Review – Glengarry Glen Ross, Playhouse Theatre, 16th November 2017

Glengarry Glen RossDavid Mamet’s written some cracking plays in the past. Do you remember Sexual Perversity in Chicago? American Buffalo? Duck Variations? (Just how many ways can you do it with a duck?) And then there’s Glengarry Glen Ross. It was only the second play I saw with the then Miss Duncansby (now Mrs Chrisparkle), back in April 1986. The first, the previous December, had been Wife Begins at Forty, a hilarious romp which we both loved. Was I onto a winning streak with the Mamet? With Tony Haygarth, Kevin McNally, and Derek Newark all in the cast, what could possibly go wrong? She hated it.

GGR Christian SlaterFast forward 31 years (yikes!) and this new production of GGR, the prospect of which didn’t titillate her at all. But my friend, the Squire of Sidcup, suggested that it might be fun to go to see it, and I agreed. And I’m very glad I did, because this production wiped the floor with the original one, and is full of meticulous detail, superb performances and a tangible feel for the cut-throat world of Real Estate.

GGR Don WarringtonStructurally, it’s a lopsided play. The first act contains just three short scenes, set in a Chinese Restaurant (absolutely beautifully designed by Chiara Stephenson – you can almost smell the chop suey), where the salesmen go to discuss their nefarious wheeler-dealer activities, concocting plans to outdo the others, agreeing percentage cuts of percentage cuts in return for blind-eyes or insider knowledge; or maybe even a plot to break into the office overnight and steal all the preciously hidden “leads” – which could make a top salesman hundreds of thousands of dollars. The third scene is between the most successful salesman, Ricky Roma, and a poor sap of a geezer who just happened to be sitting in the restaurant. Before he knows it, he is being tempted with property beyond the dreams of avarice.

GGR Kris MarshallThat all takes place in a space of half an hour, and then it’s time for the interval. Originally (I understand) the interval was half an hour long and there were criticisms that it obstructed the natural flow of the story. For Thursday’s matinee, the interval was just twenty minutes, which felt fine. The second act takes place back at the office; there’s been a break-in, the leads are gone, but who stole them? And how will that team of competitive salesmen ever work together again?

GGR Stanley TownsendThe transformation from restaurant to tatty office during the interval is a remarkable feat, as the floor is strewn with papers, loose files, cabinets are overflowing with disturbed documentation; a clock on the back wall keeps time, and twenty minutes in to the act someone says it’s 12:15 and you look at the clock and it precisely is! That’s what I call attention to detail.

GGR Christian Slater and Daniel RyanThe big attraction in this production is the presence of Christian Slater as Ricky Roma. I’m not overly familiar with his work but, boy, is he a classy actor. The confidence, the ease, the charisma that he exudes is so impressive that he’s just a delight to watch and to hear. Roma is a total sleazeball but Mr Slater still makes him incredibly likeable, and even when you know he’s weaving a web of deceit around his victim, strangely, you’re still on his side. That’s a great achievement. His victim is the excellent Daniel Ryan, as Lingk, whom Mrs C and I last saw in Chichester’s The House They Grew Up In; he really is the master in portraying a put-upon underdog. There are also strong performances by Kris Marshall as the angularly unpleasant boss John Williamson, arrogantly patronising all his staff; Oliver Ryan as the impatient, gun-wielding local cop brought in to sort out the mess; and super-sub Mark Carlisle, effortlessly stepping into the role of the snide, cantankerous Dave Moss whilst Robert Glenister is indisposed.

GGR Christian Slater and Kris MarshallI really loved the indomitable Don Warrington as the hapless George Aaronow, perpetually confused and startled by life, almost frozen into stasis by the perplexity of everything around him, seeing the last dregs of what was once a decent career slip through his fingers. The brief Act One scene between Mr Warrington and Mr Carlisle was sheer joy, as they volleyed lines and responses back and forth to each other like a verbal tennis match. But perhaps the big surprise of the show is the brilliant performance by Stanley Townsend as Shelly Levene, glorying in the minutiae of his fabulous sale, getting a truly mellifluous resonance around his words as he proudly revelled in his moment. It’ll be a long time before I forget his recollections of that crumbcake.

Playhouse TheatreIt takes a great production to bring this play to life; and this production is teeming with it. Shocking, surprising, gasp-inducing and littered with laugh out loud moments – a really impressive work. It’s running till 3rd February 2018 and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly!

