Review – The Provoked Wife, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 9th May 2019

The Provoked WifeWas there nothing that Sir John Vanbrugh couldn’t do? Architect of such national treasures as Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, writer of such enduring Restoration Comedies like The Relapse and The Provoked Wife, political activist, even working for the East India Company in Gujarat. He must have been such a Smart Alec.

MusicLet’s get up to date with the plot: Lady Brute, tired of being ignored and despised by her waster of a husband, Sir John, decides to take a lover to spice up her life and to give him a virtual bloody nose into the bargain. She tries to instigate a liaison with Constant, a gentleman, whilst his friend Heartfree, who’s something of a misanthrope – especially against women, falls for Lady Brute’s confidante and niece Bellinda. To add to the mess, Constant and Heartfree are also pals with Sir John. The plot, as it so often does, thickens. Meanwhile, the vain and silly Lady Fancyfull, inspired by her companion Mademoiselle, also wishes to try her luck with Heartfree. Their plans all fall apart in a series of farcical meetings, with ladies hiding behind arbours, and gentlemen heeding the ever-familiar instruction to secrete themselves “into the closet”. But, as Browning was to ask 150-odd years later, what of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

Sir JohnThe Provoked Wife was Vanbrugh’s second comedy, first performed in 1697, with what was, at the time, an all-star cast. The whole nature of restoration comedy, a natural rebellion against the Cromwellian frugality and puritanism of a few decades earlier, required as much careless wit, bawdy and foppery as you could cram into a few hours. Stock characters abound, their names proclaiming their characteristics; but even so, they have hearts too, and social disgrace means precisely that. Reputation is key, and when a character cries “I am ruined!” they’re not kidding.

Sir John in troublePhillip Breen’s new production for the RSC teems with life and laughter – until about the last thirty minutes. Not because the production goes off the boil, far from it; but because the villainous, murky side of Vanbrugh’s characters take control of the play. Up till then, it’s all knowing winks, powdered faces, nicking an audience member’s programme, and a wonderful selection of pomposity-pricking moments. However, despite its obviously comical – indeed farcical – main plot of wannabe sexual shenanigans and the hilarity of cuckolding a cruel husband, there’s a savage underbelly that makes you question whether you should be laughing at it; and that knife-edge is at the heart of all the best comedy, from Shakespeare to Ayckbourn. As the plot switches from major to minor, the effects of what’s been happening to these figures of fun, who are indeed flesh and blood after all, becomes apparent, and by the end there’s very little to laugh at.

Show that ankleMark Bailey’s simple set presents us with a solid proscenium arch complete with traditional overhangings and a useful curtain to hide behind. And an all-important back door, which is our glimpse of the outside world, the entry and exit point for all things comical or threatening; and even a way to demonstrate superiority (watch two self-important women try to struggle through it at the same time and you’ll see what I mean). Paddy Cunneen has composed some lively, cheeky tunes for our five on-stage musicians, who herald the end or start of scenes and accompany Lady Pipe or Mr Treble with their pompous warblings.

Lady BruteAlexandra Gilbreath’s Lady Brute is a brilliant portrayal of a woman coming out of her shell; wonderfully confiding, slow to react, discovering the truth of her own meanings as she’s speaking the words. She is matched by an equally superb performance by Jonathan Slinger as Sir John Brute, who sets the tone of the evening with a hilarious opening scene of grumbling and misogyny, and who rises to the challenge of playing the old drunk vagabond impersonating his wife perfectly. It’s their scene when we see his true brutal nature and his attempt to rape his wife where the play turns its corner; challenging and uncomfortable, but played with true commitment and honesty.

