Review – Flowers for Mrs Harris, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 22nd September 2018

Flowers for Mrs HarrisI remember reading about Flowers for Mrs Harris before it opened in Sheffield a couple of years back and finding that it failed to pique my interest much. Paul Gallico is a writer whose work has never drifted my way, and the bare bones of the story – post-war London charlady goes to Paris to buy a Dior dress – sounded horribly rooted in class and stereotype as well as sentimentally mushy. But then I read the reviews, and admitted to myself that I must have made a mistake.

FFMH1Now that Daniel Evans has taken over the reins at Chichester, I’m not surprised to see Flowers for Mrs H revived in the Festival Theatre, and the timing was right for Professor and Mrs Plum, Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Mrs Chrisparkle and me to incorporate it as one of our theatrical weekends. The Countess had actually read the book in her youth; I don’t think she rated it much, so it was bold of her to consent to attending.

FFMH3London, 1947; free from the tyranny of war, but not of its austerity consequences. Widowed Mrs Harris and her next-door neighbour friend, widowed Mrs Butterfield, just about scrape a living by cleaning the houses of a variety of clients, from posh Lady Dant to wannabe actress Pamela, from a cantankerous retired Major to desperate writer Bob. But it’s when Mrs H goes to Lady D’s to clean (rather than Mrs B, who’s her usual daily) that she espies a Christian Dior dress hanging up in her wardrobe; FFMH2and it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. She goes home, chats to the spirit of her dead husband (as you do) and decides then and there that she must have one. Trouble is – it’s £450 – that’s £12,500 in today’s money. It’s going to take her years and years to save. But if Mrs H is one thing, she’s tenacious. She has her dream and she’s not going to let it go. But what happens when Mrs ‘Arris gets to Paris (to almost quote the US name of the book), and just how welcome is une femme de ménage at the exclusive Dior showroom?

FFMH9The book has been adapted into this production by Rachel Wagstaff, who also adapted Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong for the stage; and given a musical score by Richard Taylor who had composed the music for the Royal and Derngate’s production of The Go-Between in 2011. To my mind this is a much more successful venture than either of those previous shows. You won’t find any linguistic or musical fireworks on display in this production; I’ve heard comparisons with Sondheim in the composition department and, personally, I think that’s way off the mark. This is not remotely Sondheimesque; there are no glitteringly memorable tunes nor starkly powerful lyrics that set your teeth on edge at the truths they reveal. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them. They create a mellifluous wash-over experience, accompanying the stage actions and the storytelling, but never taking over your attention or your senses.

FFMH4Sentimental? Most definitely yes. Mushy? Surprisingly no. The characterisations throughout are very strong and it’s written with honesty and integrity so that the audience fully appreciates the motivations for what takes place. However, the story itself is delicate and sensitively told. We didn’t quite get a tear in the eye on a few occasions in the second act, but it wasn’t far off. What you do come away from this show with, is a sense that kindness and decency go a long way in making the world a brighter place; the more you give, the more you get. Despite the lack of welcome she receives in Paris, the kindness she gives spreads out like ripples in the water. Happy ending? That’s up to you to decide, depending on your own priorities in life. The colour and light that comes into her world at the end (and indeed, on to the Festival Theatre stage) are unmistakeably heart-warming and life-enhancing.

FFMH8As you would expect, the creative team have gone all out to make this a show to please all the senses. Tom Brady’s ten-piece band deliver Richard Taylor’s score with passion and depth. Lez Brotherston (who else?) has created a deceptively simple set that utilises a revolving track to create the illusion of space, distance and movement brilliantly; and the modest furniture of Ada’s London kitchen drops in and out of view with satisfyingly technical precision. There’s some very inventive use of the staircase, and – no question – some stunning frocks on display in the Paris showroom. And don’t forget those flowers. All those flowers. How can flowers be so emotional?

FFMH5At the heart of the show is a great performance by Claire Burt as Mrs Harris; battered by life’s experiences but incredibly resilient and hugely generous of spirit. Having seen Miss Burt earlier this year as Miss Littlewood, I know that she has an incredible stage presence and a wonderful way of connecting with the audience. Ada Harris doesn’t have the same brash self-confidence that Joan Littlewood does, so Miss Burt channels all her stage efforts to reflect the character’s good nature and innate decency. I must say, we were all a little concerned at the beginning because Miss Burt hit quite a few bum notes in the first ten minutes and I wondered if she was suffering with a virus; however, as the show warmed up, so did she and in the end she gave a beautiful vocal performance.

