contrary, we’re glad someone finally gets around to doing her in and shutting up her incessant whining. The youth, Gary, is also played as far too angry and surly – presumably as a poor attempt to disguise who the killer is going to be.

The most believable character is the social worker (Emma Withers) who appears too occasionally to have much effect on the overall feel of the play. As for the murderer (Christine Ingall), a bit better direction could have brought out so much more. The lines are calling out for her to be ever bustling about at this or that and molly-coddling the victim-to-be, yet she spent most of the time just standing about. To be fair, she did liven up more toward the end as her intentions became clear enough for the blind to notice, but it was too little too late.

Back to the drawing board with this one I’m afraid.

The Memory of Water

by Shelagh Stephenson; dir Senga Veasey
Rugby Theatre, Rugby
10 – 17 March 2012

 

Shelagh Stephenson’s 1996 play, about three sisters gathering at their childhood home on the eve of their mother’s funeral and bickering about whose memories of past events are more reliable, has proved a popular choice for amateurs (locally, the Priory, the Loft and the Criterion have already tackled it). It’s not hard to see why. With just six characters, one set and modern dress, it’s easy to stage; four of the roles are juicy parts for women, and it has a cracking script full of witty one-liners but with a strong emotional core. A sure-fire recipe for success, then.

Well, actually no, as this disappointing production proves. To successfully negotiate the constant rapid gear changes from witty wisecracks to tearful soul-searching and back again needs actors at the top of their game, and unfortunately for the most part the cast here are relatively inexperienced and simply not up to the job. Also, in a large (by amateur standards) theatre like Rugby’s where the actors are a long way from the audience, the ability to be heard at the back of the stalls is crucial. Some of the more reflective speeches by Kate Sawyer, as middle sister Mary, are totally inaudible; and elsewhere too many funny lines fall flat because the audience either can’t hear them or are reluctant to laugh for fear of drowning out the next bit.

Sawyer and Helen Ireland, as eldest sister Teresa, each have their moments (particularly the latter’s drunk scene in Act Two), and Elizabeth Young is (somewhat ironically) solid, warm and convincing as the spirit of the women’s mother, Vi, who appears occasionally to Mary to offer her perspective on the disputed past. But of the three siblings it is Soraya Moghadass who is most successful. Her performance as garrulous, needy, drug-addled youngest sister Catherine is spot-on. And I could hear every word.

The two men – Mary’s married boyfriend Mike, played by Malcolm Stewart, and Geraint Davies as Teresa’s husband Frank – are lacklustre and seem uncertain how to pitch their parts. Here, as elsewhere, there was little evidence of the strong direction that might have brought these two into sharper focus.

Rugby Theatre is capable of some very strong work indeed, as last month’s production of Stones in his Pockets demonstrated. By contrast, this was disappointingly mediocre fare.

Jerusalem

by Jez Butterworth; dir Gordon Vallins
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
29 February – 10 March 2012

Jerusalem is a modern and topical play full of energy and strong language. At its centre is a tale of a man struggling to be his independent self in the face of ‘progress’ and bureaucracy. That man is Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron who lives a traveller-type life in an old caravan in Rooster’s Wood. He has attracted a group of young people from the nearby town, who visit him for parties, drugs and as somewhere to hang out, although their actual loyalty is shaky. He also has the enmity of the local council who plan to evict him and cut down the wood to build a new housing estate.

The set is great, showing Johnny’s encampment overshadowed by a very realistic caravan and surrounded by rubbish with paths leading off into the woods; every bit of space has been used well. Then we meet Johnny himself, an incredibly good performance by David Pinner who manages to combine a whole host of very uncivilised traits with a powerful charisma. David dominates the show throughout as he stomps about with his limp and a swagger that sees him submit to no-one and tell some very tall stories; even his tale of meeting and befriending giants is not quite dismissed by his hangers-on.