Review – This Evil Thing, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th November 2017

This Evil Thing ProgrammeI have no information about my ancestors’ involvement in World War One. All my grandparents died before I was born. My maternal grandfather was born in 1900 so would have been too young for conscription and didn’t enjoy good health anyway. Of my paternal grandfather I know hardly anything. About World War Two I know a lot more. My father served in the Royal Navy and was totally scarred by his experiences which I researched and wrote about here and here. All I know of my maternal grandfather’s WW2 is that he was stationed at Stirling Castle, saw ghosts and was never the same man again. My mother was in the ATS and told me how she once spent Christmas Day sending out death notices to grieving families. Was she sympathetic to the stance taken by conscientious objectors? Absolutely not. Cowards who made it worse for themselves was her uncompromising attitude; and I’m sure she was in the majority.

TET1As Michael Mears points out, in his exceptionally fascinating one-man play This Evil Thing, in our generation, we have not been tested. If we were called up to go to a war where we’re simply cannon fodder, how would we react? Would we put Queen and Country first? Would we engage in acts of disobedience? It really makes you think hard. If the Falklands Conflict had escalated out of hand and turned into full-scale war between the UK and Argentina, I was the perfect age to be conscripted; and I do remember it being a very active worry.

Michael MearsMichael Mears confesses from the start (if confession is the right word) that he is a pacifist, and he too wonders how strong his resolve would be if faced with the personal challenge in the same way that the brave (there’s no question as to their bravery) conscientious objectors of the First World War. This beautifully constructed work tells us the stories of, amongst others, Bert Brocklesby, schoolteacher and Methodist lay preacher; James Brightmore, a solicitor’s clerk from Manchester; and Norman Gaudie, who played football for Sunderland reserves; they were also CO’s. There were many others like them. We learn how they are abused for their principles, how they were packed off to France, unknown to the British Government, of the methods used to try to persuade them to change their minds, the punishments they received, and what happened after the war to those that survived. We also meet luminaries like Bertrand Russell and Clifford Allen, Chairman of the No-Conscription Fellowship, vigorously campaigning for alternatives to conscription; with Russell dodging both literal and metaphorical bullets in his dealings with Prime Minister Asquith. After 80 quick minutes, you feel so much better informed about this much misunderstood and swept-under-the-carpet aspect of the First World War.

This Evil Thing TextThe production was, by all accounts, a wow at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and in many ways it’s the perfect fringe show. A blank stage, with just a few crates and packing cases utilised imaginatively, creates all sorts of settings. I love it when it’s up to the audience to interpret a minimalist set, because not even the world’s finest designers can flesh out the appearance of a stage quite like your own imagination can. It was a charming addition to the staging to have some very realistic props, like the elegant teacup and the incongruous sherry glass, which are brought into sharp focus when juxtaposed with the imaginariness of the set. The text is intelligent and creative, thought-provoking and, from time to time, surprisingly funny. The whole concept of a naked Bertrand Russell addressing Asquith with just a hanky covering his modesty was wonderfully quirky.

TET2But what really makes the theatrical experience so vivid is Mr Mears’ brilliant portrayals of over forty characters, each with their own voice and accent, tone and style. He makes us believe those people are really there. We knew that he’s an excellent actor from his previous appearances in A Tale of Two Cities and The Herbal Bed (actually, he was the best thing about both productions), but in This Evil Thing he steps that acting skill up several notches. Mr Mears’ commitment to his own material – and the verbatim testimonies of many of the people involved – is simply a pleasure to behold.

Michael MearsAnd what of that rhetorical question? If the nations collide again like they did a hundred years ago, would you, a person who respects life and would never commit a crime against another human being, refuse to take arms against your fellow man? Moreover, would you see your friends and relatives die for the nation’s cause whilst you exempted yourself from that responsibility? Brocklesby tosses a coin to help make that decision. I think I’d look at a photo of my dad in his navy uniform and ask his advice. With any luck, it’ll never happen.

This terrific little theatrical nugget is currently on a tour of small theatres, churches and Quakers Meeting Houses in England and Wales. Highly recommended!

Review – Twelfth Night, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 9th November 2017

Twelfth NightTwelfth Night is one of those true, perennial crowd pleasers. It lends itself so well to modern reinvention, in new settings and new eras, and when you’ve got a central comedic role like Malvolio it’s a gift for a grumpy comic actor to breathe new life into it. It has songs – so you can make as much or as little of them as you want; it has a girl dressed as a boy making up to another girl on behalf of another boy (that’s bound to lead to trouble); it has drunks and idiots; it has separated twins who dress alike even though they haven’t seen each other for ages; it even has a Fool. If you were to cut up little pieces of all the Shakespeare plays throw them up in the air and then try to put all the most typical aspects back together into one play, you’d come up with Twelfth Night.