FFMH6The rest of the cast create a true ensemble, with different roles in both London and Paris. Claire Machin is particularly good as Violet Butterfield, Mrs Harris’ hot-headed friend who only wants the best for her even though she can’t always express it. Joanna Riding is an exquisitely refined Lady Dant and a beautifully flawed Madame Colbert, struggling with the status of her position in conflict with her natural warmth. Laura Pitt-Pulford is wonderful as the lovely Natasha in Paris and suitably irksome as the difficult Pamela. Louis Maskell receives the Best Wobbly Legs on Staircase Award for his brilliant performance as Fauvel, and there are also a series of enjoyable cameos from an otherwise underused Gary Wilmot. The rest of the cast all give sterling support and high-quality performances.

FFMH7I’m not sure what my expectations were of this show – but I feel that they were exceeded. In the simplest terms, it’s just all very lovely, very sweet, and very heart-warming. You’ll leave the theatre with a love for your fellow man that you might not have noticed on your way in. It’s on until Saturday 29th, but I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to discover it appearing on some other stage in the not too distant future.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Copenhagen, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 22nd September 2018

CopenhagenIt’s with happiness tinged with sadness that I reflect that this was our last Chichester weekend of the year. It’s a privilege to be able to visit this influential and creative theatrical hub a few times throughout the summer, mixing it in with sensational lunches at the Minerva Brasserie and an enjoyable wind-down post-show with the excellent sharing boards in the Minerva Grill; unless, like me, you don’t share your board – I have the Vegetarian Board all to myself and it’s fab!

C 8For our final visit to Chichester this year we were spoilt for company, as we had Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum to enjoy it with us. And for our first theatrical extravaganza of the day, we saw a revival of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, his highly successful play about an imagined get-together by quantum physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, together with Niels’ wife Margrethe, after they’d all died. They looked back at a meeting between them all in 1941 in Copenhagen.

C 7What was the purpose of their meeting? Ay, there’s the rub. The essential elements of what brought them together are played out a number of times as the characters try to get to the truth of exactly what happened and why. I’m no quantum physicist, as you’ll soon see, but apparently – according to Michael Frayn’s introductory note in the programme – the act of observation changes what’s being observed. That’s one of the implications of quantum mechanics that Bohr and Heisenberg formulated in the 1920s. Therefore, every time we go back to re-observe, Groundhog Day-like, the events of that meeting, those events, by their very nature, have changed. Have I lost you? I’ve certainly lost myself.

C 3It’s not often that a play totally bamboozles me, but I confess this one did. Mr Frayn was in the bar later that evening; we really should have asked him to tell us what it was all about, but then we would have looked completely foolish. I take comfort in the fact that more intelligent souls than me, not to mention highly experienced drama and literary critics over the years, have emerged from theatres showing this play saying, in a highly intellectual way of course, “my brain hurts”.

C 2There’s no doubt that this meeting actually happened. In 1941, Bohr’s Denmark had been invaded and subjugated by Heisenberg’s Germany, so it wasn’t the most auspicious of times to meet, even though the two had been old friends from way back. It makes small-talk difficult; when Heisenberg tactlessly suggests a skiing trip to his place in the German mountains, the Bohrs look at him like he’s completely lost his marbles. Most commentators agree that their meeting was to debate the morality of scientists working on the creation of nuclear weapons. Heisenberg was in charge of the Nazi nuclear weapons project; Bohr was a natural peacemaker who despised the thought of science being used in this destructive way. But what actually went on between the two of them, we’ll probably never know. A number of letters were written, and discovered, over the years that complicate the opinions of these protagonists. Frayn’s play is therefore an attempt to clarify, or at least suggest, how the whole meeting might have played out. I think. But I’m not sure.

C 1I was left merely to enjoy the interplay between the characters, the high-quality acting, and convincing arguments being made on stage that you think you understand and follow – only to discover you’ve been left behind on a new strand of arguments and you’ve already forgotten what the first one was about. I think it probably does help if you’re a quantum physicist yourself; none of us is, although between us we do have a number of first-rate intellects who can form an opinion on most things. Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt like we should be wearing dunce caps in the corner.

