Hypnosis

Hypnosisby David Tristram; dir Phil Quinn
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
3 – 8 February 2014
Good

Hypnosis eh? I want you to close your eyes and empty your mind. It is 1954 and you are stuck in Clacton on a wet Tuesday in June. Fortunately you have a ticket for the show at the end of the pier. This is where the Talisman’s current offering would be at home. This is a play which comes from a world when television was black and white and footballers had a full head of hair.

This is merely descriptive of the genre and should not be seen as a criticism. There is a place for the retro, and here, thanks to director Phil Quinn, we have a gentle enough piece, well handled by all involved.

It is short, highly implausible and at times amusing enough. Just three actors; an alcoholic hypnotist, a psychotic detective with a gun and his wife, a libidinous banker, have devised a plot to rob her bank. It doesn’t go smoothly.

John Francis gives us a rather deranged detective. An effective piece of acting as he offers a very energy packed performance. Throughout he puts one in mind of a mad axe man on the edge of committing mayhem. There might, however, have been some benefit, at times, in considering the gloved hand approach rather than presenting the bare knuckle. This would have offered him a richer palette.

Kathy Crawshaw invites you to see bankers in a different light – a very revealing one at times. Another well considered performance full of pace, venom and urgency. Given the low regard in which bankers are held these days we might have hoped for a clear invitation to chuckle when she invites our respect by saying, “after all I am a banker”.

The hypnotist at the centre of the play is Graham Underhill. His bumbling incompetence in his chosen craft suits the play well and, at times, he attracts our concern for his welfare. A nicely varied performance and he succeeds in driving the rapidly changing and unlikely events upon which the play depends.

The evening is made the more enjoyable by June Malcome’s delightful black and white set which clearly defines the two locations demanded by the plot.

squirrel

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An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Callsby J B Priestley; dir Vicky Whitehill
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
21 – 26 October 2013
Good

An Inspector Calls is probably J B Priestley’s best-known play, set in 1912. It examines the callous way in which the moneyed and powerful classes use and abuse poor working class people. The Birling family are comfortably self-congratulatory about their wealth and prospects until the inspector arrives and demonstrates the role of each of those present in the destruction and death of a poor girl who had worked in Birling’s factory. Yet the inspector’s presence is ethereal and, once this is discovered, we see that, although the Birling daughter and son have had their consciences stirred, the others had been merely concerned with bad publicity.

The initial complacency of the family gives way to fear, regrets, recrimination and panic during the inspector’s revelations and this should be reflected on the stage. There should be a steady escalation of tension and stripping away of social niceties to reveal the ugly creatures below. Then the re-donning of the mask by Mr Birling in particular would have an effective grotesqueness. Although this production made some efforts in this direction, I felt that it really needed that extra level to give the audience a memorable experience. On the whole it felt not much different from a whole host of drawing-room plays: interesting and amusing, but not gripping.

Within those constraints, the performances were generally good. I particularly liked Nadia Parkes as Sheila Birling and Gill Bowser as Sybil Birling. Inspector Goole was played with style and control by John Dawson, but I could have wished he had been more commanding and perhaps a little scary.

I admired the moving wall at the front of the set and liked the idea of having the dead girl appear under the streetlamp in her various guises as each person was questioned. This was played by the same actor as played the Birlings’ maid, Fay Staton. Something perhaps could have been made of the fact that the characters were also alike in many ways; the maid could have been destroyed by the Birlings as easily as the dead girl.

So, enjoyable as it was; but I feel it could have been more.

Inkblot

Fawlty Towers

Fawlty Towersby John Cleese & Connie Booth; dir Wendy Anderson
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
15 – 20 April 2013
Good

It’s a great formula. Find a hugely popular TV series of thirty or forty years ago, collect a bunch of actors who look something like the originals and get them to do an impression. Here we have three half hour episodes which few will not have seen at some time or other. Not any real acting involved, of course, but a promise of an evening of entertainment.

There are three well remembered characters from the original where some physical similarity is essential. Bill Davis seems about seven foot tall and has a manic instinct hard-wired into his DNA – Basil sorted.  David Draper, short, confused, improbably dark-haired and sporting the sort of moustache that wowed them in the aisles when Hitler was on the comedy circuit in the 30s is a recognisable Manuel. Most successfully recreated is Sybil. Jill Laurie not only has the hair and voice pretty well nailed, but also has a repertoire of mood, stance and movement that does full justice to the original.