Orsino and CesarioChristopher Luscombe’s new production draws inspiration from the late Victorian era. Orsino’s Illyria is a Wildean, Swinburnean palace of decadence, where the Duke paints pictures of pretty young men with few clothes on and despite his protestations of love for his countess seems naturally more attracted to fellas. As a result, the whole Viola/Cesario setup takes on a greater significance. When Viola as Cesario is telling the entranced Duke about how she/he plans to return to Olivia to woo her even more, the Duke gets closer and closer to Cesario until he can’t resist but plant a big sloppy kiss on his/her lips, much to Cesario’s (and ours) dumbstruck surprise. Oh those Illyrians.

Sebastian and ViolaIn more Victorian design, the garden at Olivia’s country estate backs on to a beautifully realised minor extension to the Temperate House at Kew Gardens; and Feste, her jester, here is cast as her munshi ( Victoria and Abdul has a lot to answer for). That reassessment of the role of Feste absolutely makes sense in this setting. Shipwrecked foreigners Viola and Sebastian have clearly travelled from the East Indies or thereabout, with their stunning Maharajan robes looking strangely none the worse for their experience. Britain in the late 19th century was fascinated by all things oriental; it affected their costumes, their designs, their artefacts, even their drugs. Simon Higlett’s magnificent sets and costumes capture both the spirit of that fascination and the general sense of Victorian England, with the train station, garden statuary, Orsino’s studio and so on. I loved the use of the old-fashioned Polyphon player to provide Feste his backing tracks – a really nice touch.

MalvolioAs seems to be on trend at the moment, we opened with Viola’s arrival, off the shipwreck, for the first scene and then went to Orsino’s studio for his music be the food of love scene, rather than the other way around, as Shakespeare had it. Which among us is going to tell Shakespeare he got it wrong? This way round is much better; it somehow allows for a greater understanding of the characters and the opening scenario if we meet the earnest Viola first and then move on to the louche Orsino.

Malvolio crossgarteredAs in virtually every Shakespearean production nowadays there are a few tinkerings with the script or characterisations; and they are all successful and constructive – apart from just one aspect, in my humble opinion. There’s a lot of incidental music; and nine times out of ten it’s either too loud, or the actors’ amplification is too soft. Many speeches are drowned out by the music – Feste seemed to me to be the biggest casualty – and it’s simply too intrusive. On occasion it’s almost as though they’re trying to make it into a musical; that doesn’t work as there simply isn’t enough music to achieve that. Musically, it’s neither one thing nor the other and I was a little irritated at that imbalance. As usual, as Malvolio’s plight develops, we see him as more sinned against the sinning (yes, I know, different play), and Olivia’s final assessment that he has been most notoriously abus’d is quite right. However, this Twelfth Night is totally played for laughs, and the finale involves the whole cast singing all the songs again (really?) so any lingering sadness for Malvolio gets kicked into touch straight away. Maybe the production sacrifices a little of the play’s darker side so that it can end with one foot in the air going oi, oi, which isn’t necessarily for the best.

Sir TobyWhere this production really does come into its own is with some superb performances and truly entertaining characterisations. Let’s start with Malvolio – Adrian Edmondson in that role sounds like a dream come true and will rightly encourage plenty of bums on seats. He’s wonderfully dour as the strict puritan steward, dishing out death stares to reprobates, straightening out the angle of a stationary teapot with pernickety accuracy; and his transformation into a yellow stocking’d, cross garter’d, grinning ninny is very funny and not remotely over the top.

OliviaI absolutely loved Kara Tointon as Olivia. Her girlish relish at her constant meetings with Cesario is a sheer joy; her facial expressions really share that sense of physical enjoyment! John Hodgkinson puts his height and his vocal power into a strong performance as Sir Toby Belch, making what can be a somewhat tedious character genuinely funny; farting noisily and uncontrollably as he leaves the stage. Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is another genuinely funny characterisation, collapsing through drink whenever it’s necessary, teetering across the stage in a discreet attempt to escape, mangling his words as he juggles dignity with debauchery. There’s a lovely scene where Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Sarah Twomey’s gutsy scullery maid Fabia have to blend in with the broken statues in Olivia’s garden in order to hide from Malvolio. Simple physical comedy in many respects, but beautifully done.

MariaVivien Parry, last seen as the hilariously over-ambitious Mrs Walsingham in Half a Sixpence, brings a huge dollop of Welsh intrigue to the role of Maria; she couldn’t have been more dramatic (and indeed hilarious) in her account of how Malvolio has fallen for her trick – and it’s a really lovely reading of the part. Beruce Khan’s Feste is suitably mystic and exotic, combining the tradition Fool elements with a little touch of munshi magic. Dinita Gohil brings a natural dignity and nobility to the role of Viola; I really admired her clarity of diction with just that hint of Indian refinement that’s particularly pleasing to my ear. Esh Alladi’s Sebastian is a delightfully straightforward chap who can’t believe his luck with Olivia, and he exudes thorough decency whenever he’s on stage. Hats off to the casting department for uniting Mr Alladi and Ms Gohil in these two roles; with their similar heights and frames you really could believe they were twins. And there’s an excellent performance from Nicholas Bishop as Orsino, overflowing with artiness, always confusing the girl for the boy; a perfectly underplayed Victorian version of a Restoration fop.