C 6Maybe one of the problems with this very wordy play is the lack of action. Three actors, three chairs and a lot of sentences doesn’t necessarily make for great drama. Fortunately, Michael Blakemore (still directing at the age of 90, goodness me!) assembled a terrific, committed and intelligent cast who convert Frayn’s text into believable conversation and reminiscence. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Paul Jesson as Bohr; a reasoning and reasonable man but quick to ire and susceptible to bluster, as older authoritative figures frequently are. C 4He delights in pointing out where his Young Pretender’s calculations and assumptions have gone wrong – he is the Master Lecturer, after all. Charles Edwards’ Heisenberg is more measured in tone, calmer in argument, with a little of the smugness you get from being on the winning side of a war (at least at that point). Umpiring the two is Patricia Hodge’s Margrethe, a solemn, contemplative character who chips in with a few pointed remarks but largely keeps her thoughts to herself unless she can see the two men completely going up the wrong path.

C 5The play has long been a success, and it has certainly succeeded in making me curious to know more about these men and their theories. Alas, its short season has now ended, but this powerful, if static, production certainly exercised our brainboxes!

Production photos by Conrad Blakemore

Review – Me and My Girl, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 11th August 2018

Me and My GirlThe Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle was the poshest person you could ever meet who also claimed to be a Cockney Sparrer. Any show, programme, book or film that had a whiff of the East End about it (or even better, the West End) and she’d be there like a shot. Thus it was that she and I went to see the original production of this revised version of Me and My Girl at the Adelphi Theatre 33 years ago, gasp. It made a star of Emma Thompson, and confirmed Robert Lindsay as the second-best song and dance man in Britain (after Michael Crawford). The current Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with assorted members of her family, saw a revival in Milton Keynes in 2006, which was more notable for the supporting cast of Dillie Keane as the Duchess, the late Trevor Bannister as Sir John, and Sylvester McCoy as a splendid Parchester. And now the Lambeth Walk is back on the elegantly middle-class streets (avenues?) of Chichester, Oi!

Bill Me and My Girl is a pure feelgood show, that plays upon the age-old themes of rags to riches and the class divide; the common as muck hero lording it over the beautifully-bred gentry. Think Penelope Keith’s Margo versus Richard Briers’ Tom, Charlie Drake persistently aggravating Henry McGee, or Eliza Doolittle taking revenge on Henry Higgins. Higgins even fulfils a remote role in this story, and I’m sure you can guess what it is! Bill Snibson, wisecracking costermonger of the parish of Lambeth, is revealed to be the new Earl of Hareford, heir to a magnificent estate and fortune, all because of some irregular hows-your-father committed by the 13th Earl. But there is a condition; the new heir has to be considered to be a fit and proper person to assume the title; and Bill is, to coin a phrase, as rough as guts. Can Bill convince the Duchess, Sir John and their entourage that he and his girl Sally fit into high society? Does he even want to? Or is he a permanent fixture, South of the River? You’ll have to watch the show to find out!

Take it on the ChinFew creative masters can put together an exuberant, crowd-pleasing musical like the dream team of Daniel Evans (director), Lez Brotherston (design) and Alistair David (choreography). It worked in Sheffield, with their productions of My Fair Lady, Oliver!, Anything Goes, and Show Boat, and it’s still working in Chichester with this superb production. Mr Brotherston’s set opens up like a 3-D Advent Calendar, with opaque windows barely concealing partygoers inside; open a door and you get lovely glimpses of priceless tapestries beyond the back of the stage. Noblesse Oblige is the Hareford family motto; and Mr Brotherston does it proud. The costumes and props suggest immaculate taste in preference to creature comforts; Hareford Hall was never going to be a comfy and cosy sort of place, was it? Tim Mitchell’s lighting compliments the set perfectly and gives extra depth to some of the big choreographed numbers – The Lambeth Walk looks particularly beguiling. And Gareth Valentine’s orchestra never has a dull moment with a constant range of great tunes and fantastic arrangements; with the top of Mr Valentine’s head peeping out from a cut out triangle in the stage floor, I kept on hoping that the dancers don’t put a foot wrong and land up on top of him. Not as much as Mr Valentine does, I expect.

Leaning on a lamp...The original book by L Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber was revised by a young Stephen Fry (whatever happened to him?) back in the 1980s and still comes across as fresh and cheeky, with some puntastic lines for Bill to offend the dignified ears of the gentry. Noel Gay’s music still sounds sweet and tuneful. Not only the famous Lambeth Walk, and the title song Me and My Girl, but also the quirky fun of You Would if You Could, Take it on the Chin, and Parchester’s irrepressible The Family Solicitor. If you’ve only ever thought of Leaning on a Lamppost as a George Formby comedy number, you’ll be amazed at how beautiful it is as a romantic ballad. And to cap it all, there’s the terrific silliness of The Sun Has Got His Hat On. Removed from the running order, for some reason, is the delicately funny and sad If Only You Had Cared For Me, performed by the Duchess and Sir John; it’s a perfect little song that gives us an insight into what their lives could have been like, if only one of them had had the courage to say something. I say: reinstate it!