Elsewhere there are moments to enjoy.  Miss Tibbs (Maureen Jones) and Miss Gatsby (Cynthia Anderson) have little enough to do, but make each second precious. Damian Storey offers three well defined ‘likely lads’ and John Fenner’s  crooked Lord Melbury was significant in making the first of the three plays the best.

Plenty of promise then, pity about the delivery. The evening simply became less funny once we had got over the pleasure of the identity parade. Basil never quite had the short fuse and danger of imminent explosion that John Cleese gave us. Some comic moments failed to deliver because of lack of clarity or precision in the timing. Some gags were so deliberately contrived that any pleasure in their realisation had gone. Where was the desperate invention to cover moments of potential embarrassment? Why was there not a gathering urgency as the story developed and became more improbable? The cast were clearly capable of meeting those demands and it can only be assumed that actors were left to ‘sort it out’ by themselves. Authoritative, competent, diagnostic direction would have made a real difference and, sadly, this can only be assumed to have been lacking.

If we are to make a judgement on the size of house then this has done well. Certainly the night that I was in, the theatre was close to full. Nevertheless I feel that I must be guided by the fact that laughs became fewer and less enthusiastic as the evening wore on. Relief that there was not to be a fourth episode was palpable.

In offering three stars I am steering a route between The Scylla of misplaced enthusiasm and The Charybdis of easy disdain for this theatre overtly aiming for the popular.

Dombey & Son

Another view

Good

Fawlty Towers is one of the best loved and most timeless of British TV sit-coms. There must be few people in this country who have not seen at least once all twelve episodes that were made. The modern availability of TV programmes via the internet also means that a reproduction on stage cannot be with the aim of reviving a lost classic. Instead it forms an opportunity for us to indulge with an old favourite. There is little room for innovation here; depart far from the TV episodes in characterisations and the audience are likely to be disappointed.

So what are the chances of substituting for actors like John Cleese and Prunella Scales? Well, this production does surprisingly well in the face of this daunting task, helped undoubtedly by some of those key characters having already played the same roles when The Talisman previously performed three other episodes from the series. Bill Davis does a remarkably good job of reproducing Basil Fawlty’s speech , mannerisms and expressions, although was a bit weaker in the manic moments and this did feel frustrating as time went on. Jill Laurie as Sybil Fawlty was also a good counterfeit and carried off her officiousness with ease, and her strident call of ‘Basil!’ and braying laugh were both very effective. Of the other ‘regulars’, David Draper’s Manuel and Tim Eden’s Terry reminded me most of their TV counterparts.

Three episodes were performed here, with intervals between, and there was freedom for a bit of interpretation of the ‘guest’ characters. In ‘A Touch of Class’, a con man under the guise of Lord Melbury (played with a suitable air of haughtiness by John Fenner), exploits Basil’s snobbishness in an attempt to con him out of money and valuables. In ‘The Hotel Inspectors’, an obnoxious spoon salesman (played by a suitably pompous Colin Ritchie) is mistaken for a hotel inspector by Basil. And in ‘Basil The Rat’, Manuel’s ‘hamster’ (played by one or more enormous glove puppets) goes on the rampage during a council food and health inspection.

All in all an enjoyable evening if you are happy to get into the spirit of the thing and accept that it won’t necessarily match the original.

Hari Kitson

In Praise of Love

In Prise of Loveby Terrence Rattigan; dir John Dawson
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
4 – 9 March 2013
4 stars

Rattigan’s plays have been largely out of favour for some time now. This is a pity, because they represent some of the best that British theatre can provide, and have great emotional depth. Every now and again we come across a revival that reminds us of what we have been missing.

In Praise of Love may not be one of his most effective pieces, and may be excessively wordy for some, but it still has the power to move and, at times, to amuse.

This production by John Dawson is largely effective if, visually, it struggles somewhat to identify its period. For the second production running the Talisman wardrobe falls short. We are supposed to be witnessing the 1970s, but what we see costume-wise is too modern and, occasionally, conflicts with the tone and the style of the piece.

If one can put this aside, however, there is much to enjoy in the performances. Linda Connor, making only her second appearance at the Talisman, gives an assured rendering of Lydia Cruttwell, the wife with a terminal diagnosis. The character has to run the gamut of emotions during the course of the play. Ms Connor achieves this with some style and succeeds with a fairly subtle central European accent (Lydia being Estonian by birth).

As her, apparently, hard-nosed husband with Communist affiliations, Andrew Bayliss gives a largely believable portrayal (especially in the latter stages) of a man shielding his true emotions from both family and friends by bluster and feigned disdain.