HeartfreeJohn Hodgkinson plays Heartfree with just the right amount of cynicism, i. e. not too much, because you have to believe that he genuinely turns from a callous cold fish to an unexpectedly affectionate suitor. Natalie Dew is a sweet and thoughtful Bellinda – mischievous enough to encourage Lady Brute to cast off the shackles of her miserable marriage, but virtuous enough to attract the attentions of Heartfree. Rufus Hound’s Constant is just that; played very calmly and straight, respectable but always with a twinkle in his eye as he looks for preferment. There are also some terrific performances from the minor characters, with Isabel Adomakoh Young’s Cornet a delightful fly in Lady Fancyfull’s ointment, Sarah Twomey a beautifully manipulative and mischievous Mademoiselle, Kevin N Golding a bemused Justice and Steve Nicholson a hilariously plain-talking Rasor. I was excited to see that Les Dennis is in the cast but was disappointed at how small his role as Colonel Bully is – just a little bit of drunk swagger in a scene or two; hopefully he’s keeping his powder dry for his appearance in the RSC’s Venice Preserved later this month.

Lady FancyfullBut it’s Caroline Quentin’s Lady Fancyfull that makes you beam with pleasure from start to finish. A vision of self-importance, who clearly pays well for flattery; she coquettishly protests modesty whenever she hears praise, and vilifies anyone who dares to contradict her own opinion of herself. In an age today where people often have self-esteem issues, here’s what happens when you go to the opposite end of the scale! Yet it’s a measure of the intelligence of Ms Quentin’s performance that when Lady F is shamed and mocked at the end of the play, her face-paint and wig cast aside, that you do feel some compassion for the wretched character. It’s a great comic performance and she brightens up the stage whenever she’s on.

The BrutesTo be fair, at a little over 3 hrs 15 minutes, the production does feel a trifle long, and leafing through my copy of the text, I don’t think they made any cuts apart from removing the epilogue. However, it’s a very entertaining and lively way to spend an evening; just remember never to provoke your wife.

Production photos by Pete Le May

Review – A German Life, Bridge Theatre, 4th May 2019

A German LifeJust like everyone else in the Bridge Theatre last Saturday night, at the moment that tickets for A German Life went on sale a couple of months ago, I was poised over my computer keyboard, with about five browsers open, desperately hopping from page to page to find the shortest queue so that I could book our tickets. The reason, of course, was that this was to be a solo performance by the one and only Dame Maggie Smith, in her first stage appearance in twelve years, and who knows if and when any of us would get the chance to be that privileged an audience member again? And it’s only on for five weeks! Panic!

Dame Maggie SmithI’ve seen a few memorable solo performances over the years; Edward Fox as John Betjeman in Sand in the Sandwiches, Michael Mears’ moving account of First World War conscientious objectors in This Evil Thing; Meera Syal’s Shirley Valentine; Leonard Rossiter’s Immortal Haydon; even an Evening with Quentin Crisp and Barry Humphries’ marvellous Dame Edna shows. But none of them can hold a candle to the great Dame Maggie, in almost 1 hour 40 minutes of total concentration and immaculate characterisation as Goebbels’ private secretary, Brunhilde Pomsel, who died in 2017 at the age of 106.

There sits Brunhilde, at her dining table, in her elegant, formal apartment, the set designed by Anna Fleischle but inspired by Fräulein Pomsel’s own rooms, talking candidly to an unseen interviewer about her life and times. And what life and times they were! She’d have you believe that she became caught up in the Nazi administration rather innocently and naively, caring more about Frau Goebbels and their delightful children, than any of the evil activities of the Third Reich. Naturally, we’re a little suspicious of her insouciance, but why would we disbelieve her after all these years? Many of her friends and acquaintances were Jewish, and she seems to take their gradual slipping out of circulation as some kind of sad inevitability.

What Christopher Hampton’s terrific script, drawn from Brunhilde’s own testimony, achieves most acutely is how easy it is for society to drift into fascism and hatred of one’s own fellow man. Of course, it couldn’t happen today, she says, much to the regretful laughter and uncomfortable buttock-shifting of the audience. There’s only subtle, moderate and implied criticism of her wartime activity, because, there but for the Grace of God go many of us, I suspect.