Me and My Girl in personPopular comic actor Matt Lucas plays Bill Snibson, and he absolutely looks the part. Garishly bedecked in a loud checked suit – all colour and no taste, the complete opposite of the Harefords – he’s quite nifty on his feet given he’s a slightly chunkier chap, and there’s an unexpectedly endearing nature to his vocal tone. He bats out the cockney patter like a regular at the Elephant and Castle and his comic timing is excellent. Oddly, he stumbled over a couple of his lines earlier on and never stopped referring back to it throughout the rest of the show; I sense he was less at ease about his little faux pas than the rest of us were; we’d forgiven him and forgotten about it ages ago.

Doing the Lambeth WalkVery good as he was, what his performance lacked for me was a little extra depth in the emotions. I know it’s just a silly and fluffy musical, but these are real people in real predicaments. You never felt the physical and mental anguish of Bill’s being deliberately separated from Sally. His voice never betrayed that doubtful uncertainty of being a fish out of water. All his emotions and reactions were essentially superficial; a little too comic-book and not sufficiently heartfelt for my liking. I found myself wondering what Robert Lindsay was doing that evening. I felt that slight superficiality also extended to his Sally, the wonderful Alex Young, whom we have seen so many times and is always a delight. True, she sang the lovely Once You Lose Your Heart with a beautiful sense of tragedy, and she masterminded the stage invasion that is the start of The Lambeth Walk. But I felt there was less chemistry when she was actually singing alongside Mr Lucas. By the way, her transformation from Lambeth Sally to the refined potential Lady Hareford was immaculately realised.

DuchessThe true star of the evening was Caroline Quentin who gives a huge performance – vocally, comedically, and even choreographically. Perfectly treading that fine line between a Christine Hamilton-style battle-axe and being a kindly matriarch with a twinkle in her eye and a heart of gold, Ms Quentin convincingly shows throughout how, for the sake of tradition, she desperately wants Bill to succeed as the new Earl, because That’s How Things Are Done. She effortlessly slides in to the comic set pieces, such as helping Bill practise meeting grand dignitaries at his party; she throws herself into the Lambeth Walk, so much so that she could become the Pearly Queen of Tunbridge Wells. It’s a brilliant performance throughout. Clive Rowe, too, has a fine old time as Sir John; a perfect comedy foil to Mr Lucas whilst being a supportive arm for Ms Quentin.

As the family solicitor, here's what you have to doDominic Marsh is excellent as Gerald; not quite like one of Ray Alan’s Lord Charles’ Silly Arses so he remains a credible character, joyfully leading us through The Sun Has Got His Hat On, and entertainingly reuniting with the excellent and frightful Lady Jackie (Siubhan Harrison) with the most effective kiss ever planted on woman’s lips. And there’s a frolicsomely fun performance from Jennie Dale as Parchester, who finds refuge from the dryness of a legal career through the medium of song and dance. I’ve not seen Parchester played by a woman before, but there’s absolutely no reason why she shouldn’t be. If anything, I’d liked to have seen Messrs Evans and David allow Ms Dale even more free rein to cavort all over the stage. Having occasionally to repress her irrepressibility was rather sad!

So jump into your sunbathLast Saturday night’s show was pretty much sold out; and these final two weeks of the run are looking fairly cramped too. A terrific production that would certainly suit one of these hugely successful Chichester/West End transfers. This one will have you travelling home afterwards, beaming from ear to ear. Oi!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The Meeting, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 11th August 2018

The MeetingThe second of our three Chichester weekends this year saw Mrs Chrisparkle and me meet up with Professor and Mrs Plum for our usual fantastic lunch at the Minerva Brasserie – I can really recommend the Whiston Blanc de Blancs for a beautifully tasty sparkling English wine; it would perk up any social event! And the chicken is a real winner.

Meeting 3As usual it was to be a double-header at Chichester, and our first stop was at the Minerva for The Meeting. I think it’s fair to say that unless you are a Quaker, or are personally acquainted with a Quaker very well, you’re unlikely to know much about them. You don’t stumble across and visit their places of worship like you pop into an English Country Church in the Church of England tradition, for example. There aren’t big versions of their Meeting Houses like there are Cathedrals. And you don’t learn about their worshipping traditions, because, as far as I can make out, there aren’t any. The pinnacle of a great Quaker Meeting is to stay as silent as possible for the longest time.

