Hitchcock Blonde

Hitchcock Blondeby Terry Johnson; dir Darren Scott
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
22 January – 1 February 2014
Uninspiring

Hitchcock Blonde tells a hypothetical story of two modern-day researchers finding some scraps of film shot by the famous director in 1919 (before his film career) which seemed to presage the shower scene from Psycho. Parallel to this is a story of Hitchcock himself and the blonde who played the body double for that scene in 1959.

The stylish set showed the former story in the foreground with the latter played upstage on a raised platform in front of a large screen which created a slightly unearthly quality to those scenes and was used to display some of the film frames the researchers were working on. This looked promising. Our interest was further piqued at the start by a film clip in the style of the ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ introductions asking us to turn off mobile phones.

Sadly things were rather a disappointment from then on. The 1959 story was the more interesting of the two, with the Blonde, driven by ambition for fame and money, attempting to turn Hitchcock’s comments about the disposal of murder victims against him by dumping a body on him that unconvincingly turns out not to be dead after all. The motivations of the Blonde could at least be grasped at and the forceful performance by Karen Brooks certainly helped with that. But she was fighting in a losing cause and the story as a whole was disjointed and confusing. It didn’t help that Hitchcock himself was played in a most distracting manner: mouth permanently agape and head leant back as though in the grip of a badly-fitted neck brace. It is always difficult to portray such a well-known and distinctive figure, but there are many available examples of the man himself to study. This was not so much Hitchcock as Hitchcock’s corpse.

The modern-day story saw a university lecturer inviting his much younger student to a holiday in a Greek villa to investigate and preserve the decomposing remnants of film from 1919 – his ulterior motive was to also get her into bed with him. This whole story lacked credibility in so many ways, the combination of those two things not least of all; valuable decomposing film is treated in controlled conditions, not over a glass of wine while chatting someone up. The characters had little credibility too and not only due to the performances, although these were poor: the lecturer being too laid-back and the student over-acting as though her life depended on it.

At the root, it was difficult to identify with or believe in any of the characters from either story and consequently we didn’t care what happened to any of them. Add to that the generally tenuous and convoluted story and you end up with an experience that I just found boring. Judging by the gaps in the audience during the second act, I was far from the only one.

inkblot

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Betrayal

Betrayalby Harold Pinter; dir Sue Moore
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
12 – 16 November 2013
Exceptional

It has become something of a rarity to have a opportunity locally to enjoy any of Pinter’s plays, which, given his status as a Nobel Prize winner, seems a sad omission.

Pinter has a reputation for being complex and obscure, but apart from the events of the play being in reverse order, this is not the case with ‘Betrayal’ which takes us through the nine years of an affair from youthful exuberance to experienced and disillusioned  middle age. The piece is famously autobiographical in that it tells of the long-term affair of Pinter himself with Joan Bakewell.

In the first few minutes of the play David Crossfield (aka Pinter himself) and Libby McKay get an opportunity to play a few of Pinter’s famous pauses. Not here an embarrassing hiatus, but moments which gather weight and purpose. We know we are safely in the hands of skilful actors. The pair are at the centre of this piece and we share their compulsive attraction, desperate duplicity and ultimate exposure. Here we have two powerful performances which make for an engrossing and absorbing evening.

The cuckolded husband is no less sensitively played by Richard Ely with a growing sense of unease as his suspicions develop. We get moments of strange ‘male bonding’ between the two men who are long-term friends. Moments laced with an undeclared subtext of awareness of the events outside that friendship.

The Loft studio takes a maximum of about fifty people and was full, but unfortunately, unless you were sitting in the front, this made for problems in following the action. Heads were swivelling as audience members tried to see past the heads of those in front. The cost here was a loss of some of the intimacy that studio theatre promises. Surely this might have been a play which could have been presented in a less conventional proscenium arch style.

The director, Sue Moore, must be congratulated for offering us an opportunity to enjoy one of our finest dramatists. Her control of the pace and rhythm of the play made for an evening well spent.

squirrel

Entertaining Mr Sloane

Entertaining Mr Sloaneby Joe Orton; dir Tim Willis
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
3 – 13 April 2013
Good

Entertaining Mr Sloane was first performed nearly fifty years ago as the first stage play in Joe Orton’s tragically cut-short time as a playwright. Orton delighted in shocking his audiences, especially in connection with homosexuality which was still illegal in those unenlightened days.