I had seen Dame Maggie once before on stage, in Edna O’Brien’s Virginia, back in 1981; it’s in the vague recesses of my memory but I think the play itself, the life of Virginia Woolf, underwhelmed me, although, as a 20-year-old chap, I probably wasn’t its target market. A German Life, however, is an extraordinary theatrical experience; a gripping narrative told with immense dignity and restraint by one of our finest actors. You can’t take your eyes off Dame Maggie’s face, with all her expression and stolid resilience slowly leaking through her eyes and her words. So much so, that you don’t notice the fact that the floor has slid extremely slowly towards you, so that during the course of the evening, she’s getting closer and closer to us; an extremely clever device that subtly keeps us locked in to the performance – although I’m sure we don’t need it.

I was struck by her vocal delivery throughout the entire performance. To emphasise both the age of the character, and how she’s thinking hard before she responds to her unseen questioner, she gives much more weight to an adjective in the phrase than the noun. It’s all about her describing what she saw and how she felt, more than simply naming it. She revels in the adjective; after a short pause, the noun is often thrown away. Once you cotton on to that style, it brings you even closer to the character and her vulnerability.

A technical masterclass from the 84-year-old Dame Maggie. The feat of memory, to recall all those lines, apparently effortlessly with no cues from other performers, is astounding in itself. But it’s so much more than that. Tour-de-force isn’t enough; it’s simply extraordinary. Unsurprisingly, the run is totally sold out, but some day seats are available from 10am. Get queuing!

P. S. Don’t be alarmed when Dame Maggie confesses that she’s lost her thread, it’s Brunhilde talking – you’re in very capable hands.

P. P. S. Talking of Edward Fox, it was (perhaps unsurprisingly) quite a star-studded audience as I spotted the renowned Mr Fox in the bar and Sir Trevor Nunn heading towards the toilets. All human life was there!

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Man of La Mancha, London Coliseum, 4th May 2019

Man of La ManchaI remember reading about Man of La Mancha when I was a teenager. It sounded very grand and I made my mind up that I must see it at some time when I was grown up. How has it taken all these years for me to see it?! The answer, obviously, is that this is its first professional production in the UK since the original London show at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1968. So, when I saw that Michael Grade and the ENO were bringing it to the Coliseum, I knew I had no choice but to book. All I knew about the show was that it was based on Don Quixote (which I’ve never read); there was a film starring Peter O’Toole (which I’ve never seen); and that, for many years after it closed on Broadway, it boasted the fourth longest run of any Broadway show (after Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly and My Fair Lady) with a fantastic 2,328 performances. One can only imagine how that original production must have captured the imagination of the 1960s New York audience. Today, it’s Broadway’s 29th longest running show, but that’s still a pretty good achievement.

Kelsey GrammerThis was only my fifth visit to the London Coliseum, and each production I’ve seen there has sparked a little controversy. In 1975 the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle took me to see their production of La Bohème – my first exposure to live opera. The critics said it was boring. Then, in 1987, I took the young Mrs C (Miss Duncansby as she was) to see the ENO’s Carmen, starring Sally Burgess, which purists hated because of the updating. Fast forward to 2007, for their Kismet, one of my favourite musicals but a disaster of a production for numerous reasons. Even last year, their (in my view) outstanding Chess attracted huge criticism for the staging and the performances. And now, the much-awaited Man of La Mancha has opened to a swathe of two-star reviews almost across the board. Are they doing something wrong, do you think?

Kelsey Grammer and ensembleCervantes and his faithful manservant have been sent to prison awaiting the displeasure of the Spanish Inquisition. The other prisoners threaten to burn his manuscript so, to distract them, and to ask for their leniency, Cervantes asks them to play along with a charade – acting out the story of Don Quixote, and some of his adventures. Whilst he takes the role of Don Quixote, his manservant becomes Sancho Panza, “the Governor” – who’s the most dominant and senior of the group of prisoners – becomes the drunken innkeeper, another prisoner “the Duke” becomes Dr Carrasco, and soon all the inmates are playing a role in telling the story. Thus you get two concurrent plots; Cervantes surviving in prison, and will he be released, and the re-enactment of some of Don Quixote’s tales.

