Review – For Services Rendered, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 29th August 2015

For Services Rendered First Chichester weekend of the year, and a joint visit with our friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters. The last time we saw them was for a show in Edinburgh, and it poured with rain. This time, in Chichester, it poured with rain again. We’re seeing them next weekend in Stratford. I don’t have much in the way of climactic expectations!

For Services Rendered 1979After a really superb lunch in the Minerva Brasserie (why would you go anywhere else pre-theatre in Chichester?) we took our seats in the Minerva Theatre for For Services Rendered. Described as a rarely performed play nowadays, I did get to see it at the National in 1979 – on September 14th, in fact, in seat G14 in the Stalls, priced £5.95. I remember it being a stunning production, featuring such stalwarts of the stage as Jean Anderson, Alison Fiske, Peter Jeffrey, Harold Innocent, Barbara Ferris and Phyllida Law. Of course the original production starred Flora Robson and Ralph Richardson – I bet that had the wow factor. But there’s no doubt that this new production at Chichester is, I’m sure, as fine as any in the past. Superb attention to period detail, a deep, beautiful, atmospheric set, and cut-glass acting as good as you’ll get anywhere.

Stella GonetWritten in 1932, this was Somerset Maugham’s last-but-one play, an examination of the fallout of World War One within a well-to-do English family. Fourteen years on, the Ardsleys are still just about surviving, with the oldest son and heir blinded in the war, and therefore unable to carry on the family business; one daughter having lost the man she’d hoped to marry; another having married outside her class (disgraceful) to a tenant farmer; and the third unmarried at 27 with no hope of finding a suitable gentleman in the backwater in which they live. Simon ChandlerIn addition, there is the hard-up ex-officer Collie Stratton, who opened a motor repair business that has fallen on its face, and a married couple with no apparent love for each other, but with the husband eager to seduce the Ardsleys’ youngest daughter. All that, and the doctor brother of the lady of the house has concerns about her health… Maugham weaves these threads together culminating in various degrees of tragedy, although there is one glimmer of happiness for a couple of the characters somewhere there – but on reflection, it’s unlikely to end well.

Anthony CalfWhilst this may be a play from several eras ago, and you may feel that the drawing-room, middle class setting is anachronistic in the post- Look Back in Anger age, there is much to admire and appreciate about this play. Staging it today shows how the general emancipation of women has come a long way; back in 1932 it just wasn’t done for women to make their own decisions about – well, anything really. Marrying outside of one’s class is shown to be a foolish venture, inevitably ending in disappointment; that is perhaps the one element in which this play has a dated feel. Apart from that, much that was relevant then is relevant today. Matilda ZieglerCoping with social shame and scandal can still result in suicide. Lives and relationships can still be ruined in the aftermath of war. As a nation, we still don’t look after our war veterans as we should; many of them still rely on drink or drugs as a prop on which some of them just about get by. Recessions and depressions affect our livelihoods and incomes; but there will always be those who have inordinately inappropriate sums of money at their fingertips, to keep for their own pleasure and fun without a thought for the wider community. If For Services Rendered had been written by Noel Coward, we might have expected a wittier touch or maybe a happier ending; but Maugham liked his gloom, and, despite a few ironically humorous scenes, the tone and vision remain bleak throughout – but appropriately so.

Justine MitchellHoward Davies’ classy production thrills you from the moment you enter the auditorium and are greeted by William Dudley’s elegant, tasteful set; in fact it was all I could do to deter Lord Liverpool from jumping on stage, lolling on one of the dining chairs, feet up on the table, feigning 1930s ennui with a tennis racquet in one hand and The Times in the other. The whole production oozes dignified restraint, from the rarely played wireless in the corner to the well-worn but once hideously expensive eastern carpets. Only the pantomime-like clap of thunder that heralds in the second act strikes an over the top note; I half-expected Mr Ardsley to burst out of a stylised bottle, bestowing three surprise wishes upon the impoverished Collie.

