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

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

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

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

On Your Honour

On Your Honourby Roger Leach & Colin Wakefield; dir Nigel Macbeth
Priory Theatre, Kenilworth
30 January – 9 February 2013
3 stars

On Your Honour is a fairly stock farce with all the usual kinds of things that you would expect: sexual infidelity, surprise visits, mistaken identities, hiding in adjoining rooms, states of undress, etc. This is not a criticism; farces definitely fall into the bums-on-seats category and this is a reasonable example of the genre set among the legal fraternity.

The setting is a hotel bedroom where Nick (Alec Brown) has arrived to attend a weekend legal conference. Leaving his wife to stay at his mother’s, he has brought along his sexy young secretary, Toni (Rebecca Gardner Tildesley), for a bit of extra-marital action while he’s not in the conference rooms. Plans are initially disturbed by Hugo (Stuart Lawson) from the next room, who wants Nick’s help at the conference to impress the Lord Chancellor. The arrival of Nick’s wife, Hilary (Jo Beckett), gets the action into full swing, and there are a few others to arrive yet – many of whom are related.

The key components of presenting a farce are pace and timing and, on that score, the cast performed reasonably well for the most part. As a whole, the men did a lot better than the women, with the exception of Rebecca Gardner Tildesley as the secretary, who carried off the part to a T. The other two women were not loud or clear enough to be heard clearly and introduced many unwelcome pauses. Alec Brown and Stuart Lawson handled their parts comfortably and were generally entertaining and convincing. The caricature of the Lord Chancellor, played by Graham Shurvinton, was larger than life and certainly kept the audience amused. For me though, I think that Ben Williams particularly shone as the hotel boy, forever returning with more champagne and smoked-salmon sandwiches and pursuing his own agenda.

The biggest let-down though was the lack of discipline among the cast. Corpsing was rife and there were periods where everyone on stage appeared to be giggling (or at least clearly fighting to suppress it). While it’s important for the cast to enjoy what they are doing, they really needed to have got all this stuff out of the way in rehearsals and exercised more self-control when an audience was present – the comedy itself is heightened this way. While we are all human and an occasional lapse can be overlooked, this was getting to be endemic. Enough said.

Still, the show was entertaining and it was fun.

Millicent Short

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

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

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

Season’s Greetings

Season's Greetingsby Alan Ayckbourn; dir Vanessa Comer
Fruitcake Theatre Co @ The Bear Pit
3 – 8 December 2012

Fruitcake is a relatively new company and this production of Ayckbourn’s ‘Season’s Greetings’ takes place in a church hall in Stratford (doubling up as The Bear Pit Theatre), making do with temporary seating and enough of a set to deliver the play. The consequence is that the evening is about the playwright, the actors and the director’s skill and turns out to be gold indeed.

The idea of yuletide catastrophe is irresistible for Ayckbourn. The potential within a convention that forces people together who have successfully avoided each other for fifty one weeks of the year is hugely attractive. People who share DNA, but little else, are forced into close proximity. Here nine relatives and friends, along with an unspecified number of neither-seen-nor-heard children make up the festive bunch.

There are moments of rib aching hilarity. Belinda (Ann Bowen) discovered attempting nocturnal, sexual fulfilment with Clive (José Pérez Diez)  under the Christmas tree and Bernard’s (Paul Tomlinson) frustrated attempt to deliver his puppet play stand out as does Phyllis (Pamella Hickson) convincing herself that all train drivers are homosexual. Rachel’s (Viv Tomlinson) woeful spinster with her supressed desires sublimated into an earnest bookishness had a touching truth. Also recognisable as a pair of blokes happier with a screwdriver and a child’s comic than dealing with the wrecked psyches of their nearest and dearest were Eddie (Dominic Skinner) and Neville (Mark Spriggs).

The director (Vanessa Comer) has treated the play as a natural piece of storytelling in which the events thrown up by bringing such people together is engrossing. Comedy is a consequence of this action rather than the purpose.

As enjoyable an evening in the theatre as I have been lucky enough to experience this year.

squirrel

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