Sir AndrewThe press night audience absolutely loved it, and it does fill the theatre with genuine contented vibes and a wonderful sense of good humour. I’d just like them to hold back on the musical intrusions a little; apart from that, what’s not to love?

P. S. Interesting to note from the programme how many of the cast of this show will also be appearing in the RSC’s A Christmas Carol, which opens next month; the two productions being played in repertoire until February. I’ll look forward to seeing that!

Production photos by Manual Harlan

Review – Blood Brothers, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th November 2017

Blood BrothersI remember hearing a broadcast on Radio 3 once (I know, get me) where the announcer was introducing a performance of Handel’s Water Music. The question arose: why do we have to hear Handel’s Water Music again, it’s so commonplace and everyone knows it, let’s hear something more experimental? The announcer’s response? “Just remember, every time Handel’s Water Music is played, some young person is hearing it for the first time, and what a beautiful moment that is for them”. That’s so true, and it’s the same with Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. It’s been around since the early 80s and hardly ever stops touring in some guise or other; surely we’ve had enough of it now? For the answer to that, gentle reader, you only had to hear the shocked gasps from (I would guess) at least half the packed audience at the Derngate on Monday night to tell you that every time a performance of Blood Brothers takes place, someone sees it for the first time; and what emotional nourishment it provides.

Blood-Brothers-group-shotThis was the third time we’ve seen it, and it’s been too long a gap. Our first experience was at the Albery (now Noel Coward) theatre in 1988, with Kiki Dee as Mrs Johnstone and Con O’Neill as Mickey. Our second was in 1995, at the Apollo (now back to being called the New) in Oxford, with Clodagh Rodgers as Mrs J and David Cassidy (yes, the David Cassidy) as Mickey. Of course, the first production had Barbara Dickson in the role; and this current touring version stars Lyn Paul. Honestly, where would Mrs Johnstone be without great recording stars of the 1970s?!

Each Mrs J has her own unique characterisation and approach. Kiki Dee was punchy and aggressive, a true fighter. Clodagh Rodgers had a faux-refinement and aspirations to sophistication which meant she had further to fall at the end. Lyn Paul’s Mrs J is running on empty from the start, with dreary memories of her wretch of an ex-husband, exhausted from looking after all those kids and genuinely despairing at the prospect of another two mouths to feed. By the time the show ends, Ms Paul has wrung all her emotions out and is a defeated husk. That’s probably an extremely realistic interpretation.

sean jonesThis show has always had a special place in our hearts, especially Mrs Chrisparkle’s, as, at the age of five, she, along with her parents and brothers, were rehoused from their flat above Fazakerley Post Office, to 65 Skelmersdale Lane – or at least Flamstead, in Skem. Just like the Johnstones, she remembers the green fields, and the fresh air, and so much space everywhere. Away from the muck and the dirt and the bloody trouble, it really was a Bright New Day for everyone.

Dean ChisnallLooking back now, from the viewpoint of today’s 21st century national austerity, to the strikes, unemployment and poverty of the 1980s, nothing much seems to have changed. After Miss Jones was dismissed from her job, despite being a perfect poppet, as just another sign of the times, I don’t suppose she got another job. The only difference today is that today’s Mr Lyons will be creating his own dismissal letters on Word rather than dictating them to a fetching young secretary. That’s progress. And a wealthy upbringing and education is still much more likely to lead to a successful career than playing on the street, being cheeky with your teacher and becoming factory fodder – or today’s equivalent, zero hours contracts in the gig economy. That’s life, but it’s not progress. The essence of the show is to hold up a mirror of nature against nurture, and value kindness, decency, and friendship. In our land of postcode lotteries, where health, benefits and education can depend on which side of the road you live on, that question why did you give me away, I could have been him? seems more relevant than ever today.

I was very struck this time by how the story is completely infused with elements of superstition all the way through. From the portentous saying that if twins separated at birth learn that they were once one of a pair they will both immediately die, to Mrs Johnstone’s horror at seeing new shoes on the table, to looking a magpie in the eye, to the kids’ games where you can get up again if you cross your fingers, folklore and fear rules the roost. I’d always realised it was heavily melodramatic, starting with the end tableau (although a little more stylised than I’ve seen before), so you know there’s never going to be a happy ending. The gloomy, menacing presence of the Narrator is a constant threat and intrusion on their lives, coming right up close to the characters, like a perpetual harbinger of doom, a bad dream that unsettles and disturbs their waking hours. There is light and shade in this show, but shade wins every time.

