Mindgame

Mindgameby Anthony Horowitz; dir Anne-marie Greene
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
1 – 8 February 2014
A Rare Gem

Mindgame is an appropriate title for this piece, which attempts to toy with the perceptions of the audience. Styler, a popular writer, has apparently turned up at an asylum for the criminally insane, hoping to be able to arrange interviews with serial killer Easterman. He meets Dr Farquhar, who is initially intransigent but whose behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing, and Nurse Paisley, who seems desperate for Styler to leave. Events overtake Styler, however, and he finds himself at the mercy of Farquhar, who has revealed himself to be Easterman and murdered the nurse. Not that the mind game itself is over by then, but you get the idea.

In practice, what we got was a show that kept the audience riveted to the edges of their seats, mouths agape, breath hushed and hardly daring to blink – even screaming at times. This was theatrical immersion of the best; what more can I say? Not everyone who left the theatre may have enjoyed the production, but they would all have been stirred up and would think about it for days at least.

The set was low-key, clinically white, with the audience raised around it on three sides – somewhat reminiscent of those medical lecture halls you see on TV and appropriate to the kind of surgical butchery we almost see. A speaker on the wall would intermittently spark into life and play a bit of ‘elevator’ music before dying out once more and there were also some very brief snatches of low-key, suspense-type music – both added to the disturbing effect very well.

Of course, all this would be pointless without strong performances from the cast and they did not let us down. Jon Elves as Styler smoothly progressed from confident writer to terrified victim to unhinged patient with consummate skill, whilst Craig Shelton as Farquhar performed the same feat, progressing from urbane doctor to disturbed psychopath to obsessed psychoanalyst. It is these two who held us so rapt, supported well by Jan Nightingale as the trembling Nurse Paisley, apparently being murdered twice before revealing her true identity.

The only aspect of the whole production worthy of criticism was the projection of images onto the white wall during the nurse’s first ‘murder’. This, I feel, was a mistake and risked cheapening the whole sequence. It would have worked so much more effectively to have relied just on Jan’s screams from off-stage and allowed us to use our already fired-up imaginations to fill in the details. Negative point though that was, there were more than enough positive points to overwhelm it.

This was a great production and all involved should feel very proud of it and pleased with themselves.

Millicent Short

Advertisements

David Copperfield

David Copperfieldby Charles Dickens; adapted by Alastair Cording; dir Keith Railton
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
19 – 26 October 2013
A Rare Gem

David Copperfield is a long, rambling novel by today’s standards; there is just too much to enact it all. Yet this production makes a worthy attempt at covering the main elements.

The lovely, multi-purpose set had a nautical theme, with sails, ropes, even a jetty, and enough bare, weathered wood to build the Peggottys’ boat-house. It included a wheeled apparatus that, through various attachments, served as a cart, beds, boat-house, prison, etc. Wheeled on and off by the cast, scene changes rarely disturbed the flow of action. At the back of the stage was a screen showing thematic stills and having the only real technical flaw; it seemed at times to be moving, causing the projected image to distractingly grow or shrink.

Dickens’ characters tread a fine line between caricature and realism and, for the most part, the representations here got that delicate balance correct – an exception being Edward Murdstone’s incredible eyebrows, prompting the need to suppress guffaws at first sight. As nothing else appeared to fall into the realms of the absurd, I’m surprised this wasn’t rectified. This is no reflection of the actual performance by Richard Copperwaite, who, despite being a little young, was suitably cold and menacing.

The whole cast performed admirably, from the headline roles to the schoolboys and bottle washers. Many also contended well with playing two parts, necessitating clear differentiation – and some very quick changes. Clear favourites among the audience were those who have to tread that fine line mentioned above most carefully: the Micawbers (Craig Shelton and Cathryn Bowler) and Uriah Heep (David Butler). Mr Micawber’s pompous and wordy affability and his sudden and dramatic descents into self-harming despair were marvellously captured in that theatrical style we imagine when reading the book. Mrs Micawber, comically tiny baby always at her breast and at every opportunity repeating her declaration to never desert her husband, was a perfect match for him, earnest and with an amusing lisp – perhaps a shade too much rouge (or ‘wouge’). Heep’s menacing, gangly form again ran just the right side of the border with pantomime (the desire to boo and hiss him was present, although not overpowering). His machinations and vindictiveness were barely covered by his obsequiousness, from his spider-like entrance, emerging from a box, to his defeat and expulsion in the same box.

