Improbable Fiction

by Alan Ayckbourn; dir Vicky Whitehill
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
12 – 17 November 2012

Ayckbourn has long been enjoyed for an unerring sense of the rhythms and pulse of suburban life. Audiences flock in to enjoy peering at the sort of libidinous mischief and conniving shenanigans that they know to be the warp and weft of the lives of their neighbours.

But here is a difference! The set would not be out of place in Dibley and we would not be surprised if Dawn French was at the door. As if to confirm this possibility the first to arrive is Ilsa (Aureillia Storey) who has an accent that you could butter scones with.

The local writing group is arriving and they are about to have their Christmas meeting in Arnold’s living room. The first act explores the hopes and dreams of these ‘wannabes’. We meet a lesbian farm worker who tries and fails to write period romance, the local geek who prefers science fiction and a secretary who knocks out a crime novel or so (unpublished) every month. Add a dash of gooey children’s story writing and a retired school teacher who is working on ‘Pilgrim’s Progress – the Musical’ to complete the cocktail.

Towards the end of the first act, a burst of elephantine flatulence signals a storm – a nice explosive crack with a flickering lightning flash might have been more in the spirit of the moment – and we move into a parallel universe where the plot lines of the putative authors take over.

The second act gives us rapid costume changes. Actors move from Red Dwarf to eighteenth century larking about and are invited to ‘ham it up’ in a variety of styles. Now there’s an early Christmas! Dan Gough offers a splendid Christie ‘tec  in mac, trilby and a goody bag of  clichés. Linda Connor gives us a snooty suspect one minute, a magenta wigged space chick the next and all with consummate ease. An ancient daffodil phone magically morphs into a modern mobile or disappears altogether as we move through the ages. At the centre of this mayhem is Arnold himself (an avuncular Matthew Salisbury) coping admirably with the absurdity of it all while sporting last year’s Christmas jumper.

All of this is done with lots of attack and an energy which fills the auditorium. There are plenty of good laughs and funny moments. We are offered a couple of hours of bizarre silliness which cannot fail to appeal to those who enjoy bizarre silliness.

Favourite moment? At the end of the play four spacemen push on a giant walnut and, once opened, we discover it to contain a cheery elf – the splendid Aureillia Stone once more – who leads us through the musical conclusion of the evening.

An evening well spent in the theatre thanks to a fine cast and the canny direction of Vicky Whitehill.

squirrel

My Name is Rachel Corrie

by Rachel Corrie, ed: Alan Rickman & Katherine Viner; dir Greg Cole
Is This Seat Taken @ North Hall, Leamington Spa
2 – 4 November 2012

We have all been outraged by the excesses of the powerful, or concerned about the lack of what we perceive as essential. Indignation is about as far as most of us get, but a few go further. Some individuals believe that something needs to be done and that they can make a difference. Many of these have been women. Florence Nightingale provided a nursing service in circumstances where none had previously existed. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. More recently Pussy Riot, incensed by Putin’s increasing lack of willingness to accept comment, find themselves jailed.

And then there is Rachel Corrie.

Rachel Corrie, from Washington State, was from a conventional family. She had gone to Palestine as part of her senior-year college assignment to connect her home town with Rafah in a sister cities project and while there she had engaged  in non-violent efforts to prevent the Israeli army’s demolition of Palestinian houses. She was crushed, quite possibly knowingly, by an Israeli military tank.

And hence the play!

Zoe Faithfull’s performance as Rachel is a delight. During the first half she shares Rachel’s  youthful experiences and dreams with us. She is a bright, but ordinary, American teenager. She is not driven by political commitment or ideology, but, when in her early twenties, she discovered how people live their reduced lives in Palestine next to the confident and privileged lives of the Israelis her humanity and common decency drove her to react in their interests. Surely she will be seen as an unthreatening U.S. citizen and the Israeli Military will retreat. They do not!