Joseph KloskaStella Gonet’s Mrs Ardsley is a strong matriarch, who knows precisely how to behave decently and will never stoop to depths unbecoming of a lady. Her altercation (such as it is) with youngest daughter Lois is a fine exercise in strict discretion, packing her off to spend months with a miserable aunt before she even has a chance to fiddle with her pearls. It’s a beautiful performance, blending practicality with decorum, and when her character has her own tragedy to contend with, she gives us a classic stiff-upper-lip experience that you can only admire Yolanda Kettleand hope you’d be like that in the same circumstances. As her husband, Simon Chandler is a little nugget of Victorian conservatism, decent but unbending, intelligent but without empathy; a walking, talking, emotional void who follows rules to the nth degree. Much of the ironic humour comes from his total inability to see the wood for the trees.

Jo HerbertAnthony Calf is excellent as always as the abysmal Wilfred Cedar, exuding friendship and bonhomie when it suits him, retreating into hostile selfishness when challenged. He very credibly gives the impression of someone falling in love with love, and there’s a huge element of the pathetic about his approaches to young Lois. Matilda Ziegler’s Gwen is a brilliant creation of a woman under pressure to keep her man, mixing sarcasm and ridicule with sheer venom. I also loved her opening scene where every comment she made could be taken as an insult – it was immaculately performed. There’s also a brilliant performance by Justine Mitchell as Eva, who’s sacrificed her own emotions to do the decent thing by blinded brother Sydney, but who just can’t take any more of that wretched chess.Nick Fletcher Her scene with Joseph Kloska, as the persistently irritated and irritating Sydney, where he’s criticising her on her chess moves, is electric. But it is Ms Mitchell’s semi-coquettish approaches to Nick Fletcher’s Collie, sending as strong a signal as is decently possible to suggest that, like Barkis, she is willing, that constitutes the stand-out performance of this play. She positively hurts with pointless optimism, as she tries to lend him money or suggest they would make a good couple together; but Eva is the character to whom Somerset Maugham most wants to deny happiness, and her increasing mental instability is movingly and convincingly played.

Sam CallisJo Herbert is excellent as the put-upon but stoic Ethel, Sam Callis also very good as the rough and ready farmer Howard with potentially straying hands. Yolanda Kettle is very convincing as the frustrated, teasing and not entirely demure Lois, and David Annen turns in a very nice performance as the doctor/brother, incapable of persuading his patient to do the right thing, and, when it comes to the crunch, resigned to (as he sees it) failure.

David AnnenA rewarding, thoughtful, and thoroughly traditional revival which kept everyone on the edge of their seats and really satisfied its audience. We all came out heaping praise on the performers and the production. If you’re not au fait with between-the-wars British drama this is a perfect opportunity to see how stiff those upper lips could be. Highly recommended.

Review – Stephen Ward, Aldwych Theatre, 8th February 2014

Stephen WardHow much do you know about the Profumo affair? If you’re like us, then probably not that much. The name’s familiar – as are those of Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies, and, when it all came to trial, the judge was the esteemed Lord Denning. But Yevgeny Ivanov? Lucky Gordon? Stephen Ward? No, you’d have beaten me there, those names would have meant nothing until we’d seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical about the eponymous osteopath, who massaged the backs of the great and painful and found himself buoyant in the sea of early 1960s London celebrity.

Charlotte SpencerOne of the main criticisms I’d heard about it in advance was that, although it was a perfectly good show, who could possibly be its target market? Surely only the (relatively) elderly would remember those days and be interested in reliving those scandalous times? Well, judging from the age bracket of those attending last Saturday’s matinee (and bearing in mind that it was indeed a matinee, which may skew the demographic) then maybe so. However, that’s a real shame. It’s a timeless story – and if it were fiction, we’d be lapping it up. Sex, political scandals, celebrity and espionage – what’s not to love? And, of course, the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’ve not seen all his shows, by a long chalk, but for the most part I find them pretty enjoyable. Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Phantom are all amazing. Joseph, Starlight and Aspects are all very good. Sunset – ok, Cats – a bit boring; not seen the others. But if musicals were football teams (and I accept that they’re not) I’d certainly put this show up there at the top of the Championship, looking for possible promotion to the Premiership.