Sloane, who unlike the older characters is never referred to by first name, is an amoral young man who becomes a lodger at the home of middle-aged Kath and her ‘Dadda’, Kemp. He rapidly manipulates his sexual attraction to Kath and to her brother, Ed, to ensure he has a comfortable time. And he bullies Kemp, who recognises him as a murderer, into submission. Kath and Ed tussle over the rights to Sloane’s sexual attentions and, thanks to a further ‘impropriety’ by Sloane, come to a solution that satisfies them both thanks to a little blackmail and demonstrates that we can all partake of a bit of amorality if it suits us.

What was designed to shock audiences back in the sixties hardly raises an eyebrow nowadays, so its main attraction other than for nostalgic purposes seems to be the story of manipulation and moral convenience. Unfortunately to my mind, the play seemed to be presented much in the style of a ‘Confessions of a …’ film.

Most of the parts were considerably over-acted, notably Sloane (Chris Gilbey-Smith) who also suffered from the problem of being a little too old to carry off the fresh-faced appeal that the twenty-year-old Sloane would have benefitted from – an oddity considering the wealth of young talent the Loft has at its disposal. It was hard to picture Kath as being twice his age. Kath (Kate Sawyer) also suffered somewhat from over-acting and being too much aroused by Sloane from the start, rather than letting us see this build towards the climax of the first act. We could see where this was heading from the start and began to wonder why it took so long. Again, Kemp (Neil Vallance), was an over-acted caricature, a sort of one-dimensional Steptoe whose attempts at replicating the movements of a feeble old man were not at all convincing. I don’t blame the actors much for all this as the over-acting was so rife that it must have been what director Tim Willis was looking for. I just wonder why.

The one character I have not mentioned so far was refreshingly different. Ed (Howard Scott-Walker) I think achieved the right balance of risqué and realistic and, as such, came over as a much better and more amusing character whose actions arose as a natural consequence of his character rather than appearing forced and gave much more credibility to his solution at the end.

Altogether, if you can suspend not so much disbelief as incredulity, the play is still an enjoyable romp and there is humour to be had in the way things conclude.

Millicent Short

Suddenly Last Summer

Suddenly Last Summerby Tennessee Williams; dir David Hankins
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
19 March – 23 March 2013
3 stars

We are in the steamy, semi-tropical landscape of Louisiana.

Sebastian died last summer whilst in Europe. The circumstances of that death are unclear and this is the central theme of the play. Sebastian’s mother, Violet Venable, is convinced that her niece, Catherine Holly, who was with Sebastian at the time, carries responsibility for his death. As the play progresses it becomes apparent the Sebastian was homosexual and that both his mother and his cousin, Catherine were not above pimping for him. His mother is keen to suppress this and, to that end, is promoting Catherine as insane – even to the point of encouraging Catherine’s neurosurgeon, Dr Cukrowicz, to consider lobotomy. Ultimately the true nature of Sebastian’s death is revealed.

The first half an hour of the play is largely a monologue from Violet Venables (Sue Moore) with brief interjections from Dr Cukrowicz (Paul Atkins). The language is darkly poetic with frequent imagery of predation. A savage world is described full of unforgiving forces of nature. Sue Moore certainly gives us the hauteur of the southern aristocrat and handles the part with assurance and a rolling anger which underpins her performance. Given the length of this section a richer, more varied palette would have helped. We might have found her reflecting on past events with some sad pleasure. Also the actor’s instinct to become almost inaudible at the most introspective moments was a distraction.

The last half hour of the play very much belongs to Catherine Holly and what a brilliant, passionate feast she makes of it. She moves from defending herself, to attacking her aunt and narrating the events surrounding Sebastian’s death with great skill. Many changes of gear here and Sophie Dyke has given us a hugely effective introduction to her considerable abilities.

Paul Aitkin’s Doctor Cukrowicz is largely there to service the battle between Violet and Catherine. Nevertheless it needs a quiet authority and this performance has the right weight to provoke the explosive and revealing reactions of the two women.