A single actor has peculiar potential for drawing us into their story and creating empathy. Zoe succeeds wonderfully in doing this.

Two tiny things! At her most introspective Zoe becomes a little difficult to hear and the video of the four year old real Rachel which finished the evening needed more effective projection.

Many local theatres are empty and devoid of life on a Saturday evening. Why are they not clamouring for a visit from Rachel? What a shame that this excellent production of Greg Cole’s will see only four performances.

squirrel

The History Boys

by Alan Bennett; dir Steve Smith
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
24 October – 3 November 2012

The History Boys is arguably one of Alan Bennett’s funniest and most thought-provoking plays.  It tells the story of a class of sixth-formers studying history and trying to get into Oxbridge.  The headmaster employs a young Oxbridge-educated teacher in an attempt to improve their chances but he has an approach to education they’ve never seen before.

If you know Bennett you know to expect impeccable writing and impossible wit, with a real originality that gives sheer delight to an audience, and The Loft Theatre’s production of this exquisite play is an absolute joy to watch.

Fast-paced with excellent ensemble performances from the young actors playing the boys, there was not a weak link in sight.  Those brilliant lines were delivered with a real purpose and understanding, and characters clearly defined.  If I were their teacher, I would of course not have a favourite but if I did, Posner played by Peter Borsada would be it, playing his part with honest emotion and superb comic timing.

Of the teachers, Sue Moore’s Mrs Lintott is a wry and watchful presence who in my opinion not only had some of the best lines but delivered every one of them with utter class you couldn’t help but nod your head in respect to her every time she came on stage. Howard Scott Walker’s Headmaster was another delight, a comic performance that evoked memories of those fine actors in Carry On films and such like.

Phil Reynolds as inspirational teacher Hector gives a superb performance as does his adversary in the play, Peter Gillam as Irwin.  Both actors offer real integrity to their parts that are full of contradictions but manage to evoke sympathy from the audience even though most parents would despise them.

The History Boys is a spirited production bringing to life the emotional heart of Bennett’s witty play.  I’m sure there were faults with it, and I’m not saying it was perfect but it was certainly close to it.

Sleep No More

by David Gillespie & Colin Wakefield; dir Helen Moscrop
Priory Theatre, Kenilworth
24 October – 3 November 2012

Sleep No More is an appropriately spooky ghost story for Halloween week. It is set in a theatre about to re-open after 60 years with a production of the same play, in which a child died, that got it closed down in the first place. The story progresses through the rehearsal period – with constant dire warnings that the play is cursed from director Micky’s father, who was involved in the previous, tragic production. It isn’t long before we are introduced to the ghost of the dead child, Eva. What takes a little longer is the revelation of the story of what happened last time, allowing the audience to piece it together bit by bit.

All set on a suitably bare set, representing the stage during rehearsals, the lighting altered to a low blue during the ghost scenes, setting an ethereal quality to those scenes. The difficulty with this were those scenes where the ghost is present in the background, which were normally lit. A difficult problem not surmounted, but as we all knew who the characters were by this time, not so important. Generally, the typically unreal atmosphere of a ghost story was well maintained – not quite the advertised ‘terrifying’, but probably better for it.

There were some very good performances from the cast. It was sometimes a little hidden, as they were playing a cast going from first exploration of a play to the finished article, and there was a definite and clear improvement in the performances in this play-within-a-play over the course of its development. I was particularly impressed with Ashleigh Dickinson, giving a very natural performance as Sal, the stage manager and first-time actor, and with David Eardley as director and theatre owner, Micky. The two children in the play were a surprise; Alex Morris as ghostly Eva and Sam Brown as ten-year-old Ben were excellent for their ages and performed and delivered lines much more convincingly and naturally than children of this age usually do. But that’s the pick of a generally good cast.

Altogether an enjoyable evening, leaving just that disturbing quality you expect from a ghost story. The appropriateness of the scheduling and some excellent performances improve its rating. Well done.

Millicent Short