Danielle de Niese and ensembleJust to get the record straight, I’ll say this here and now – I regret not discovering this totally magnificent score many years ago. Crossing some classic showtunes with a Spanish, flamenco vibe, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion created an absolute musical masterpiece. What particularly impressed me about it was the way it incorporates both major and minor keys within the same piece of music. Take, for instance, the opening number Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote). Its glorious chorus starts in major with its proud, certain, and proclamatory “I am I, Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha, my destiny calls and I go” to be followed instantly by the minor, more uncertain, “and the wild winds of fortune will carry me onward oh, whithersoever they blow”. Similar instances can be found throughout the score, and I, for one, am truly delighting in getting properly acquainted with it. If you haven’t heard it before, please find the original London cast recording on YouTube, starring Keith Michell and Joan Diener. It is sensational. And that’s not to take anything away from the new Coliseum cast either, because I think they’re pretty sensational too! And the orchestra under the baton of David White – good grief! Among the finest performances of a musical score I’ve ever heard. My toes curled with pleasure and I couldn’t take the smile off my face throughout the whole show.

Kelsey Grammer 2In addition to the score, I found Don Quixote’s adherence to the goals of courage, honour and nobility incredibly moving in these sad current times, where lying, cheating and ignominy seem to be celebrated and rewarded. We all accept that Don Quixote is a deluded soul but, boy, is his heart in the right place! In a bitter, selfish, criminal world, who wouldn’t prefer to maintain that hopeful air of grace? And it’s that heart-stirring emotion that carries us through the entire show, so that you come out of the theatre feeling like a better person than the one who went in. And that is the absolute magic of musical theatre. So, having said that, why has it disappointed so many critics?

dancersMrs C was much less forgiving about the staging and the whole production than me. I thought it was fine. James Noone has created a dark and comfortless prison environment created from a bombed museum, where cutpurses and vagabonds lurk behind antiquities. But when Cervantes, in his role as Alonso Quijana, as his identity as Don Quixote (keep up,) magically recreates the gallant and/or ignoble moments of our hero and his adventures, the stage setting takes on a noticeable brightness and vigour. The huge, portentous staircase descends occasionally from the gods, stopping the action with its significance – that it’s the only way in or out of the prison. Other moments where you have to use your imagination to see past the stagecraft include Don Quixote and Sancho Panza bestride two horses (two actors with horse masks – very Equus) galloping their way over the plains by means of stepping on wooden crates that have been placed in front of them.

Nicholas Lyndhurst, Peter Polycarpou and Kelsey GrammerMrs C really disliked both the staircase and the wooden crates. The staircase, she thought, simply held up the action for too long, and the crates just look amateur. In fact, and she has a point, she would have preferred to see a truly pared-down production, one on a blank stage with just the minimum of props, somewhere intimate like the Menier. And, indeed, you can just imagine how brilliant that imaginary production could be. However, and here’s the rub, you can’t really stage Man of La Mancha without a socking great staircase. And, by making it retract, so that most of the time it is hidden and unascendable, it increases the sense of isolation and powerlessness of the prisoners below. So, I’ve come to the conclusion that I like the staircase. But those crates… well, you can’t have real horses on stage, that’s obvious. And you do have to create the illusion of movement. And the amateurishness does go hand in hand with the fact that this is a bunch of prisoners enacting the story with whatever they can lay their hands on. I believe they used a similar device in the original London production. So I’m going to be generous about the crates too.

Man-of-La-Mancha-London-ColiseumOne of the criticisms levelled against this production is that Kelsey Grammer is miscast. I think that’s total nonsense. Mr Grammer is a stage performer of enormous experience and great presence, and with a surprisingly fine voice too. Yes, he may sometimes adopt something of an uncomfortable air about him; a slight distancing, or even awkwardness as he occupies the stage. But I think that’s a perfect characterisation of Cervantes/Quixote. Cervantes is a nobleman, unexpectedly laid low by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, now required to huddle with lowlifes. Quixote sets himself as a man apart, by virtue of his honour and his purity of thought. Neither character is at ease with his surroundings, and I think that’s exactly what Mr Grammer’s performance conveys.