Charlotte BlackledgeI was really impressed with the story-telling aspect of the show. It’s a very well-paced, momentum-building book, and, by the time you get to the second act, it becomes the stage version of a real page-turner. The lyrics are not drowned out by the music (Rent in Concert take note) so you can hear all the words as clear as a bell. That’s not to say the orchestra don’t give it their all, because they do – it’s a really great performance by them, and Lloyd Webber has come up with some terrific tunes as usual – just that it all comes across as beautifully balanced in your eardrums. Structurally or technically, the only thing I thought could have been improved is the Act One climax – Johnny from the club arriving at Stephen’s flat with a gun and not afraid to shoot it; I guess it was meant to be an exciting moment to take you buzzing into the interval, but actually I thought it was a damp squib that needed much more oomph.

Anthony CalfThere’s obviously absolutely no doubt in ALW’s mind that Stephen Ward was framed. With worthies like Profumo, Astor and Rachman surrounding him, Ward was a comparative no-mark, who, with the benefit of hindsight, was always going to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. There’s a scene in the show where the Home Secretary and his cronies brainstorm on what trumped-up charge they will get the police to fabricate, nicely giving a new meaning to Stephen Ward’s “Manipulation” song from earlier. This develops into the brilliant “Police Interview”, where the impetus to incriminate Ward in any way they can, is blatantly, ruthlessly and unsettlingly hilariously portrayed. All this, and a superb scene with News of the World journalists (whatever became of that responsible and newsworthy organ?) where they encourage Christine to “give us something juicy” – the plot may be in the 1960s but the subject matter is as relevant today as ever.

Joanna RidingAlexander Hanson is fantastic as Ward; this is the first time we’ve seen him since his excellent Captain von Trapp in the Palladium’s Sound of Music a few years ago. Manipulative, but manipulable too; attracted to the ladies in a determined, confident way; displaying an air of quiet authority that ends up being just a little too quiet to save himself. And musically, he’s great; an outstanding, rich, clear voice and an interpretation of Don Black’s lyrics that make you feel really sorry for him. The bizarre thing is that, of all the people in the show, Ward is the one who has really done nothing wrong; just having a taste for the highlife and a liking for a varied array of ladies – there’s nothing illegal about that.

Alexander HansonCharlotte Spencer gives a great performance as Christine Keeler, the very young dancer at Murray’s Cabaret Club – I’m sure I remember adverts for that club in Palladium theatre programmes from the 60s and 70s – who catches Ward’s eye and doesn’t resist his advances, but with whom, for whatever reason, he apparently doesn’t actually have a relationship – he just installs her in his flat. She’s an excellent singer, looks great, and over the course of the show develops from rough-edged teenager to a more sophisticated, and much more experienced, woman. Charlotte Blackledge’s Mandy Rice-Davies is a more outgoing, back-chatty girl, full of fun and cheek and it’s no surprise Rachman would have shown an interest in her; or indeed, Ward. Interestingly, the real Mandy Rice-Davies apparently advised during the creative process of the show, which lends the plot additional veracity.

Ian ConninghamThere’s also a brilliant turn by Joanna Riding as Valerie Hobson (Lady Profumo) standing by her man in best Tammy Wynette fashion, both when she thinks he has been falsely accused of having an affair with Christine Keeler, and when she knows it is true. Profumo must have been one of the luckiest men alive to have a high profile affair like that and suffer the vengeance of his wife for no more than about thirty seconds. Miss Riding’s performance of “I’m Hopeless when it comes to you” is probably the musical highlight of the show. Anthony Calf, who can always be relied upon to provide great support in any cast, is a very chummy and friendly Lord Astor, so that the scene where he distances himself from Ward because the heat is on, has a much greater impact and you realise what a cowardly toe-rag Astor is. And I really loved the double act of Ian Conningham and Christopher Howell as the two bent coppers intimidating their way through their interrogations. But the whole cast is excellent, and the big set pieces like the rather posh orgy and the courtroom scene work extremely well.