Meeting 4That’s what makes Charlotte Jones’ new play, The Meeting, which has just finished its run at the Minerva theatre, so very intriguing. Set in a Sussex Quaker community in 1805, this small group of people get along by very much keeping themselves to themselves, marrying within the community, not venturing into “the town”; committed to the sanctity of human life, so they cannot fight at war; believing in equality so that even the most junior in the community would not address the most senior with any kind of reverent title. They are a Society of Friends and Friends are always equal. I learned a lot.

Meeting 8But just because this is a community of Quakers, it doesn’t mean they’re not subject to the same emotions, temptations, and desires as the rest of us. Take Rachel, for instance, living with her deaf mother Alice and her husband Adam, a stonemason; three sons she has borne him, each one stillborn or died at birth, each one named Nathaniel in the hope that they might eventually have a survivor. Biddy, on the other hand, married to James, the Elder of the community, is as fecund as the Indus Valley. I lost count how many children they had, but there’s a baby in tow at the moment and older daughter Tabitha is on the lookout for a husband.

Meeting 7One day, Rachel meets a soldier; a young man apparently invalided out of the army, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. His name? Nathaniel. Adam has only recently said he needs a young apprentice, as his strength and eye for detail are on the wane; Rachel sees it as a sign, and suggests that Nathaniel come back with her to meet Adam to see if he thinks he would be a good apprentice. Trouble is, he’s not a Quaker; but Rachel will teach him and encourage him, and, as far as she’s concerned, it’s just a little white lie for The Greater Good. But you know what might happen if an attractive older woman and a handsome young man start living under the same roof….. The gasp of shock from the audience at the final tableau before the interval told its own story!

Meeting 5The play very satisfyingly lets us in to see the secrets of this closed community, that few of us to this day know much about, so it piques our interest initially on the simple level of widening our general knowledge. But then we see the community face the age-old problem of a love-triangle, something we see in many plays and films over the course of a lifetime; and maybe indeed personally experience its pain and complications. It’s a very familiar event in a very unfamiliar setting. At times – as when Adam encouraged Nathaniel to accompany Rachel to keep her company – it reminded me of the previous play we’d seen at the Minerva, The Country Wife – although of course, much less raucous. Adam’s blissful ignorance about Nathaniel’s intentions towards Rachel and Lord Fidget’s similar encouragement to Horner to spend time with Lady Fidget are not a million miles apart.

Meeting 10It’s a fascinating play, beautifully and sensitively written, with much to say about friendship and faithfulness; forgiveness and redemption; expression and suppression. Dry stonewalls provide the backdrop to Vicki Mortimer’s simple but flexible set, a circular mosaic floor providing the setting for the meetings, where the attendees sit around on simple chairs in a circle; when the meeting is over they simply hook the backs of the chairs to a circular roof that descends and ascends to take the chairs out of the way. The costumes are uniformly puritanical grey and drab; I had to cut myself a little chuckle when Tabitha displays her “beautiful” wedding dress which is only fractionally less grey and drab than everything else the women wear. The only exception is the bright red of the soldier’s jacket which must, perforce, be hidden; let’s hope nobody finds it…

Meeting 6Charlotte Jones has written two great parts for women. Lydia Leonard is superb as Rachel; trying her best to be dutiful, bursting forth at the Quaker Meetings because she is full of ministry – or, in her case, emotion and expression which desperately needs an outlet; powerless to fight the attractive force that is the new young man under her roof. And Olivia Darnley is also brilliant as Biddy; on the one hand, the comedy gossip role, always irrepressible with good humour and accentuating the positive; on the other hand, with a past full of resentment and bitterness that she too finds it hard not to revisit.

Meeting 2Gerald Kyd plays Adam with stolid dignity and quiet assertiveness; he is a man whose emotions will always only be revealed behind closed doors. And there’s an excellent, assured performance from newcomer Laurie Davidson as Nathaniel, the seemingly decent and honest worker who turns into something of a sneak and a louse. There’s also the meaty role of Alice, powerfully performed by deaf actor Jean St Clair, eloquent in her sign language and amazingly articulate facial expressions. And there’s great support from Jim Findley as the well-meaning and responsible Elder James Rickman and Leona Allen as his enthusiastic and surprisingly self-confident daughter Tabitha.