David Coppefield himself was played by two actors: Nicol Cortese playing the younger with much energy, in bright-eyed awe among friends and cowed tearfulness among tormentors, and Pete Meredith playing the older confidently, from the marvellous storytelling in the younger David’s bedroom to the stumbling, awkward youth declaring his love. It would take too long to go through the delights of each character portrayal individually, but other favourites include Mr Dick and Mr Creakle (John Hathaway), Emily and Dora (Sarah Cribdon), Peggotty (Annie Gay) and Jane Murdstone (Cathryn Bowler).

I am told the production was sold out before opening night. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one glad to have got my ticket early. Rollicking stuff and a credit to all involved.

Millicent Short

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleynby Howard Brenton; dir Jane Railton
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
11 – 18 May 2013
A Rare Gem

Anne Boleyn is a name known to us all, even if most of us know little of the details. She was at the centre of a major upheaval as Henry VIII sought to defy the church, which stood in the way of his divorce, by basically becoming the church himself. It was a time of plots and machinations when it was a triumph to ‘keep your head while all around are losing theirs’. Anne failed in this endeavour at the next shift in intrigue and in Henry’s affections.

So, how does a play capture all this without becoming a dull historical and political pageant? Surprisingly well as it turns out. The play is set in two time periods – during Anne’s time itself and also 6 decades later with the Scottish James I newly arrived from Scotland to take the combined English/Scottish throne.

We begin with Anne addressing the audience and enlisting them to view the story with her. Nicol Cortese’s portrayal of Anne was full of such youthful vivacity and charm that it was evident she could twist a lusty but frustrated Henry (excellently played by Craig Shelton) around her little finger in order to secure the marriage bed rather than that of the concubine.

Anne plays a dangerous game, consorting with the heretic protestant William Tyndale (nicely done by Mark Wiszowaty), reading his outlawed books and even standing up to the dangerous Cardinal Wolsey (Hugh Sorrill, who seemed made for the part). On her side were that these writings were the key that would allow Henry to break with Rome and that Thomas Crowell (Brian Emeney), arguably the most powerful man at court, was also a protestant supporter.

The speech is modern, allowing easy access for a modern audience, and there is much humour in the telling. Much of the latter was reserved for the James I scenes, which formed a light-relief counterpoint to the deadly time of Henry. If there is a stand-out among the many top-notch performances here, it is Jon Elves as James. Playing him as an outrageous libertine with tourettes (of the twitchy variety rather than rude) he was a delight to watch. He was ably backed up by court official Robert Cecil, played with a masterful comic touch by Keith Railton, and courtier George Villiers, the object of James’ amorous attentions, well played by Joe Fallowell.

Most of the rest of the cast performed a solid supporting role, although there were some weak points. In the religious debates in James’ court, some of the antics of the supporters in their ludicrous false beards distracted from, rather than adding to the main activity. And in the scenes with Tyndale’s supporters, characters had a habit of stepping forward to speak and then hovering backwards into line again. It feels that not enough time was being spent by the director with the supporting cast and it took some of the shine off and almost reduced the rating to four stars.

A delightfully entertaining evening out and a demonstration that even a large cast can excel (mostly). I even learnt a lot about the whole story of Anne Boleyn.

Inkblot

God of Carnage

God of Carnageby Yasmina Reza; dir Helen Withers
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
23 – 30 March 2013
3 stars

God of Carnage is a play by Yasmina Reza about two couples, one of whose child has hurt the other at a public park, who meet to discuss the matter in a civilized manner. As the play unfolds we learn that kids will be kids, but when two sets of parents get together it can become absolute carnage.