In the lesser roles of family friend and the Cruttwell’s Liberal supporter son, John Francis and Damian Story do well. Mr Francis is suitably relaxed and sympathetic as Mark, a pleasant change from some of his more exuberant performances, and it is good to see a young actor like Mr Story coming across strongly in a small but vital role.

Paul Chokran’s set, an adaptation from the previous production, works well.

Overall not perfect, but an enjoyable evening nonetheless, and deserves to be seen by bigger audiences than I witnessed.

Hari Kitson

Blithe Spirit

Blithe Spiritby Noël Coward; dir Mary MacDonald
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
4 – 9 February 2013
3 stars

A core of Coward’s plays is likely to remain with us for a while yet and this is certainly one of them. Like Wodehouse, his characters live outside the world that most of us inhabit and yet we are happy to be drawn into their domain and feel concern for their issues.

Blithe Spirit tells of the events that arise when an author, for reasons of research, brings back a dead wife from beyond the pale with the help of a local necromancer. Not surprisingly the author’s present wife and the spirit of the last one fail to become best of friends.

Coward’s characters need a deft lightness of touch and, frequently, the importance of not being earnest is a useful guiding light. Martin Eggleston’s Charles delivers this is spades as he sashays confidently around the set avoiding the worst of his two wives’ barbed attacks.

If John McCririck and Margaret Rutherford ever had a love child it could well be Chris Carpenter’s Madam Arcati who, with a manic energy, summons Elvira from the other side, then forgets how best to return her. Who doesn’t like an English eccentric, and here we have much to enjoy.

By contrast the spirit of Elvira is a self-interested, svelte, wraith the colour of a healthy herring, who mischievously does her best to make the lives of those around her increasingly stressful. Julie Godfrey drifts around the set like a leaf in the wind looking, and delivering, the goods.

Unfortunately the actor playing Ruth Condomine, Charles’ present wife, seems, strangely, to have opted for a wig that puts one in mind of Acorn Antiques. Rather than the haughty disdain that is generally Coward’s default she offers a sort of suburban irritation that belongs elsewhere. Square pegs and round holes I’m afraid.

Sarah Cullum affirms the dictum that there are no small parts but only small actors. Her Edith, the maid, appears early and each time you are left hoping for her imminent return. Undoubtedly a treasure of a treasure!

We are given a functional, acceptable set which serves the play well enough, but with two intervals the play may be slightly long for its light hearted content. Nevertheless, the director, Mary MacDonald, has given us a pleasant distraction on a winter evening.

squirrel

Another View

3 stars

The success of Coward’s plays relies mainly on his wit, elegance and sophistication. In this production we get the wit but very little elegance or sophistication. As a result, although it has its moments, the evening seems over long.

In this story of the Condomines, Charles and Ruth, and the upsets to their lives resulting from the summoning of the spirit of his former wife, Elvira, Mary MacDonald’s direction, in the main, keeps the pace going nicely, despite there being several clumsy moments. But I felt a tighter rein could and should have been applied to some of the portrayals.

First, the good points. For me, performance of the evening comes from Julie Godfrey as Elvira. She captures the Coward manner perfectly. Her playing has style and is vocally excellent. Christine Carpenter does well as Madame Arcati. It’s a Margaret Rutherford take-off, whereas I would like to have seen something more original, but, in the context, it works. I began by thinking that Sarah Cullum’s maid, Edith, was going to develop into a junior Mrs Overall but, in fact, she delivers some assured moments as the performance progresses, and her appearances become a delight. In the unrewarding roles of Dr and Mrs Bradman, John Nichols and Linda Smith-Blain deliver all that is necessary.

My main problem was with the Condomines. As writer Charles, Martin Eggleston was far too frenetic from the start. As a result, his increasing frustrations with his wives really had nowhere to go and, although he moved well (apart from his increasingly irritating propping up of the mantelpiece), here was an instance of that missing sophistication.

Chris Ives acted wife Ruth well enough, but her appearance was totally wrong and blame for this must lie at the director’s door. This was where some of the elegance was missing. Ruth Condomine may be no great beauty (the script states as much), but she should be supremely elegant. Ms Ives was ill-served by both the choice of wardrobe and by the wig. None of the chosen dresses was flattering, and the red number was particularly dowdy. Such a shame.

The set was attractive and served its purpose, although I thought it was slightly over-furnished, resulting in some awkward moves, and the use of the pouffe for the séance scenes was vaguely ridiculous. Yes, I know, sight lines and all that, but still…

All in all, then, only a partially successful evening, and I don’t think the Master would have been all that thrilled.