Meeting 12We saw this on its final matinee after its three-week run, and sadly the theatre was only about 60% full, which isn’t a great audience turnout for Chichester. Those of us who were there really enjoyed it and were thoroughly carried away by its great story-telling and emotional charge. Whether or not there could be a life for this play in the future, I’m not sure. But I’m very pleased we managed to catch it, as it was a very rewarding and thought-provoking play.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – The Country Wife, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 9th June 2018

The Country WifeWilliam Wycherley’s The Country Wife was first performed in 1675, slap bang in the middle of the period when all the theatregoing public wanted was sex – the bawdier, the better. They’d had enough of those puritans, spreading misery and restraint; what they wanted was a damn good laugh, and it had better be a filthy one too.

Lex Shrapnel as HornerIt’s a rather neatly structured and tidy example of the Restoration Comedy genre; cuckolded husbands, rampant fornicators, foppish twerps, licentious servants, as well as a story of true love and an interesting contrast between the ways of the town and those of the country – including the pun in the title, which I’m sure you’ve grasped.

Belinda Lang as Lady FidgetWe first meet the roguish Horner in conversation with his quack, who has let it be known that Horner has been diagnosed as impotent as any eunuch in the orient – so much for patient confidentiality. Horner’s plan is that this will make him irresistible to women because they will either feel safe in his company, or they will want to try to put him to the test. Either way, he wins. His first sortie is to convince Sir Jasper Fidget to get access to Lady Fidget, her sister Dainty, and their constant companion Mistress Squeamish. Easy. As an additional bonus, he gets to cuckold the men of the town in a warped, power-mad desire for dominance; the cuckold dance at the end of the play signifies the complete fruition of all his effort. He has a retinue of mates who love the sound of all that extra-marital hoo-ha, including the foppish Sparkish, who is to marry Alithea, the sister of Margery. She is herself newly married to the wretched Pinchwife, who hides her by locking her in her bedroom so that scurrilous menaces like Horner can’t winkle her out and have their wicked way with her. Does Horner indulge in a little Ladies and Gentlemen with every woman in the town? Does Pinchwife successfully preserve Margery’s virtue? Does Sparkish get to marry Alithea? As the play’s been around almost 350 years now, I’m sure you already know the answer.

John Hodgkinson as PinchwifeThis very modern version of the play – drinks trolleys, pizza boxes, neon-signed nightclubs, Ann Summers shopping bags – puts less emphasis on the fun aspect that the original 1675 audience would have relished, and more on the sordid nature of Horner’s life and game-playing, and its wider effects on those about him. We have no sympathy for Horner; we don’t identify with him and aren’t jealous that he gets all the girls. He’s a loathsome wretch, waking up on the sofa in a post-alcoholic stupor; adding more notches on his bedpost simply because he can, and because there’s nothing much else for him to do that he’d be good at. The final scene shows him back on his sofa, still knocking back the remnants of last night’s booze. He has progressed not an inch. Pinchwife’s just as bad, threatening his wife with violence, locking her away like a caged bird; and at the end of the play it’s Margery who is visibly broken by the entire experience, the true victim of all that has gone before. So, whilst it’s a lively and enjoyable production, you’re never far from having something of a dirty taste at the back of your throat.

The CompanySoutra Gilmour has designed a dark and functional set, very bachelor pad in its creature comforts; the reversable back wall has three doors, useful for highlighting the Feydeau Farce aspect of the play, and a Restoration Comedy word cloud is projected onto the back wall from time to time, just in case you forget the naughtiness of the era. There’s a lot of zaniness going on at each scene change, with chairs, beds, and what-have-yous all being swirled around in circles on their way on or off stage, as though to highlight the uncontrollably madcap nature of Horner’s world. The costumes are perfect, from Lady Fidget’s business chic and Sir Jasper’s staid old codger’s suit to the trendiest clothes you can get in H&M for all the young people. Musical man of the moment, Grant Olding, has composed some mind-joltingly harsh techo-jingles to accompany the scene changes and Jonathan Munby’s direction is slick and unsentimental.

Scott Karim as SparkishThere are smart performances throughout: Lex Shrapnel’s Horner is very believable as that lowlife swine who looks on the world as something to be wrung out to dry for his own benefit, a professional manipulator who doesn’t even need much in the way of charisma to get what he wants. John Hodgkinson’s Pinchwife is a tetchy mass of nervous energy, constantly on his guard against unwanted approaches; it’s an excellent portrayal of a man brought to the brink of anxiety by his own selfishness, whose only fuel left in his tank is to attack the one he loves. Belinda Lang is a delightfully over-the-top poseuse as the affected Lady Fidget; Scott Karim gives a good account of the foppish Sparkish, including the most insincere chuckle you’ve ever heard; and there’s excellent support from Ashley Zhangazha and Jo Herbert as Harcourt and Alithea, the genuine young lovers caught up in all this nonsense.