The play was a success in its original French, and whilst it has been widely acclaimed as an English-translated production, I wasn’t enamoured of it. I just didn’t quite see why it was funny, and I’m not entirely convinced the cast did either. That’s not to say it isn’t worth watching, and whilst I didn’t like the script or perhaps the translation, my opinion of the production itself was mainly positive.

All four performances were strong considering what they had to work with and I particularly enjoyed Trev Clarke’s hamster rant (this bit was funny; I’d recommend going for this alone) and Annie Gay’s projectile vomit stunt, and Cathryn Bowler’s performance of a woman quickly descending from the high-brow heights of common decency into a rum-drinking, potty-mouthed woman on the edge is also pretty funny and performed very well. Jon Elves was convincing as a parent who had something far better to do than stay analysing the behaviour of his child Ferdinand, but I’m not sure if that was him in character or the actor’s true feelings coming through.

A rather large gripe of mine, hinted at above, was the translation, which I found rather odd. I don’t know if this was the theatre’s interpretation or was as written, but if you want an audience to believe and be taken in by what they’re watching then you have to make it make sense! Bruno and Ferdinand are French names (beautiful as they are), no modern man calls a woman “madam” anymore and (here I show my ignorance) what the hell is a Clafouti?

Overall I would say it’s worth watching. The performances were good and the set itself was beautifully designed and, if you like a bit of farce then I suggest you see it. Oh, and there’s no interval so you’re out and at the bar a lot earlier than normal – now that’s a bonus.

Marmite

Gypsy

Gypsyby Arthur Laurents, Julie Styne & Stephen Sondheim; dir John Ruscoe
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
8 – 15 December 2012
4 stars

I had never seen this show either on stage or as a film, so I came to it completely fresh. It won’t go down as my favourite musical, but it certainly provided an excellent night out at the Criterion.

The story, adapted from the autobiography of Gypsy Rose Lee, is here presented with great style, tremendous confidence and a real pizazz. There is scarcely a weak performance amongst a large cast, and the overall quality is up there with the recent tradition of Criterion year-end musicals. In fact, I sat there thinking much of the time that this production under John Ruscoe’s direction would not look out of place on the professional stage.

The classic role of the mother, Rose, is taken by the talented Vicki Hollings, and she brings great energy and a powerful singing voice to the character. For the most part she dominates the stage, as she should, but she is well-matched by Matt Sweatman as her friend and agent, Herbie, the two making a convincing on stage partnership.

The part of Louise – later to become Gypsy Rose – is played by Lucy Hayton. In her transformation from trouser role vaudeville performer to burlesque stripper she is a sensation.

Elsewhere, there are fine portrayals of Gypsy’s fellow strippers by Chris Evans, Anne-Marie Greene and (at the performance I attended) Jodie Gibson, filling in at short notice for the indisposed Cathryn Bowler, and who had appeared earlier as Louise’s sister, the favoured June. And even the kids were suitably precocious and oozing confidence, especially Cherry-Rose Cleverley as Baby June.

In a departure from recent practices, the band was located at the rear of the stage and above Pete Bagley’s adaptable set, and, for the most part, played well under Bill Bosworth’s direction, only occasionally drowning out the vocals. Mention, too, should also be made of the choreography by Deb Relton-Elves and Jayne Meggitt which was well-rehearsed.

In summary, then, a highly entertaining evening which maintained the Criterion’s high standard.

Hari Kitson

Visiting Mr Green

by Jeff Baron; dir Annie Woodward
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
20 – 27 October 2012

I first encountered this play several years ago when a touring professional production visited the area with a big name in the title role. At the time, it made a not very favourable impression on me, striking me as a somewhat tedious piece, to the extent that I had completely forgotten about it during subsequent years.

So it was interesting to come to it again all that time later at the Criterion. I had re-acquainted myself with the bones of the play, and felt that it should have a lot more to offer than I had previously experienced. Such proved to be the case.