The other three or four roles are very peripheral and yet, here, played well and with confidence.

Although accents are brave rather than accurate and the emotions have something of an Anglo-Saxon reserve rather than a full blown Latin expression we are given a welcome opportunity to enjoy a seldom performed piece.

Dombey & son

Pravda

Pravdaby Howard Brenton & David Hare; dir Gordon Vallins
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
27 February – 9 March 2013
4 stars

We tend to forget how long Rupert Murdoch has dominated British media and this play, originally performed in 1985, reminds us of the impact he had, and has, on the press. Moved from Australia to South Africa and now called Lambert La Roux the protagonist infiltrates the newspaper industry of the time and turns it into a right-wing, popularist tirade.

Gordon Vallins’ satirical production gives us a collection of broadly drawn characters that, in the main, would not be out of place in a comic strip. We are offered foul-mouthed Aussie businessmen; airily disdainful Oxford graduates with double firsts in Greats; a well boozed princess close to HR; High Tory, self-serving grandees and union bosses willing to bring down the world around them.

The action is fast moving, funny and presented in a number of simple scenes efficiently morphing from location to location and supported with a telling programme of images projected onto the back wall of the stage. The stage floor is painted as giant front pages and the journalists work at newspaper covered desks. This is very much the theatre of ‘broad strokes’ rather than fine detail – more Brecht than Chekhov. There are, possibly, some inconsistencies here with some actors more inclined to naturalism than seems to be the main theme elsewhere.

David Pinner’s performance as Lambert La Roux is magnificently broad and his pivotal position at the heart of the play is assured and hugely effective at drawing the attention. Alex Comer as Andrew May, the pawn in La Roux’ game, has a less flashy role, which reminds us of the normal world which La Roux seeks to manipulate. Zoë Faithfull completes this central group as Andrew May’s wife. Sassy, feminist, opinionated and politically aware she gives us the modern woman determined to be heard. Add to this La Roux’ Aussie business manager, James Wolstenholme, who gives us a wonderful, down-to-earth colonial who sees no reason for not sharing jokes about ‘abbo’ nudists with princesses of the realm.

The remaining dozen or so actors flesh out the forty parts of the play. We see the same face popping up with a different voice and hat at points throughout the evening. This is, in the main, an effective device in itself in that it reminds us that this is theatre and we do not need to be deceived into believing that we are eavesdropping on the real world. A particular joy was the exuberant performance of the promotional jingle ‘Bingo’ towards the end of the evening.

When it works as well as, generally, it does here, there is always a particular satisfaction in pieces which put so much dependence on imaginative performance and presentation.

Two and a half hours well spent in the theatre.

squirrel

Mindgame

Mindgameby Anthony Horowitz; dir Darren Scott
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
23 January – 3 February 2013
4 stars

Mindgame is a ‘dark psychological thriller’ adapted from the novel of the same name – by the same author. It is set in the office of the director of an asylum for the criminally insane, where crime author Styler has arrived to try to arrange a series of interviews with serial killer Easterman.

As we join the action, we find that Styler (Roger Harding) has been waiting alone in the office for the last two hours and is getting fed up. Before long, the director arrives: Dr Farquhar (pronounced Farrar) (Craig Shelton). Farquhar seems surprised by the visitor and says he has no knowledge of the previous correspondence that has taken place. He tells Styler that the interviews are out of the question and that he should leave. His demeanour and actions soon strike us as peculiar and we start to wonder if all is not as it seems. A little later, after repeated summoning on the phone, Nurse Plimpton (Ruth Herd) arrives and the oddness steps up another notch as she tries to persuade Styler to leave. Yet by this time Farquhar seems reluctant to let him do so, being fascinated in why Styler wishes to interview Easterman of all people.

In fact, very little is at it seems in this play, which is rife with deceptions and oddities and deliberately tries to confuse and mislead the audience, who are keenly trying to interpret everything. Even what you see can be misleading and keeping observant and alert is important. With the setting in mind, you would be right in suspecting that there are some disturbing and violent scenes, but there is also a dose of dark humour.

All the parts are played well, with Craig Shelton standing out as particularly effective, but I felt that it could have done with an extra degree of mania in some of the scenes to draw us into the action and bring out the scary experience that it could be. Despite the threats and acts of violence, it never quite felt that I wasn’t watching three actors.