Susannah Fielding as MargeryThe night, however, belongs to Susannah Fielding, who is superb as Margery, with wonderful wide-eyed innocence mixed with her sad, suppressed and frustrated expressions as she languishes pointlessly alone on her bed. There’s a wonderful scene where Pinchwife has to lead Margery through the town so she is disguised as a man – or in this case, a schoolboy, nevertheless pretending to be Pinchwife’s brother – much to the amusement of the onlookers. You’ll never think of Wee Jimmie Krankie in the same way again. An immaculate performance bringing out all the pathos and humour that befits the role.

Jo Herbert as AlitheaThis was a preview performance, so there was always a possibility that some things might change before press night. It’s a little long at just under three hours, but it’s difficult to see where any further cuts could be made. Certainly, the second part of the play feels more rollicking than the first, which was a shame for those dozen or so people who decided to leave at the interval; a harsh judgment on their part, I thought. It’s a powerful, relevant production, perfect for introducing a new generation to the wicked world of the Restoration.

Ashley Zhangahza as HarcourtP. S. As it was gone 10.30 pm when it finished, it was too late for us to pay our usual homage at the Cote Restaurant in Chichester; it’s a town that likes to go to bed early. So for the first time we stayed behind at the Minerva Bar and Grill and had some of their sharing plate suppers – and they were absolutely delicious. A bottle of Merlot and terrific service eased our way almost into the new day. Definitely recommended as a brilliant way to finish your evening at the theatre!

Production photos by Manual Harlan

Review – The Chalk Garden, Chichester Festival Theatre, 9th June 2018

The Chalk GardenIt’s that time of year again when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of Chichester. We have three weekends lined up for the summer months, and on our first, we were accompanied by our friends the Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters. Lunch, natch, was in the Minerva Brasserie; it wouldn’t be the same without it. Normally we would see whatever was on offer in the Minerva Theatre as the matinee entertainment of the day, followed by the evening performance in the Festival Theatre. But this time, in something of a volte face, this time we did it the other way around.

Penelope Keith as Mrs St MaughamEnid Bagnold; that’s not a name you hear bandied about much these days. But she had quite a life, not only writing several books and plays including that old favourite, National Velvet, but she was a nurse in the First World War, married the chairman of Reuters, and one of her great-granddaughters is Political Wife and businesswoman Samantha Cameron. The Chalk Garden is her semi-autobiographical play, first produced in 1955. It was inspired by her Sussex garden at Rottingdean, in a house previously owned by the painter Burne-Jones. With post-war domestic arrangements in something of a turmoil, including coping with a three-year-old granddaughter, she advertised for a lady to come and help. No qualifications needed, she just knew she would find the right person when the right person came along. One day the family received a visit from an old friend, a judge; and the recently hired nanny became fascinated in him – but in a terrified way. This mysterious reaction gave Bagnold the idea of writing a play where a stranger with an unknown past comes into a domestic situation; and she wanted to find out all about what had happened in that stranger’s past. Hence Enid Bagnold is the real Mrs St Maugham, and Miss Madrigal is the fictional version of her unknown nanny.

Amanda Root as Miss MadrigalMrs St Maugham is woefully inadequate at keeping her granddaughter Laurel on the straight and narrow because she doesn’t want to – she wants her to be an expressive, free thinker; but we the audience can see she’s actually a rude, graceless, pain in the backside arsonist who needs some firmness in her upbringing. Mrs St Maugham has a garden where nothing grows; she has the desire for a beautiful garden but not the talent. Enter Miss Madrigal, of whom we know nothing, except that she can not only tend a chalk garden in a productive way but also develop the good qualities of the unruly child. But when she clearly recognises the Judge when he pops round for lunch, just what is the connection? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.

Emma Curtis as Laurel and Matthew Cottle as MaitlandFrom today’s perspective, this might sound like a rather over-genteel, twee little play, all cucumber sandwiches and endearingly precocious children. Not a bit of it. This is a tough little play; gently lick the strawberries and cream off the surface of the plot and you’ll find rivets of steel holding it together. It’s written with all the hallmarks of a 1950s drawing room comedy but with added bite; many of the lines are not only acerbic, they have a thin veneer of violence to them. Bagnold clearly has a fascination for the criminal mind; and with some surprisingly muscular turns of phrase this is a play that delivers way more than it promises.

