Review – Brief Encounter, Playhouse Theatre Northampton, 31st January 2018

Brief EncounterConsidering it’s been around since 1945, it’s a disgrace that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have ever properly watched the film of Brief Encounter. It’s one of those hardy perennials that always emerges at Christmas on some minor TV channel or other. If you notice it in the listings you say to yourself “not that old thing again” and so you don’t watch it, forgetting the fact that you never actually did in the first place. I have, now, seen some of the opening credits, and the final credit, as they frame this production of Emma Rice’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s classic. I’ve also seen some gems of adverts that are shown as a curtain raiser – it’s worth taking your seat early so that you can enjoy them. I distinctly remember the early days of Quosh but have no memory at all of Cephos Powder. And I’d forgotten all about Midland Counties Ice Cream.

Mary O'Brien as LauraOf course, those portentous black and white meetings between Celia Johnson (whom I actually saw on stage in 1972) and Trevor Howard (whom I didn’t) are about as iconic as you can get, an embodiment of wartime stiff upper lip, reserved passion and a regretful acceptance of a less than satisfactory status quo. Showing this classic on the tiny stage of the Northampton Playhouse by a company of non-professionals is, what I believe to be the correct term, A Big Ask. But I was really impressed at the ambition and realisation of the technicality of the project, and overall it worked extremely well.

Jof Davies as AlecThe cast and creative team have gone to town on creating the illusion of a 1945 cinema; in fact, the whole performance is a blend of live theatre and film recreating the outside world. Immaculately coiffured with 1940s hairdos, usherettes with torches control the auditorium, trying to shush our loving couple as they have an awkward contretemps during the Big Feature. At the interval, meat paste sandwiches and Banbury buns are on offer. There’s also a raffle – we won a box of chocolates, so bang goes the post-Christmas diet – again. Specially recorded black and white film sequences show our hero and heroine sat miserably on their trains home; they also beckon a steam train onto the stage or off into the distance; backdrop projections suggest the railway station’s café, or the almost-posh hotel restaurant, where ladies who lunch, lunch. Film also enables conversations between Laura and her kids, spiffingly well played by young Will Foreman and Casey O’Sullivan.

Laura and Alec fall inHaving read the synopsis of the film, it seems to me that the adaptation reflects the original pretty faithfully, with the inclusion of a few spirited additions. Stanley, the station dogsbody, and Beryl, the tea room assistant, break through the fourth wall to give us a few reprises of Any little fish can swim, a Noel Coward song from the 1931 Cochran Revue. Myrtle Bagot, the café proprietor, and Beryl give us separate renditions of the famous Mad About the Boy, another Coward hit, from the 1932 show Words and Music. In a production that, by necessity, has a number of relatively slow scene changes (mainly due to the size of the stage), having these interludes is a great way to disguise what’s going on behind the curtain; a song and dance version of a stately swan whose grace and elegance you notice without ever knowing that his feet are going nineteen to the dozen to keep him afloat. Very nicely done.

April Pardoe as Myrtle BagotAt the heart of the play – and indeed heart being the operative word – are the loving twosome of Mary O’Brien and Jof Davies as Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey. They both portray that sense of struggling against one’s better nature extremely well, and they both absolutely look the part. Mr Davies perfectly captured the embarrassment of being caught almost in flagrante by his work colleague at his flat – a delightfully toe-curling scene; and I found his sense of resignation at the end – just being able to put his hand on Laura’s shoulder whilst her irritating friend natters on in complete ignorance – very moving. Ms O’Brien’s clarity of diction is a thing of beauty which really helped her rich characterisation of the troubled Laura. She also shone during those embarrassed meetings with acquaintances who could clearly gauge precisely what was going on, despite which, with true decency, she doesn’t tell any lies.

Helen Kennedy as BerylI very much enjoyed the partnership of April Pardoe as Myrtle and Helen Kennedy as Beryl, sparring in the café; Ms Pardoe’s slightly haughty portrayal of the café owner reminded me a little of the late Doris Speed who used to play Annie Walker in Coronation Street. I was very amused by them both manhandling all the buns and then offering them to the front row. Ms Kennedy’s visual asides at Myrtle’s hectoring were very enjoyable, as were her constant attempts to get away with murder – but Ms Pardoe was having none of it, and quite right too, the young people of today… etc, etc & etc. Adding to this jolly menage a trois is Adrian Wyman as Albert Godby, the stationmaster whose pea in his whistle is aimed firmly at Myrtle. Mr Wyman draws out all the fun of the character as he chisels away at Myrtle’s frosty front until at last, in the immortal words of Daft Punk, he’s up all night to Get Lucky. Gordon Ritchie gives a spirited, cheeky-chappie performance as the impetuous Stanley, and I really liked Beverley Webster’s socially confident and thoroughly insensitive Dolly Messiter, ruining Laura and Alec’s passionate goodbye by dumping her shopping all over their table.

Adrian Wyman as Albert GodbyIn two very amusing vignettes, Ingrid Heymann plays the waitress at the restaurant, teetering on the edge of the stage, precariously balancing two bowls of soup (I’m sure the gentleman next to me who couldn’t resist call out “two soups!” wasn’t the only person this week to have that thought), reflecting the generosity of her patrons’ tips with either a sneer or a surprised pleasure. In another funny scene, Simon Rye and Kevin Evans play Johnnie and Bill, a couple of soldier vagabonds with good-time girls on their arms, arguing the toss with an unflinching Mrs Bagot. Mr Evans threw himself wholeheartedly into his role as a loutish military roué under the influence of a pint of cider. It’s a character part.

Gordon Ritchie as StanleyCongratulations to the excellent cast who were word perfect throughout and worked together seamlessly. Mrs C has a low threshold to amateur dramatics, but she left the theatre with a spring in her step, which is a Very Good Sign. It’s a slightly quirky adaptation that I think would appeal to both purists and avant-garde alike. Performances run till Saturday but if you haven’t booked already, then I think you may have left it too late.

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!