Danielle CorlassThe performances are superb throughout. I must confess that, at first, I was not entirely sure about Lyn Paul’s presentation of Mrs Johnstone. Her Mrs J is already thoroughly exhausted by everything that life has thrown at her right at the start of the show, and a vital spark was lacking. But as the show developed, I could see that her quiet, serious portrayal was absolutely correct to the character. And what a voice! It’s so powerful, yet so pure; and so perfectly suited to Willy Russell’s amazing lyrics and melodies. It’s a really wonderful performance.

I was also very impressed with Sean Jones’ Mickey. It’s a role with so many elements and so vital to the success of the show. Willy Russell requires us to love Mickey right from the very start – and we do. Thoroughly believable as that irrepressible eight year old, seeing how high he can spit in the air, never going anywhere without his imaginary horse; then the easily embarrassed teenager at a dirty movie, ashamed of his pubescent body; the enthusiastic young worker, doing the overtime and planning on spending it on great Christmas parties; and then, when the harsh reality of life kicks in, the aggressive, jealous Mickey who realises that his life will lack the texture and depth of his best friend’s; and the broken Mickey relying on medication to keep his brain from dancing. Only Five Ages of Man for Mickey as he dies so young, but Sean Jones nails them all absolutely. We’d all like to have a best friend like Mickey – the younger one, that is; someone who makes you laugh, someone who’ll always be on your side; but isn’t a goody-two-shoes either. No wonder the audience is devastated at the end.

Sarah Jane BuckleyIt’s very difficult to portray the eight-year-old Eddie effectively; he’s so posh and innocent, and so different from Mickey that our instant reaction is to mock him rather than side with him. I thought that Mark Hutchinson’s characterisation of him was so wet, and so soft, that it was very unlikely that Mickey would have taken to him. However, once he becomes Eddie the teenager, that’s when he comes into his own. Shag the vicar! Eddie has one of the most telling songs in the show, the restrained and delicate I’m Not Saying a Word, and I really enjoyed Mr Hutchinson’s performance. One character whom in previous productions I’ve always thought of as a bit of an irritant and easily ignored, is Mrs Lyons, but in this production Sarah Jane Buckley gives such a tremendous performance that she is also equally vital to the success of the show. She brings out all the character’s fears and weaknesses; and you readily agree with the diagnosis of others that she probably needs mental health treatment. Ms Buckley also has an amazing voice and is a true credit to the production.

danny-taylor-sammy-sean-jones-mickeyDanielle Corlass’ Linda develops very believably from a squeaky but spirited little girl into a teenager with a massive crush on Mickey, and then into a smart and positive young woman – a very good performance. Dean Chisnall is the least Scouse Narrator I’ve seen (singing “you know the devil’s got your number” and not “nombare”) but has a strong stage presence and great singing voice; and Daniel Taylor’s Sammy, who was always a bad lot, turns that childhood bully into an adult hoodlum with sadly predictable authenticity.

lyn-paulThat massive gasp of shock when the brothers died at the end said it all. The audience were so enthralled and wrapped up in what was going on that they couldn’t keep their emotions in. It’s an excellent production of a staggeringly good show, among the very best musicals of all time. It’s enjoying a week at the Royal and Derngate, before continuing its tour to Nottingham, Sunderland, Bath, Belfast, Weston-super-Mare, Aylesbury, Darlington, Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Rhyl, Carlisle, Barnstaple, Truro, Wolverhampton, Ipswich, Southampton and reaching Manchester in the middle of May. I can’t recommend it too strongly but do book early because everyone else will!

Review – Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Out of Joint, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2017

Rita Sue and Bob TooSome plays quickly date within a few years; others grow in stature and relevance over the years. We hadn’t seen the film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too so all I knew to expect was two young girls/women having an affair with an older man. Andrea Dunbar’s original play dates from 1982, and has been revised and edited by John Hollingworth for a 21st century audience. I was really surprised to discover a robust and daring play that nevertheless treads a delicate balance to reveal the truth about a way of life on a Bradford council estate.

RSB3In a nutshell, Rita and Sue are two fifteen-year old girls who babysit for Bob and Michelle, who, despite going out a lot, enjoy a fairly unhappy marriage. Michelle has retreated, sexually, from the relationship and Bob, who’s (apparently) 27 is constantly on the lookout for alternative sources of nookie. Before the play starts, he’s already been unfaithful – many times over – with another woman. But as Bob is driving Rita and Sue back home after their babysitting stint, he suggests they go visit the moors, which the girls are only too willing to do (they know what he’s up to); and once they’re there, he proposes sex – again with the same response from the girls; and thereby starts an affair with both of them at the same time that lasts a number of months. Will Michelle guess what’s going on? Will the girls’ parents? You’ll have to catch the play to find out.