Danielle de NieseAnd yes, in this day and age, where we like to avoid giving offence if possible, and standards of what is acceptable today are very different from what was acceptable over fifty years ago, the production has kept the Abduction scene. It’s a very unpleasant watch, where the men in the inn/prison round on Aldonza in a cruel, taunting, teasing ritual designed to humiliate and terrify, which culminates in her being head-butted and rendered unconscious, in order for Pedro to rape her. There’s no other way of saying it. But musicals are not all raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Although it is horrifying to witness, it would be wrong to sanitise it. This, sadly, is the reality of the lives these people lead. A major significance of this scene is that it’s highly critical of Don Quixote, who remains completely oblivious to her plight, his head still stuck up in the clouds in lofty pursuits.

Man of La Mancha Press ImageHowever, it’s Quixote’s striving for perfection, his crusade for the ultimate decency, which is the essence of The Impossible Dream. That song, that has been covered by hundreds of artists, has suffered from having its meaning weakened through overuse and familiarity. Audition wannabes will sing it on the X-Factor, etc, as an expression of “realising your dream”. But it’s not. The clue is in the title; it’s the impossible dream. It’s Don Quixote recognising his own delusion; that he’s channelling all his efforts into something that he will never achieve. The impossible dream, the unbeatable foe, the unrightable wrong, the unreachable star; none of them can be turned into reality. But that courage to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause is something we can adopt as a personal target, and if we do, the world will be better for this.

Peter Polycarpou and Kelsey GrammerI could go on, but I don’t want to outstay my welcome, gentle reader! In addition to Kelsey Grammer’s fantastic performance, there is a barnstorming portrayal by Danielle de Niese of Aldonza/Dulcinea, whose incredible voice soars and delights throughout the whole evening. There’s no more reliable pair of hands than those of Peter Polycarpou, who takes the role of Sancho Panza, with all its sentimentality and unsophisticated humour, and makes it believable and touching. Nicholas Lyndhurst is coolly menacing as The Governor, a colourless man who would snap your neck dead with one flick; and as the tipsy innkeeper humouring his deluded guest into thinking it’s a castle. There’s fantastic support from Eugene McCoy as the Legolas-like Duke, Minal Patel as the Padre, Emanuel Alba as the bright-as-a-button Barber, and Julie Jupp as the somewhat intimidating housekeeper. But everyone gives a fantastic performance in this truly ensemble show.

Nicholas LyndhurstIn a nutshell, Man of La Mancha touched that hard to define nerve in me that meant that I unexpectedly but unconditionally loved it. I know that’s not a good response from someone dispassionately trying to review it, but it’s the truth. Desperately now trying to sort out a date when we can go again. I think I can understand why some people might feel the production let it down – but it didn’t for me. Simply a fantastic night at the theatre.

P. S. Cast recording album please!!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Escape Route, Kyla Kares, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 5th May 2019

Fringe FestivalMany of the shows at this year’s Fringe Festival came with trigger warnings. This show warned that it contained discussion about depression and suicide. I think, to be fair, that I also ought to give this blog review post a similar trigger warning. If you’re affected by suicide, or suicidal thoughts, please take care and breathe deeply before reading on.

Escape RouteSuicide. It’s a subject we have to talk about. The less we talk about it, the more people take their own life. As Kyla Williams tells us, in her bold and beautiful show Escape Route, suicide is the greatest killer of men under 40, but the statistics only tell us half the truth; although more men die at their own hand, many more women attempt suicide than men, which, it follows, means that many fail, maybe to be permanently injured or disabled as a result of their suicide attempt, or at least to continue to suffer the mental tortures that led them to trying suicide in the first place.

It’s a subject I’m willing to talk about, at length if need be; my friend’s sister took her own life many years ago by overdosing on paracetamol. There’s a sequence in Kyla’s performance where she describes the horrors of a “successful” paracetamol overdose, and I can confirm every word she says about how it causes a long, lingering, ghastly death. Two of my other closest friends have tried (fortunately, unsuccessfully) to take their own lives and I’m aware of the benefits of offering regular contact, and the open invitation to talk about anything. Just being there can save a life. Depression is a nasty business.