Christopher HowellAt the end of the day it’s Stephen Ward’s story, his good times and his tragic ending; the show completely revolves around him and ends as it begins with his bizarrely featuring in the Chamber of Horrors at Blackpool. Alexander Hanson gives the stand-out performance required for this heavy role. Pre-show warnings advise that it’s not for the easily offended; to be honest I think you’d have to be very easily offended indeed to get upset by its content. It’s an excellent show and I would really recommend it!

Review – My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, 5th January 2013

My Fair LadyHaving emerged from Cinderella at the Lyceum after the matinee, which Lady Duncansby pronounced as quite the best pantomime she’d ever seen, and which was certainly “up there” as far as I was concerned, we wondered if our evening treat of My Fair Lady tickets at the Crucible would be eclipsed. There was no need for us to worry.

My Fair Lady 1979This was the third time I’ve seen My Fair Lady. This was one of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourite shows and I learned the songs at her knee to the accompaniment of a soundtrack maxi-single of the original London production by Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. I first saw it in 1979 at the Adelphi Theatre with Tony Britton as Higgins and Liz Robertson (Mrs Alan Jay Lerner) as Eliza. Dame Anna Neagle played Mrs Higgins. The notable thing about this production was, if I remember rightly, that the costumes were based on those designed by Cecil Beaton and used in the film, so it was certainly a glamorous event. The second time was in 2002 when Mrs Chrisparkle accompanied me to my favourite theatre, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (always give it its full name) to the production that famously starred Martine McCutcheon and in which famously she rarely appeared. Actually we saw Alex Jennings and Joanna Riding in the main roles and they were excellent. It was during a very hot summer and the theatre’s air conditioning had packed up; I remember we were all issued with paper “My Fair Lady” fans in attempt to keep 2,300 people from passing out.

Dominic WestSo having seen two big, meaty, chunky productions on big stages, it would be very interesting to see it done on the large but nevertheless comparatively intimate stage of the Crucible. I’d seen a tweet a couple of weeks earlier by Daniel Evans, Artistic Director of the Crucible and director of My Fair Lady, where he couldn’t believe his eyes that every single subsequent performance of My Fair Lady (bar one) was sold out. Having seen the show, I’m not surprised. This is one of the most engaging, communicative productions you could possibly imagine.

Carly BawdenIt all starts before you’ve even taken your seat. Enter the auditorium and the sight of Covent Garden’s arches takes your breath away. The stage is filled with flower girls and costermongers, all doing their damnedest to make an honest bob, encouraging the people in Rows A and B to buy their wares, and despairing when no one seems to have any change on them. You’ve been won over before it’s even started. Incidentally, we sat in the middle of Row C and they must be the best seats in the house.

Anthony CalfWhat comes across is the perfect combination of a great show, great songs, a great cast in a great production. I know that sounds simplistic and lacking critical teeth, but that’s basically the whole show in a nutshell. Every second is a pleasure; every song, every dance routine, every conversational exchange are there to make you wallow in delight. This may not have the Cecil Beaton costumes – the ladies are in shades of cream, ivory and beige; a toffs’ uniform, I suppose – but that allows the quality of the book and music to shine through.

Nicola SloaneHiggins, that spoilt chauvinist par excellence, is played to perfection by Dominic West, who gets the just right amount of bombast, vanity, charisma and – when you don’t normally see it – vulnerability. I would say he was probably the least bullying and barking Higgins I’ve seen, which makes the character more interesting. When he realises what a complete fool he’s been at the end, as he’s grown accustomed to her face, this Higgins produces actual tears; the first time I’ve ever really felt that Higgins really regrets what he’s done. When he’s reunited with Eliza, he does a brilliant failed-attempted cover-up of his emotions, which is absolutely perfect. It’s an extremely realistic presentation of the behaviour of a spoilt man, and it couldn’t be more believable.