This is a stunning production in every sense. Director Annie Woodward has done a wonderful job in bringing out both the delightful humour and the moments of pathos in the piece.

The story concerns a recently widowed Jewish New Yorker (Mr Green) who has suffered a fall resulting from a close encounter with a car driven by the only other character in the play, Ross Gardiner. Ross has been ordered to fulfil a period of community service by visiting his victim once a week. This intrusion is, at first, deeply resented by Mr Green, but gradually the relationship starts to blossom as Ross reveals his own Jewish background. A guarded friendship develops between the two, which has many setbacks along the way as both reveal details of their backgrounds that spark off arguments and anger. It all leads to a very moving conclusion which I won’t reveal here.

As Mr Green and Ross Gardiner the Criterion has cast two of its most experienced and outstanding actors in Keith Railton and Chris Firth. Both are superb. Keith captures so perfectly the frailty, the anger, the sadness and, yet, the innate humour present in Mr Green, whilst Chris is totally natural as Ross – a man with his own problems to resolve. In the hands of lesser players some of the scenes could easily drag and even be embarrassing, but it is to the credit of director and cast that the evening is totally engrossing and believable.

Mention should also be made of the set by Doug Griffiths which is intentionally cluttered, but not dark or overly grubby, befitting the home of the recently dead Yetta; and I particularly liked the choice of music between the scenes – vaguely Jewish in style and very appropriate.

All in all, then, a thoroughly enjoyable performance, and probably my favourite evening in the theatre this year.

Hari Kitson

The Accrington Pals

by Peter Whelan; dir Pete Bagley
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
8 – 15 September 2012

To encourage enlistment during the First World War, groups of people from the same town or occupation were encouraged to sign up together with the promise of being able to fight alongside each other. They were known as the Pals Battalions and the Accrington Pals were one of these that suffered particularly heavy losses on the first day of the Somme Offensive.

Rather than the battle itself, the play focuses on three men fated to die that day and more so on the women (and in one case a son) they left behind in Accrington. Three very different relationships, with the participants unaware until too late of their own tragedy, remind us strongly of the need to resolve things today, for there may be no tomorrow.

Somehow though, I didn’t feel entirely drawn into their lives and that made it harder to share in the women’s grief when the news of the slaughter finally filtered through. May (Anne-Marie Greene) was the central character and the best played of the women. Perhaps her situation of never quite being able to abandon herself to her feelings for the younger Tom (Joe Fallowell) resonates most strongly with the audience, who realise how little time she has left. Lucy Hayton and Sara Farmanfarmai were creditably believable as May’s closest friends. Gennie Holmes played the third of the women left behind and her appearances as were mostly in pursuit of her long-suffering son Reggie (Pete Meredith) to give him yet another beating. I enjoyed the sensitive way that Pete played this character although he’s getting a bit old to play an abused child, whilst Gennie seemed a little young to be playing his violent mother. The three soldiers were all played fairly well, but I felt were all lacking a little something and I had trouble believing in them. Nick Knibb as their Sergeant Major was a much stronger performance and had the presence to capture the audience’s attention whenever he appeared.

I think the problems had more to do with the staging than with the individual performances. It is difficult to flit between scenes as much as this play does and still keep the pace strong. It doesn’t help when there is a short blackout between each scene while tables, chairs and a market barrow are moved about. There were some attempts to merge particularly the barrow movements into the action, but I felt more could have been done. The set and auditorium also seemed to contrive to add a certain amount of reverberation to the speech, making it hard to pick up everything that was said despite, or maybe because of, the good volume from all concerned.

Overall though, a moving evening, but with the feeling that with some work, it could have left the whole audience in tears.

When We Are Married

by J B Priestley; dir Helen Withers
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
7 – 14 July 2012

In J B Priestley’s three-act play, When We Are Married, written in 1938 and set in 1908, three well-to-do couples get together to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their combined weddings and have it revealed to them that the vicar who performed the services was not authorised to do so and that they are consequently not married after all. Scandal and humour ensue before all is resolved in the end.