RSB4With the revelations about such monsters as Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, we, as a society, have had to re-evaluate our younger days and reconsider what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. The uncomfortable truth is that this play asks us to laugh at, maybe even sympathise with, a serial paedophile. There’s a moment when the girls recognise that they have to keep quiet about their threesome activity, because if the police find out, Bob could go to jail and they could go into care. So they know full well the illegality of what they’re doing; but of course, sometimes added danger and criminality provide an extra frisson. Without giving away the entire plot, it’s fascinating from today’s viewpoint that it appears that no one involved in the story gets a final come-uppance; despite all the immorality and recklessness, in the main there’s actually no harm done at the end of the day.

RSB5So does that make it an immoral play? It was written by a very young woman with first-hand knowledge of living in the Bradford estates, where it takes place; Andrea Dunbar fell pregnant at the age of fifteen, and had two children (from different fathers) whilst still a teenager. She knew that life very well, and wrote these semi-autobiographical accounts to express the reality of life on Brafferton Arbor in the Buttershaw estate. If it is an immoral play, then it’s because it simply reflects an immoral lifestyle. But if that lifestyle is a true depiction of what went on, then is it immoral to tell the truth? I think everyone who sees this play will have their own answer to that.

RSB8It’s a chirpy little production, with its brightness nowhere more apparent than with the opening scene, where all six characters appear, in their own little worlds, getting ready to go out of an evening, to the sounds of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love. They preen in front of the mirror, or sing into their hairbrush; Sue’s mum huffs and puffs in her housecoat, her dad idly dad-dances down the pub. The set behind them shows two blocks of flats with the lights in windows of various rooms and apartments coming on and going off; and in between, what you could almost describe as a 1970s mural of the country moors where the louse Bob will take the girls for their regular sessions of hows-your-father. The regular reminder of some great 80s tunes really does help set the scene, with their false optimism and working-class bravado. When Rita, Sue and Bob too reach the moors, and all agree to have it off, I couldn’t help but admire the stagecraft of the scene. James Atherton gives a very realistic illusion of Bob pounding his member between each of the girls’ legs. It’s a clever combination of slightly shocking, very funny and weirdly hypnotic as they wrapped their white-socked feet around his naked bum.

RSB7All six actors give great performances full of character, humour and attack. Taj Atwal’s Rita is a lovely study of someone who’s almost demure and coquettish and a little bit squeamish but rather innocently goes about getting as much sex as possible as though it were an extra bag of sweets or a naughty glass of cider. Gemma Dobson’s Sue is a little more adventurous and manipulative, just sitting and waiting for Bob to come and do the honours, like a diner expects the waiter to bring his food in a timely manner. The two have a great connection between each other, with wonderful comic timing and a really fluid delivery of their lines; you truly believe they are best pals in each other’s pockets all day. The aforementioned Mr Atherton’s Bob is a suitably cocky so-and-so, and if he does feel any guilt to his regular playing away with underage girls, he hides it well.

RSB6Sally Bankes gives a strong performance as Sue’s mum, giving her wastrel husband what-for at every opportunity, dishing out tough love to her daughter and blaming everything on Rita. David Walker also gives a great performance as Dad, trying to rule with a rod of iron and lots of bluster but essentially weak and useless. And I really liked Samantha Robinson as Michelle, unable to stop loving her wretch of a husband despite his infidelities, putting on the bravest of faces when everyone else around her holds her in contempt.

RSB2At 80 minutes with no interval, it isn’t quite a full evening’s entertainment and feels more like one element of a day at the fringe; that said, I really admired the tautness of the story-telling, with no scene or speech wasted, keeping the pace and content up throughout the whole show. Its run at Northampton is now over, but the tour continues to Doncaster, York, Derby, the Royal Court, Huddersfield and Mold between now and February. A very strong production of a fascinating, disturbing and funny play. Definitely recommended!

RSB1P. S. The man in front of us really got quite carried away in those early sex scenes. “GO ON MY SON” he shouted; “HE’S GOOD AT IT” he confided (not very quietly) to his lady friend; “I WISH I HAD HIS JOB” was his final analysis of the merits or otherwise of being Bob. There are times when it’s better to think these things privately rather than to share it with the group.