Kyla KaresWhilst there are a number of shocking, sad, even gruesome moments in the show, there are a number of elements that are wryly amusing – even thoroughly entertaining; for example, Kyla’s rendition of Peggy Lee’s classic Is that all there is? which I have to say was pure class. There are several extracts from verbatim accounts about how people live with depression which she invests with great character and emotion, using a wide range of voices and moods. She has a wonderful stage presence, and delivers her material with great conviction and commitment; and never has a red scarf been used for so many purposes with such creativity, subtlety and elegance.

Kyla makes no secret of the fact that this show is borne from much of her own experience, and it has been a difficult and sensitive journey bringing it to fruition. I can only say many congratulations to her for creating a very moving, powerful and honest show that may act as a catalyst to her and to her audience. And, always remember, keep an eye out for your friends.

Review – Unveiled, Myriad Theatre, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 5th May 2019

Fringe FestivalThere’s probably never been a time like today that the wedding dress has had such a high profile and significance in our society. I think we forked out £80 for Mrs Chrisparkle’s wedding dress back in Nineteen hundred and frozen-to-death, and it was simple, elegant and lovely. Today you’re looking at £2000 for as much bling as you can cram onto a garment. Choosing the wedding dress from the shop is also major social event, where all the girls quaff prosecco and there’s a massive show-and-tell with the bride to be getting more feedback than she really needs. Heavens above, there was even a TV show called Say Yes to the Dress! Getting prepared for a wedding is stressful enough without adding to the drama and tension with all that hoo-ha.

But there’s also another significance to the wedding dress. If you’re ready, willing and able to get married and you’re fully happy about it, then, hurrah. But if you’re not, if you have doubts, maybe you thought that by now you’d love him, but you still don’t quite, or maybe you’ve started to go off him…. that’s when the wedding dress can take on an ogreish significance. Then there’s the miserable, caustic aunt, who always says you look fat in that dress, or you’re much too old for that style, and other confidence-boosting remarks. Why would you take her along to watch you try on wedding dresses? It’s just asking for trouble. You can tell one thing: this girl isn’t happy.

Myriad TheatreAnd that – presumably – is why we see Myriad Theatre’s Isabella Hunt, lying on the floor, writing words of distress over a plain white dress, before scooping another four wedding dresses off the rail, trying them on, taking them off and then generally writhing on the floor with them. In the end she stands in silence in the plain white dress that she has vandalised with graffiti. No comment (either by her, or, I sense, the audience.)

There’s an element of promise and expectation when you enter the room for this performance; the chairs each have an elegant number written on them, such as you might find in the seating plan for a wedding reception; and the floor is strewn with those delicate, colourful little odds and ends that people scatter on tables to give it a celebratory look.

Sadly, however, the creativity seems to stop there. Unveiled turns out to be nothing more than seventeen minutes of taking dresses on and off, writhing around the floor in agony, a very repetitive physical theatre element that I think represented a struggle (I stopped watching after the fourth time – it may have gone on for at least another half dozen times) and a few minutes of general spoken wedding/marriage angst. This is a very undeveloped piece, with few ideas that don’t go anywhere. An opportunity not taken, very disappointing, and a bit of a cheek to ask the general public to pay to see it.

P. S. Mrs C was not happy at paying £5.50 for 17 minutes of rather poor performance; that’s almost £20 an hour pro-rata and you can get much better value elsewhere.

Review – Godspeed, Far from Home Theatre Company, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 5th May 2019

Fringe FestivalFor the last three plays in the Fringe Festival I was joined by Mrs Chrisparkle (it was a Sunday after all) dipping her toe into this festival for the first time. Fortunately for both of us, we started with a good one!

GodspeedFar from Home’s Godspeed, is an inventive and creative one-man play by and with Fox Neal as Ishmael Constant (which sounds like a mathematical law), trained by the military and space authorities to undertake a twelve-year journey to investigate a hole in the universe – The Anomaly. His quest is to go through the hole if possible and see what’s on the other side. He is to report back if he can; he is not expected to return home, so he’ll spend his final days like David Bowie’s Major Tom, sitting in his tin can far from the world. His only companion is a chatty, nauseously upbeat computer whom they christen Virgil; but Virgil isn’t entirely to be trusted. He gives Ishmael regular psychological health checks – and does Virgil detect that our hero might have an alternative agenda? Does that explain his attachment to his crucifix? And will he be able to get through the Anomaly and see for himself what’s there?