Richenda CareyCarly Bawden, who was very good in the Menier’s Pippin last year, really comes into her own as Eliza. Hers is the perfect transformation from ugly duckling to beautiful swan, with some fantastically well performed songs that she takes on with relish. Her “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” was heart-warming and felt very genuine – and was superbly supported by the backing dancers to give it an extra oomph. “Just You Wait” and “Show Me” were delivered with great attack, “The Rain In Spain” with humour and terrific musicality, but her big moment was “I Could Have Danced All Night” which was just superb. The embodiment of irrepressible girlish excitement, it was sung exquisitely and the sheer exuberance of it created sustained applause of real appreciation. Stand Out Moment No 1.

Martyn EllisAnthony Calf plays Pickering with enormous decency, and with genuine disapproval for Higgins when he goes too far with badgering Eliza. It’s a rather passive role where more things happen around you than you actually do yourself, so it’s vital that his reactions to what’s going on are genuine and entertaining; a very enjoyable performance. Nicola Sloane’s Mrs Pearce is delightfully long-suffering and her starchy but growing affection for Eliza is very well expressed. Another relatively minor role but beautifully played was Richenda Carey as Mrs Higgins.Louis Maskell At Ascot, she plays host as Miss Doolittle gets her first outing into society, and is splendidly disapproving of her son but kind to Eliza, and the whole scene is done magnificently. Miss Bawden’s wonderful delivery of “what is wrong with that young man, I bet I got it right” and “them as pinched it, done her in” is memorably hilarious. Towards the end of the show when it is with Mrs Higgins that Eliza seeks sanctuary, Richenda Carey’s withering looks to Mr West speak more than words ever could. An excellent performance, and one that won her huge applause at curtain call.

Chris BennettI never normally respond much to the role of Alfred Doolittle, as I always feel it’s a bit over-the-top and lacks some credibility in comparison with the rest of the show, although the Dowager Mrs C always adored the character. I’ve changed my mind! Martyn Ellis has made me reconsider my previous snobbishness. He is genuinely funny – he brings all the character’s sneaky idle deviousness to the forefrontCarl Sanderson – and he’s quite a nifty mover too for a man his size! His two set-piece musical numbers both worked really well, but for sheer theatrical exhilaration, the whole rendition of “Get Me To The Church On Time” almost leaves you speechless. A great dance routine, that unexpectedly turns into tap, and performed with such spirit, still gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. Stand Out Moment No 2.

Emily GoodenoughThe other surprising – perhaps – and revelatory performance came from Louis Maskell as Freddy, with “On The Street Where You Live”. Always one of my favourite songs, since I can’t remember when, it’s quite easy to sing it as a gentle, loving mellifluous number, all pretty and tuneful. This performance is quite different. It’s like someone has finally listened to what the words are actually saying in the song and he’s acting them; and meaning it. Mr Maskell has taken his big number and made a real showstopper out of it. Stand Out Moment No 3.

Nick ButcherThe support from the ensemble is absolutely first rate and the production owes a huge debt to their talent and commitment. In particular I thought Doolittle’s pals Harry and Jamie – Chris Bennett and Carl Sanderson – gave him perfect support and Emily Goodenough and Nick Butcher shone in all their scenes. Alistair David’s choreography was splendid throughout, and put Mrs C and I in mind of some of Matthew Bourne’s best dance movement creations. Oh, and the Ascot Gavotte is just fantastic.

No question this will be the benchmark for future productions. It would be a crime if it didn’t transfer or at least tour. One of those shows that remind you you’re alive. Unhesitatingly recommended.