The three couples competently provided the meat of the story, with perhaps the Soppits providing the most laughs – convincingly henpecked Herbert (Rob Wootton) quickly eliciting the support of the audience and his domineering wife Clara, excellently portrayed by Chris Ingall. When ‘the worm turns’, the audience are right behind him. A similar struggle occurs between meek Annie Parker (Gennie Holmes) and her pompous husband, Councillor Albert Parker (Matt Sweatman), whilst the Helliwells, Alderman Joseph (Steve Crump) and Maria (Emma Withers) deal with the subject of infidelity. There was a slight casting problem with respect to age; not all of the couples looked old enough to have been married 25 years and the ‘young’ organist, well enough played by Pete Gillam, didn’t come across as much younger.

Around these are a good number of other characters who add some spice and eccentricity to the play. The highest spots were the appearances of drunken photographer Henry Ormonroyd, masterfully played by Keith Railton. The audience lit up every time he reappeared to give another brilliant rendition of physical comedy. Creating a similar uplifting effect, and without the benefit of so much experience, was Nicol Cortese as the young maid Ruby Birtle, played with a very endearing cheek and vivacity. Rachel Newey as the housekeeper also provided much entertainment on discovering her ‘betters’ are no such thing. And Jan Nightingale’s brassy barmaid, come to claim her stake in the now unmarried Albert, was portrayed to cause just the right degree of repulsion in the respectable couples.

An enjoyable play, well directed and brought up in level by some exceptional individual performances.

The Cripple of Inishmaan

by Martin McDonagh; dir Craig Shelton
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
12 – 19 May 2012

On the surface, The Cripple of Inishmaan tells the story of young Cripple Billy and his doomed attempt to ‘make it’ in Hollywood. That would be an unfair summation of the play however: we only once leave the small village that Billy grew up in, most of the story is told through the other characters of the village, and the Hollywood story doesn’t matter very much at all. But we do empathise with Billy and his struggle to escape the forlorn pigeon-hole he has been placed in. In a scene just before his departure, he asks BabbyBobby to call him just Billy instead of Cripple Billy, much to the Bobby’s confusion.

The play has a certain similarity to Dylan Thomas’ ‘Under Milk Wood’ in that the richness comes from observation of the peculiar characters in the village and their interactions with each other. Most of this is done to great comic effect, although there is pain and tragedy there too – an addition that makes the people more real than a non-stop gag-fest would do. Martin McDonagh has written an excellent play here.

And it was presented and performed well too. The opening scene, with Kate (Debra Relton-Elves) and Eileen (Annie Gay) in their village shop delightfully set the tone and it would be a cold person indeed who did not find much to laugh at in that scene. Here we first hear of Billy’s habit of staring at cows – a recurring theme. Elliot Relton-Williams handled the part of Billy excellently, allowing us to feel and root for him in the way we must if the play is to be successful, and the consistency with which he played his crippled leg and arm is fantastic in one so young. Jon Elves also impressed as grim and ultimately violent Bobby and Peter Gillam as the doctor calmly maintained his serious demeanour despite such things as explaining to Billy that his mother was ugly enough to frighten a pig. For me though, the best of a good bunch were Pete Bagley as JohnnyPateen, the town gossip (or news reporter as he’d have it) and Annie Woodward as the mother he is trying to kill with drink (with her full cooperation) – and what a great pairing they made.

Not quite as polished as it could be though; despite a mostly good performance as young Bartley, with his fascination for telescopes and sweets, Sam Taylor seemed to have concentrated on getting the Irish accent right at the expense of his diction. As such, the second scene was very difficult to understand and took some wind out of the sails – it didn’t help that much of the conversation was about sweets with unfamiliar names. Lucy Hayton as his egg-throwing sister had similarly problems at times. This improved as time went on and either they relaxed more or we became more acclimatised – or because sweets didn’t feature as much.

Overall an excellent night out.

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.