The story progresses from the serving of the final eviction notice, through a recollection of the previous night’s wild party as various characters emerge from around the set where they have slept it off and visits from various people (the landlord of the last local pub to bar Johnny; his wife and small child who he had promised to take to the fair; an irate local thug looking for his daughter) until the final moments before the police and bulldozers arrive to evict him à la Dale Farm. This final scene itself is a very powerful one, as Johnny, bloodied, beaten and branded from another encounter with the thug, beats on a drum given him by his giant friend and chants a summoning of giants from legend to aid him in his hour of need.

The rest of the cast are all pretty strong too. Even young Oscar Webster as Johnny’s son, Marky, performs well. To mention some in particular is by no means a poor reflection on the rest of the large cast, but I particularly liked Roy Donoghue as the very scary thug; Jeremy Heynes as the scatty but deep Professor, the only old member of Johnny’s group; Katharine Bayley as Marky’s mother; and Joel Cooper as Lee Piper.

Sadly, there are two things that just keep this show from getting five stars. One is the tendency for too much to be delivered straight out to the audience rather than to the other characters on stage, and the other is that the two acts after the interval last much too long. All around me the audience were rustling and fidgeting as limbs and bottoms grew stiff and sore; even though the story was great, some cutting was in order to make it presentable in this format.

Nevertheless a brilliant show.

Blue Remembered Hills

by Dennis Potter; dir Steve Smith
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
5 – 10 March 2012

 

Dennis Potter wrote some of the best TV drama of the 20th century. Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective linger in the memory as dark, richly humane stories told through the kind of complex, multi-layered, non-linear narrative which rewards close attention.

By contrast, Blue Remembered Hills is a deceptively simple tale with only one narrative gimmick: the seven West Country seven-year-olds are played by adults. As such we can watch them play, squabble, boast, fight, taunt, hide, plot, fantasise and ultimately – it is suggested – begin the inevitable shedding of childhood innocence; all this without the syrupy indulgence we would bestow on the characters if they were played by real children. In the author’s words, the adult body becomes the magnifying glass through which we can more closely identify with the child’s behaviour and emotions. We are forced as a result to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: children are unbearably cruel to one another.

In this production, director Steve Smith acknowledges the play’s simplicity and humour while skilfully developing the tragic undercurrents. The pacing is good, and Smith makes clever use of recordings of wartime novelty songs to punctuate the action. The children are all recognisable types, and the cast are largely successful at making them distinct individuals while working well together as a company. John Francis as good-hearted Willie is endearingly uncomplicated although he has a frustrating tendency to throw away some of his best lines. Michael Barker as Peter, the bully, hints at a frightened soul under the macho swagger; and Rod Wilkinson as heroic John and Des McCann as thoughtful Raymond also score well (although the latter’s stutter is perhaps not entirely convincing). Plain, resentful Audrey is brought gleefully to life by Chris Ives as she fawns jealously over pretty, selfish Angela, played with wonderful spoilt primness by Julie-Ann Dean. In a generally strong company, though, Pete Gillam impresses most as disturbed, maltreated Donald whose obsession with setting things on fire leads to the play’s tragic denouement. His loneliness and isolation, particularly when taunted by the others as “Donald Duck” and forced, with tearful reluctance, to flap his arms and quack, are heartbreaking.

The set is pleasantly minimalist but could have offered more scope for variety in the playing area. Good use is made of the tree out of which wannabe parachutist Peter drops at the beginning, and the barn segment in which Donald hides, although unavoidably small, effectively creates one corner of the barn, leaving the rest to the imagination; but apart from some good use of the auditorium area, the action is too often constrained by being all on one level. A couple of ramps leading to a raised area or two would have given the opportunity to create more interesting visual compositions and allowed the cast to run up hills, jump off rocks and generally play like country children do instead of constantly milling about on a level floor.

But this is a minor gripe in the face of an intelligent, compassionate production that provides a strong evening’s entertainment with an incredibly moving finale.