Having said that, it was a creditable effort and good to see something out of the ordinary. An entertaining night out that will have you thinking about it for some time afterwards.

Millicent Short

West Side Story

West Side Storyby Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim; dir Tim Willis
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
5 – 15 December 2012
3 stars

There are reasonable grounds for asserting that this is one of those shows which should be left to professionals. The Loft’s version is probably as good as any other amateur production of the 1957 classic I’ve seen; but there are times when the scale and demands of the piece are simply too great even for a company as talented as this.

First the good points – and there are gratifyingly many. Bernstein and Sondheim’s songs are as potent and spine-tingling as ever, and musical director Matt Flint has pulled off a near-miracle in condensing the complexities of the score into a version for a 13-piece ensemble. The choreography by Jackie-Lee Lilwall is energetic and exciting, and director Tim Willis marshals his resources well, giving the scenes a pleasing variety of pace and mood. The company singing work is generally strong, and there are some stand-out individual performances: Chris Gilbey-Smith brings youthful idealism and energy to star-crossed lover Tony, gang leader Riff is charismatic and exceptionally well sung by Daniel Murray, and Charlotte Brooks brings passion and integrity to the role of Anita. Kelsey Checklin as Maria has a sweet, pure singing voice, but needs to develop her acting skills if she is to move into the premier league of the local amateur circuit. A special mention should go to Zoe Chamberlain for her moving rendition of the song Somewhere.

On the negative side, the ‘Puerto Rican’ accents veer wildly between Birmingham and the Indian subcontinent, with the occasional detour up the Welsh valleys. It’s almost inevitable that in a non-professional cast of 28 there will be one or two truly cringeworthy acting performances, and so it proves here. In a show famous for its dance routines, the execution of the choreography is not always as slick and well-synchronised as one would wish; and the set too often constricts the action, especially in the big numbers. And the production seems beset with sound problems: what should be heart-stopping moments are constantly undermined by crackling microphones. Overall, the piece feels under-rehearsed and not fully confident.

On balance, though, an enjoyable night in the theatre, if you can look beyond the shortcomings to appreciate the sublime score and the energy and commitment of the youthful cast.

Chris Fairlea

Another View

3 stars

West Side Story represents a huge undertaking for any amateur company. However, nowadays very few theatre companies attempt to cast a show like this solely from their core membership, but actively spread their nets far and wide to seek out the necessary talent. I, therefore, had high hopes of the production, especially as it was in the charge of a director well-versed in musicals, Tim Willis.

Sadly, I have to say that my hopes were not altogether fulfilled. Certainly, there are some great moments on offer and one or two outstanding performances, but, overall, the evening lacked that raw excitement that the ongoing conflict between the two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, should engender. This stems from a rather weak opening where I felt there was too much reticence from the members of the gangs. Their unscripted asides and interjections were not delivered with the confidence which would really have established the hatred. All we got were indistinct mumblings.

Overall the girls come off better than the boys, and in the first half particularly they have a lot more spark than their male counterparts. Star of the show for me was Charlotte Brooks as Anita whose acting, singing, dancing and accent were spot on. Also notable were Daniel Murray, a strong voiced Riff, and Zoe Chamberlain who gave a lovely rendition of ‘Somewhere’. Lucy Maxwell gave a convincing portrayal of the would-be boy, Anybody’s.

The parts of Tony and Maria, the Romeo and Juliet of the piece, are almost unique in musicals of the latter part of the 20th century in that they require near operatic quality in the voices. Neither Chris Gilbey-Smith nor Kelsey Checklin quite hit the mark. Chris had apparently been unwell at some point in the run, and was clearly not up to his usual standard vocally, but the voice was really too light for Tony, especially set against the more dominating tone of Kelsey. Kelsey, herself, was overmiked for her singing of Maria’s music, resulting in a disturbing tremolo on the high notes. On the plus side, however, both roles were well acted. Douglas Gilbey-Smith looked the part, but made a rather lightweight Bernardo.

The band played well under Matt Flint’s direction, and I was sorry that they were not acknowledged by the cast at the curtain call. Jackie-Lee Lilwall had done an excellent job on the choreography – the dance numbers providing most of the highlights.