Production photos by Richard Davenport

Review – Theatrical Knights, Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, 2nd November 2017

Theatrical KnightsLast night was my first visit to the Playhouse Theatre since its recent, fresh redecoration – and I must say, nice work guys, very comfortable and chic! This week’s play is Theatrical Knights, a comedy thriller by Keith Lipscombe. What’s that? You’ve never heard of him? He’s written three plays, but I believe this is the first time any of them have actually been produced on stage – so it’s a true theatrical debut. And that’s not the only debut on offer; the director is none other than local hero and alternative blog source of everything theatrical in Northampton, Kevin Evans, a.k.a. A Small Mind at the Theatre. It was a no-brainer that I would go along to see what the combination of a rookie playwright and even rookier director would come up with.

The betSome plays remind you of others, right? Theatrical Knights was written as an homage to the late Anthony Shaffer, and traces of his classic thriller Sleuth are written through this play like a stick of rock. There’s a clothed dummy, weapons on the wall, a clown’s mask and a slightly curious relationship between an older and a younger man. There are also some slightly spurious details in the programme’s dramatis personae to keep you guessing. However, Theatrical Knights is very much its own play, and if you think you’re going to see Sleuth 2, you’ll be very surprised. The knights in question are writer and luvvie Sir Tom Seymour, a little down on his uppers as his most recent theatrical projects have all collapsed in a heap; and national treasure Sir Anthony Randolph, that rare being who rose through the ranks to become one of our best loved actors, excelling not only in the West End and on TV, but also in Hollywood. We’re truly lucky to have him with us at this discreet little venue.

These two old fellas keep their friendship (such as it is) going by a series of quips, stings and digs and by the rivalry that causes them to bet against each other. When we first meet Sir Tom, he’s clearly had an accident, and has lost his mobile in the back of a taxi the night before, presumably following some kind of crash. Sir Tom rang his own mobile number, the cabbie answered, and they arranged that he would bring it over. Meanwhile, Sir Tony wants to see him, ostensibly to make sure his old mucker is ok, and his visit coincides with the cab driver returning the mobile; so far, so straightforward. However, just before the cab driver arrives, the two knights talk of how this would be the perfect resolution of their bet. Other details as to what that all means are scarce. Sir Tony goes off, to listen in on their conversation; Lou the cabbie arrives with the phone, Sir Tom turns on the charm and full hospitality and insists on Lou having something to eat, to drink, and so on… and then things start to get out of hand. But exactly what and how, I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to come and see it!

Sir TomI was really impressed by the attention to detail that has obviously gone in to the staging of this play, and creating the illusion that the two knights really are real. The walls are covered with posters of Sir Tom’s greatest theatrical hits; the programme has their extensive biographical details; if you arrive half an hour before curtain up you can see a video of an edition of Letts Talk, where renowned arts critic Fabiana Letts hosts a chat show discussion between the two old geezers, and you can even see an extended clip from one of Sir Tom’s big successes, Laughing Matter. (You can actually watch it here if you like!)

Sir TonyIt’s a well-written play, with plenty of amusing and creative dialogue and it weaves its little intricacies very successfully and surprisingly. The different characteristics of the two knights are nicely fleshed out, giving the two actors plenty of opportunity to revel in their individual personalities. Robin Hillman conveys Sir Tom’s waspish and petulant nature with laconic glee; deep down, I don’t think he’s a very nice chap at all! Adrian Wyman really captures Sir Tony’s hail-fellow-well-met temperament, with some beautiful false modesty and some wonderfully stagey regional accents that only a national treasure would get away with. And then there’s Nathan Stroud as Lou, the cab driver; an innocent abroad caught up in the antagonism between the two older men, but with a few secrets of his own up his sleeve.

Laughing MatterAct Two includes a brilliant little coup de theatre, really well executed by Messrs Wyman and Stroud, which you can’t quite believe happened, even after the actors show us how it was done. If I have a little quibble about the play, I’m not sure that Lou’s explanation of why Sir Tom will be found guilty really holds water; wouldn’t the real murderer’s DNA be traced inside the gloves? And the resolution of the play involves a switch to personal redemption issues and general niceness; and I think the audience might be hoping for something a trifle more maleficent.

Nevertheless, it’s a very entertaining debut all round, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Mr Lipscombe and Mr Evans creating more theatrical mayhem in the future.

P. S. Have you watched the clip of Laughing Matter yet? I played the murderer!

Review – Balm in Gilead, University of Northampton BA Acting (Creative Acting) Third Year Students, Maidwell Hall, Northampton, 2nd November 2017

Balm in GileadOne of the great things about theatre, gentle reader, is that you never stop learning. The title of this 1965 play by Lanford Wilson comes from the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 46, v. 11 (that’s what Wikipedia says anyway, so it must be right) and is the name of an ancient cure-all medicine first used in the mountainous Gilead region of present-day Jordan. Who knew? It’s also the name of a traditional African American spiritual, where the poor suffering singer looks to the balm of Gilead to heal their sin-sick soul. A starkly ironic title then, for this play (which has been brought up to date by the Creative Acting team and set in the UK) observing the criss-cross lives of addicts, pushers and sex workers as they socialise, fight and support each other at a drop-in café.