Review – The Deep Blue Sea, Festival Theatre, Chichester, August 20th 2011

Chichester Festival TheatreOur second helping of Rattigan last Saturday was the much acclaimed “The Deep Blue Sea”, originally produced in 1952 in a run that lasted 513 performances. This was a time when Rattigan’s career was really riding high, and in fact many commentators think this is his best play. In “Rattigan’s Nijinsky”, with which we matinéed earlier, Rattigan says “my women are women, and they’re bloody well-written ones”. Hester Collyer, of whom we see a very turbulent day in a rather depressing life, is probably the epitome of this statement. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, the play starts with her failed gassing suicide attempt and ends with her again turning the gas on but this time merely to light the fire. The character progression prompted Mrs Chrisparkle to announce that the play was a supreme statement of optimism. I just found it hard to get past the sadness that Hester wanted to commit suicide.

The Deep Blue SeaWhat is notable about this production is the way it faithfully represents the 1950s and presents that rather dark age in a completely ungimmicky and unembellished way. If you look at the photo of the 1952 set, it’s virtually identical to the set at Chichester. The main difference is that the gas fire is now downstage so that Hester more or less has to look the front stalls in the eye when she turns the fire on, whereas before it was more discreetly positioned against the upstage wall. The furnishings are practical rather than comfortable; the costumes reflect the repressed and impoverished surroundings. Philip Franks the director has adhered to the three-act format – morning, afternoon and evening of this rather enormous day – and not caved in to the modern desire for the symmetrical structure of one central interval. You feel as though this is exactly how this play would have been presented sixty years ago.

Amanda RootYou must draw your own conclusions at to the precise reason for Hester’s suicide attempt, but her two options for bliss are current companion Freddie, who was probably once a bit of a wartime hero but is now an idle drunk, and previous husband William, who is willing to accept her back, but as a possession rather than because of love. Amanda Root’s Hester is brave, calm, sometimes in control, often in agonies of despair. As the two men interact with her you see her formulating her views on them, shoring herself up for the future, and gaining strength from every resolve she makes. It’s a very good performance; tugging at the heartstrings at the right times whilst maintaining whatever dignity she can muster as a failed suicider.

John HopkinsJohn Hopkins is Freddie; another good performance combining the roguish charm that presumably first attracted Hester with an irascible post-war self-disappointment which has resulted in his becoming a waster. In the RAF he had been a dashing test pilot; with the benefit of hindsight you would now consider him a prime candidate for Gulf War Syndrome or a possible beneficiary of Help for Heroes. There were times in the first act when I felt John Hopkins rushed and garbled his lines a little – so much so that I found some of his speeches a bit hard to follow. And that’s before the character had had too much to drink. Still he very much looked the part and the agonies that Freddie feels came across as real and disturbing.

Anthony CalfAt the other end of the social spectrum, Anthony Calf’s Sir William Collyer is the embodiment of buttoned-up stiff-upper-lippishness, his ultra-respectability in the rather slovenly surroundings effectively suggesting that their two lives are long past the chance of converging. When he offers to take her back, pointing out that she is devaluing herself by staying with Freddie, there is barely any increase the warmth of his voice, and you know that it’s not a question of love. It’s another very effective performance; I only know Anthony Calf as Strickland in TV’s New Tricks, and I just got a sneaking suspicion that he feels comfortable playing rather cold, authoritarian figures. Was the whole role just a little too easy for him?

Encouraged by the slightly mysterious Mr (Don’t call me Doctor) Miller who attends to her medical needs, Hester’s decision to let both men go their separate ways and to live her life alone is the big positive step at the end of the play. However, despite its forward-looking conclusion, it’s not the kind of play where you bounce out of the auditorium at the end and click your heels jauntily on the way to the car park. It’s a deep, thoughtful and moving play, and this production gives it the full respect it deserves.

I don't believe it!Celebrity news: whilst I nipped to the Gents, Mrs Chrisparkle queued to pre-order interval drinks, and in line in front of her was none other than Richard Wilson. That’s twice we’ve been in the same audience as him. Naturally when she told me later I had to let rip an “I Don’t Believe It”, which is the ordained form of response whenever his name is mentioned. One last piece of advice – if you pre-order tea and coffee for the interval, by the time you get to drink it, it’s cold. Stick to the Chenin Blanc in future.