Hari Kitson

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

Richard III

by William Shakespeare; dir Christine Carpenter
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
1 – 6 October 2012

The Wars of the Roses being over, Richard of Gloucester determines to gain the throne occupied by his brother, Edward IV.  Death, seduction and manipulation ensue in one of the longest plays within Shakespeare’s first folio.

The length of the play itself can be off-putting to audiences but like the old saying goes, “time flies when you’re having fun”.  Unfortunately Richard III at the Talisman Theatre was not fun and I left with a mixture of feelings including disappointment at what should have been the theatre’s great celebratory 70th anniversary production.

Dave Crossfield as Richard himself was excellent and allowed the audience a deep sigh of relief whenever he came on stage.  His stage presence and complete believability carried the production and with better support from all areas could have been a role of lifetime. Amy Heynes as Queen Elizabeth and Elaine Freeborn as the Duchess of York also gave good performances; and the two young princes Frederick Heynes and Fraser Howes were marvelous, showing great promise.

Excluding the aforementioned performances the production lacked energy, scenes dragged and voices dropped so low you had to try and lip read to follow the speeches.  I really didn’t enjoy the characterisation of Queen Margaret who in this production seemed to be directed as a ridiculous, supernatural witch with a child’s toy drum that summoned a hideous green flashing light whenever she performed a curse.

The use of the foyer doors to exit and enter the stage is never a good or creative idea unless absolutely necessary and in this case it wasn’t.  It broke what atmosphere there was (or could’ve been) and only heightened my desire to slip out with them and leave early. The battle scene at the end is hard to execute regardless of where you are but they did this well.  I thought the lighting was very striking in this particular scene and the sword choreography was also enjoyable to watch.

However overall I felt the production was clumsy in all aspects; direction, lighting, sound, set – everything.  Sadly this was a disappointing night out.

Another View

Richard III is the climax of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses tetralogy. Shakespeare conforms to the mores of the new Tudor age by depicting Richard himself as a villain but adds some interesting depth, giving us a complex and weighty character who dominates the play and lets us see things from his perspective.

In this production, Richard is played as an evil, cackling cripple without the subtleties that help us identify with him and see progress from chancer to madman. Conscience is an important theme of the play, yet the discussion of conscience by Clarence’s murderers is simply cut. At the same time some other scenes are left in that seem unnecessary padding in the production – which, at nearly three hours, did not need padding.

Perhaps my biggest criticism is that it felt at times like ‘Richard III, The Pantomime’. Many scenes were crudely played, such as where Edward makes peace among the factions. All played this clearly still loathing the other faction, and not taking any pains to hide it. This paints Edward as a fool and the others no more honest than Richard and deprives the audience of being one up by knowing that only Richard is being false. Another pantomime scene is that where the mayor and citizens persuade Richard to accept the crown. This scene made me truly cringe – and I had to suppress the desire to call out “He’s behind you!”. This was also one of a number of scenes where Richard, whenever talking about anything religious, lapsed into plainsong chant. Corny, if nothing else.

The above points lay within the remit of the director. As for the performances, there was the general problem with amateur Shakespeare of not enough actors who understand the text enough to convey meaning rather than just words. I was particularly disappointed that Clarence’s haunting dream speech before his murder was flat and uninspired, and Buckingham’s hands were too animated. Not that over use of hands was rare – many seemed to feel the need to unnecessarily indicate people or objects with their hands to make their meaning clear to the audience (Richard indicates his face when he uses the word ‘lineaments’).

Dave Crossfield handled the part of Richard well, although he seems to have ignored subtleties in the character. I was most impressed by Amy Heynes as Richard’s queen; she was the most believable character, reacting naturally to what was happening around her.

Despite the bad points, it is difficult not to enjoy seeing a performance of such a great play and I hope the Talisman will continue to tackle England’s greatest playwright.

Arsenic and Old Lace

by Joseph Kesselring; dir Mick Ives
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
9 – 14 July 2012

The black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace revolves around Mortimer Brewster, his elderly Aunts with their special elderberry wine recipe, an eccentric brother who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt, and another brother – the murderous Jonathan – who reappears after many years’ absence. A true classic made famous by the film of the same name starring Cary Grant.

Set designer John Ellam beautifully recreates the era and despite the rather slow start, the play soon galloped at speed, to the great delight of the audience. The wonderfully dotty Aunts, well played by Lorna Spenser and Geraldine Cousin, appeared so sweet and naïve that I almost wished myself invited for tea. Their innocent logic was frustrating to nephew Mortimer who failed to convince them of the seriousness of their actions.