Joe RobertsThe Maidwell Hall was transformed into a vibrant and dynamic stage area, with seating on three sides, all the café tables spread in the centre, but also with satellite acting areas; some remote bedrooms and refuges, and some pathetic (in that it wouldn’t keep you warm) cardboard box housing. At one stage we were asked to leave our seats and walk back towards the entrance where a hotel bedroom scene unfolded; it must have felt strange for the couple in bed suddenly to have thirty odd strangers just march into their bedroom. I felt the whole staging gave the play an immersive edge that always appeals to me.

Charlie-Dawn SadlerIt’s a challenging play, with so much going on all at the same time, and so many concurrent conversations striving for our attention, that at first I felt disappointed in myself at not being able to concentrate on everything that’s going on. But I guess that discomfort is what the writer wants to you feel; if you were at a party, say, and groups of people were having various conversations all at the same time, you wouldn’t expect to be able to eavesdrop and comprehend them all. This also added to that edginess that permeates the play. The whole cast excelled at creating a sense of disparate, passionate conversation between couples, spilling over into small groups, and sometimes uniting everyone in the same rowdy exchange; very effective organised chaos.

Bobbie-Lee ScottAt the heart of the play is Joe, played by Joe Roberts; a seemingly decent enough guy who clearly knows right from wrong but in that environment it’s hard always to do the right thing; and, essentially, he’s weak. He’s got himself involved with an unseen underworld boss by name of Frank, whom he owes for the supply of some addictive substance that Joe passes on to his customers at 100% markup. Nice work if you can get it, and Joe keeps it reasonably discreet. But is he savvy enough both to service his clientele and to grease the palm of his supplier in a timely manner? After meeting new girl in town Darlene, a classy American who’s a definite upgrade on the usual girls he meets (no offence, ladies), he decides it’s time to change his ways – especially as a night of passion with Darlene means he misses a vital meeting with his underworld bosses. Another lesson from this play is that every action has its consequences; for Joe, the consequences are considerable.

Jemma BentleyCharlie-Dawn Sadler gives a strong performance as Darlene, nicely balancing the character’s superior nature with just a hint of vulnerability mixed with genuine warmth. She has to deliver a very long solo speech which completely breaks up the pattern of the rest of the play; it’s a tough call to hold the audience’s attention for that length of time but Ms Sadler nailed it. Mr Roberts brings out some of the lightness and comedy of what is a growingly dismal situation, and he took the role with great confidence and presence. I’ve no idea if Mr Roberts is Liverpudlian or if Ms Sadler is American, but if not their accents were tremendous and beautifully sustained. It would be fascinating to see them perform other roles in different accents.

Amber Jane HarrisonThe production benefits from the fact all the roles were very convincingly performed and, I think, for the first time for me watching a large cast of Northampton Uni students in a production, there wasn’t one performer who underdelivered. But I would like to mention a few names who stood out for me. I particularly liked Bobbie-Lee Scott as Dopey; her role requires her to address the audience directly which she did with magnificent cheekiness and great comic timing – there were some wonderful asides that felt off-the-cuff but I’m sure weren’t. Jemma Bentley as Lyn, the café proprietor, gives a strong performance of natural authority, and filling out the character so that we really understood her; a calming influence where required, but a Rottweiler if she’s crossed.

James Alistair WalkerFor technical vocal clarity I appreciated the clear and powerful delivery by Amber Jane Harrison as Ann, the strident prostitute with a soft side; and, in relatively minor roles, I also thought that both Tiana Thompson as Rust and Adam Holmes as Martin (I hope I have identified those characters correctly!) were really convincing as hopeless-case junkies to whom your heart went out as they crashed through life. But for me the star performanceTiana Thompson was by James Alistair Walker as Franny, with a truly strong stage presence in his day-job appearance as Frank’s enforcer – never before have steady, deliberate footsteps sounded so intimidating – and even more so when leading her spare time drag/transvestite lifestyle. Clear, cutting, precise delivery, with a great feel for the language and total control of his space. Definitely One To Watch.

Adam HolmesIt’s a very thought-provoking play and surprisingly well transported from its original American setting to a very credible and contemporary British equivalent. There’s great commitment from the cast to make the whole show work, and, although it’s not always a comfortable watch, it’s always compelling. Congratulations all!