My high points of the evening were ‘America’, ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, the “dream sequence”, and the well-handled tragic finale.

One has to admire the Loft for tackling this classic show. The fact that it almost came off is not such a bad achievement.

Hari Kitson

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.

Talking Heads

by Alan Bennett; dir Gus MacDonald (BAtL), Sam Harris (ACitS) & Rachel Tompkins (ACCUtS)
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
18 – 28 July 2012

Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads is a series of monologues originally written for TV but which transfer well to the stage. Companies select two, or in this case three, pieces to perform, so you usually see a different mix in each production. They are all excellent pieces of writing; Bennett is a master at portraits of ordinary people who appear simple and amusing on the surface, but who have each have their own specific hopes, fears, problems, etc. Bennett teaches us that real drama occurs in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. So while we are laughing, we are also moved by these people and feel a familiarity with them.

Bed Among the Lentils
First up was Mary MacDonald as Susan, a vicar’s wife. Driven to boredom and alcoholism by sermons, flower arranging and the generally tedious life of her position, she embarks on an affair with an Asian shopkeeper. Very ably presented, with wonderfully timed pauses and slight raising of eyebrows, causing much merriment amongst the audience.

A Chip in the Sugar
In the second piece, Howard Scott Walker played Graham, a slightly odd, middle-aged son, still living with his mother. He is ousted from his mother’s affections by the arrival of an old boyfriend, only to emerge triumphant by the discovery that the latter is still married. Again, beautifully timed, but with more variance in pace than the previous piece – I was riveted to my seat, wanting more.

A Cream Cracker Under The Settee
Finally, the wonderful Anne Woods portrayed Doris, a frail 75 year old trying to maintain her independence, injured in a fall and lying on the floor. Anne’s own frailty added to the part and there cannot be many audiences who would not have empathised with her position, and felt trepidation at their own aging.

These were hugely intimate pieces handled with style and sensitivity by all three actors. It may have worked better in smaller surroundings, especially as audience numbers were not high, but the only real criticism for the actors is that on a few occasions I found myself straining to hear what they were saying. It would have also helped if it had been more clear that the show had finished as the audience remained seated waiting for the actors reappearance for final bows, which had been richly deserved.

All in all an excellent evening, but I cant help wondering whether on such a warm summer night (really!) that the original billing of Titfield Thunderbolt may have been a better choice.

Piaf

by Pam Gems; dir Chris Gilbey-Smith
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
4 – 14 April 2012

Piaf is a semi-musical play about the life of legendary French singer Edith Piaf, from her ‘discovery’ busking on the streets of Paris to her death. Most, but not all, of the musical aspect is provided by Piaf (Hannah Farquharson) singing her songs (or parts of them) as a performance within a performance.

Technically this was a very impressive show. The minimalist set was attractive and well designed, and combined with the excellent lighting, allowed for a great deal of versatility. Which leads on to another very good aspect: no worries about long drawn-out scene changes in this one or even the pauses of blackouts. The scenes basically overlapped such that as one was reaching its end, the next would be starting on a different part of the stage, the actors bringing on and taking off any props or piece of furniture as required. Very smooth and impressive – something other directors could take note of.

It was a commanding performance by Hannah Farquharson; like Piaf she is small but has a belter of a voice and was clearly relishing this very demanding role which rarely saw her leave the stage but quite frequently saw her step across it from one scene into the next. All the other parts were played by a capable ensemble with varying degrees of success. Esther Dunn as Piaf’s best friend Toine did particularly well.

So, all the makings of a top-notch show then. Except that, from about half-way through the second act it all started to feel a bit samey. This may be down to it needing cutting or a change of pace at some point, but I also think there were two hurdles to do with the script itself that weren’t quite overcome. Firstly, as a biopic it didn’t have the same kind of build to a crescendo that a good fictional piece would have, and secondly it is very easy to get tired of Piaf as a character by the end. What was endearing youthful exuberance and seizing of opportunities by a street-hardened waif, turns into irritating self-interest by the older woman. Probably a fair reflection of what it was like to know Piaf, but it doesn’t make for the best theatre.

All in all though, an interesting experience.