Jonathan Brewster (Mark Plastow) was suitably scary and the slightly unusual use of music (Dik Thacker) added to the threatening presence of the Boris Karloff look-alike. Jonathan’s fall, after being coshed to the ground by one of the policemen, brought gasps of delight from the audience at how well he accomplished this drama – and not a broken tooth in sight.

On the downside, accents varied greatly and slipped hugely although they are understandably difficult to maintain throughout such a long piece. Trev Clarke as Mortimer Brewster did well but gave the impression that he had watched the movie a few too many times. However his performance during Officer O’Hara’s ‘play’ showed his great capability.

Many characters popped in and out, with special mention to Officer O’Hara (Jimmy Proctor) as the wannabe playwright destined to remain as a cop and pretty Elaine Harper (Karen Brooks) as the Mortimer’s ‘almost’ understanding girlfriend.

Mick Ives should be pleased with his casting and the overall production. The auditorium was buzzing as I left, even after all three acts. Well done Talisman, more like this please!

Arthur and George

by David Edgar, (adapted from novel by Julian Barnes); dir Matthew Salisbury
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
11 – 16 June 2012

The story in Arthur and George is apparently based on a true incident where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the world’s best-known fictional detective, turned sleuth himself in order to clear the name of one George Edalji, a half-Scottish, half-Indian lawyer who appears to have been subject to a racist campaign of persecution which resulted in him being falsely imprisoned on charges of animal mutilation.

The staging was fairly flexible with most of the action taking place at the left or right of the stage. Between these, at the back was an area where Jean Leckie (Rosemary Gowers), Arthur’s fiancée, and Muad Edalji (Lyndsey Gallagher), George’s sister, would provide occasional narration in the form of discussing the case between themselves. This was the least successful part of the production; it was flat and not captivating, making the somewhat complex story difficult to follow. Such are the perils of a play that seeks to be something of a chronicle rather than just a play. I can’t help thinking that this role may have been better served by having a narrator address the audience directly, allowing character to be bypassed in the interests of clarity.

As for the action parts of the story, things were more successful, although the main impressions I am left with are not those I was expecting. What came over most strongly was a portrait of Conan Doyle as a larger-than-life character obsessed with his own ego. His interest in the case and determination to get George the pardon he so desired seemed more to do with creating his own reputation as a detective to rival his own Holmes than with any kind of philanthropic motives. This was all handled admirably by Graham Underhill, who played the part.

Edalji (Michael Santos) was somewhat lost in the shadow of Conan Doyle, but a lot of this was due to his quieter and meeker character and in that respect came over well. The other, incidental characters were all played well enough, with Bill Davis as the local constable and possible conspirator in the persecution coming over the most strongly.

All in all an interesting, if complex play that left some good impressions – even if they weren’t what I was expecting.

Dancing at Lughnasa

by Brian Friel; dirAnn Brooks
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
23 – 28 April 2012

Dancing at Lughnasa (pron. Loonasa) is a touching story of Irish country life in the 1930s that alternates between narration and action. The narration is conducted by Michael as a grown man reminiscing about the small house in which he lived with his mother and four aunts. The rest of the time the action takes place on the set – a representation of that house. In these scenes, the seven-year-old Michael’s presence is mimed by the others and his words are spoken by the adult Michael from his position at the side.

The five sisters have a poor but contented lifestyle, and during the story this is interrupted by two men. One is old Uncle Jack, returned from many years of being a missionary in Uganda and finding it hard to adapt to life back at home. The other is Michael’s lively but unreliable father, Gerry, who occasionally visits, proposes to Michael’s mother, makes various promises and then departs to pursue his latest scheme for money or glory.

The overall feel is of the warmth that memory can bring as it glosses over hardships, and a longing a lost past. The five sisters act as an ensemble with varying degrees of success, but are overall adequate and occasionally excellent. The two sisters who stood out were Sarah Campbell as eldest sister Kate, convincingly carrying their world on her shoulders at times, and Emily Tuff as the irrepressible Maggie. Andrew Bayliss played Michael skilfully, but I felt that his style was a little harsh and jarred somewhat with the warmth of the scenes, which were after all meant to be his memories.

But the story would not move along without the two visitors. Gerry was reasonably well played by Tom Garner, who had charisma and energy but lacked some naturalism. Jack was played by experienced hand John Fenner and it showed. His fond memories of his time in Uganda and the tribal gatherings and rituals he took part in were really captivating and delivered with a pleasant innocence, oblivious to the scandalising effect this was having on the Catholic sensibilities of the sisters, particularly Kate.

A pleasant evening out, but with a little more polish it could have been a must-see.