Far From Home TheatreInterspersed with this surprisingly exciting story are flashbacks to Ishmael’s childhood, with his warring parents – one religious, one not – and the effect of their unhappy divorce on him; and his time spent in the military, where he meets another trainee, Shay, who calls him her Space Cowboy, but refuses his offer of marriage because she has to go off on tours of duty without him. Mr Neal plays Ishmael centre stage for most of the time, keeping time with a recording of all the other voices in his story, a technical feat of high precision which he achieves brilliantly. Particularly impressive were the recordings of his parents’ muffled arguments, such as a child might hear behind a closed door, and the shatteringly effective last words that Ishmael hears from his beloved Shay.

Mr Neal invests Ishmael with finely observed characterisation; a frustrated, understated, angry, resigned and bewildered man who’s going to do his best for the world if he possibly can – whilst achieving his own private ambition as well. It’s a strong, gripping performance and he, together with all the other entertaining recorded voices from other members of the 3rd Year, keeps us totally engaged in his story from start to finish. This is another production that you could easily pick up and plonk down in Edinburgh where I think it would be a great success. Congratulations all round!

Review – Exposing Inequality, Unseen Truths Theatre Company, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 3rd May 2019

Fringe FestivalThe suffragettes must have been amongst the bravest people in the world at the time. We’ve all seen that heart-stopping footage of Emily Davison being trampled to death by the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby. There were no winners that day; what is less well known is that jockey Herbert Jones lived the rest of his life haunted by that event – until he took his own life in 1951. But, like with most bad laws, a combination of protest, civil disobedience and strong people being prepared to be counted, eventually the law was changed so that women over the age of 30 started to get the vote in 1918; and that was reduced to the age of 21 in 1928, a few weeks after the death of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.

Exposing InequalityExposing Inequality focuses on an historical character that I’d never heard of before – Alice Hawkins. She, like Unseen Truths’ Jessica Harding, lived in Leicester, working in a shoe factory at the age of thirteen, quickly realising how much less she was being paid than the men who were doing precisely the same work. Pay inequality, extraordinarily, continues to this day – and this provides the main material for the play. But we also flashback to Alice Hawkins’ life; her early political involvement, her marriage to Alfred, her imprisonment for marching for equality, and her death in 1946 at the age of 83, which, considering how hard her life must have been, was some achievement in itself.

Unseen TruthsI remember the late Beryl Reid, when asked how she created her characters, used to say that she always started with their feet. If she knew how they’re feet felt – big, small, healthy, grotty, comfy shoes, tight-fitting shoes, etc – then she could work her way up to the rest of their bodies and their minds. Jessica Harding has also concentrated on the feet, lining up a series of shoes and boots along the front of the stage, which she dons for the different characters in her play. Sometimes she wears them ordinarily, as we all do, whether it be work shoes or fashion shoes; and sometimes she kneels down and just puts her hands in them and stomps them around like a child at play. Whilst initially funny, it gets a bit cumbersome as the scene continues.

And that was largely the problem I had with the whole play and performance – it tended to be cumbersome and heavy. Some of the scenes were simply too long, for example the fascinating and notable recent case of BBC journalist Carrie Gracie, who resigned from the corporation on the grounds of pay discrimination. Unfortunately, Ms Harding read out what I guess was the entirety of Ms Gracie’s resignation letter – and it was long! For the sake of factual completeness, we lost dramatic interest. Being bombarded with PowerPoint presentations full of graphs, facts and figures makes for a dull day at the office, let alone when you’re watching a theatrical experience. It was a shame, because Ms Harding is obviously a very bright spark with a strong stage presence and very clear and expressive voice; and her opening address filled me with confidence for a lively, quirky look at the struggle for equality for women. But sadly, that didn’t follow through and there were times when it was a little boring, I’m afraid. Some good ideas there but it lacked that special oomph.