Oliver Ford Davies as the JudgeWhilst there’s a lot to discover beneath the surface of this play, there’s also the obvious attraction of what’s on the surface. Enter the auditorium of the Festival Theatre and you’ll find that designer Simon Higlett has truly gone to town to create an immaculate house and garden-type set. Pleasant but not luxurious furnishings; a distant peek into a workaday back garden; a busy corridor where visitors come and go; and of course, a superb recreation of the front part of the main garden. Personally, I like blank stages where you can let your imagination run riot; but, if you can’t have that, then go the complete opposite and create a meticulously imagined set where no attention to detail has been missed. Absolutely stunning.

Mrs St MaughamPenelope Keith is the obvious attraction about this production, and I’d be lying if I said her heading the cast didn’t play a significant part in wanting to see this show. I’d seen her eight times previously, over the years, most recently back in 2010 in The Rivals, and she never fails to delight. A part like Mrs St Maugham is bread-and-butter to Ms Keith but she tackles it full on with her beautiful enunciations and absolutely wicked comic timing. She brings Mrs St Maugham to life with complete effortlessness; which I’m sure takes a great effort.

Miss MadrigalThere are some terrific supporting performances too. Amanda Root is excellent as the deliberately unforthcoming Miss Madrigal; kind, assertive, practical and intriguing. Matthew Cottle also delivers a fine performance as the wheedling and put-upon servant Maitland; part of the family but never really quite “fully accepted” in matters of taste and grace. Oliver Ford Davies is very comfortable as the Judge; used to the finer things in life, including getting his own way, but very irked when having to defend himself or face up to his responsibilities. And there’s a nice performance from Emma Curtis as the demanding but controllable Laurel.

An excellent choice for a 50s revival, and definitely worth making the trip to the South Coast!

Production photos by Catherine Ashmore

Review – The Norman Conquests, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 7th October 2017

The Norman ConquestsSome scenes are just iconic, aren’t they? Lord Liverpool (who accompanied us on this full-day outing to see all three of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests, along with the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor & Mrs Plum) and I both vividly remember watching the 1970s TV version of Table Manners and seeing Tom Conti wax lyrical about the delights of Puffa Puffa Rice. You don’t get that sort of entertainment any more.

NC Annie in Round and Round the GardenAt least, not till now, with Blanche McIntyre’s immense new production of this wonderful trilogy gracing the stage at the Chichester Festival Theatre. In a nod to its original layout, they’ve converted the back of the set to take more seating, so that the plays are now performed in the round. Having had a miserable experience with “on stage seating” at the Trafalgar Studios’ Richard III a couple of years ago, I’m a great believer in once bitten twice shy and so we happily occupied the centre of Row C of the regular seating.

NC Sarah and Annie in Living TogetherIn case you don’t know, Annie has arranged that her nice-but-dull brother Reg and his uptight control freak of a wife Sarah will come down for the weekend to look after Mother whilst Annie has a much-deserved weekend away for a rest. So why is her brother-in-law Norman (married to her sister Ruth) lurking in the bushes of their overgrown garden? Is there really an assistant librarian’s convention that weekend? And what about vet Tom, who holds a candle for Annie but is too emotionally reserved to do anything about it? He keeps coming over to check on Annie’s pussy (yes, I know it sounds as though it’s written by Mrs Slocombe, but bear with me). The pussy’s in the tree with a septic paw, and all Tom can do is shout “Pussy!” occasionally. Over the course of the weekend, all is revealed; no one finds happiness but just maybe they might in the future….

NC Norman in Round and Round the GardenAyckbourn’s trilogy is beautifully structured so that you see the same story over the course of the same weekend in three different areas of the house – the living room, the dining room and the garden. Ayckbourn wrote all three plays concurrently, in chronological order; starting with Act One Scene One of Round and Round the Garden (5.30pm Saturday), then the first scene of Table Manners (6pm) and then the first scene of Living Together (6.30pm). In that way he was able to accompany Norman on his journey of havoc in the same sequence that our eponymous hero does. By the time we reach the final scene of Round and Round the Garden at 9am on Monday, we have a full picture of all the intrigues and misunderstandings that took place the whole weekend. Miss one of the plays out, and you’ll only get half an appreciation of what really went on.

NC Annie and Norman in Table MannersIt’s an absolute delight to observe how the three plays interlock. There are overlapping action moments like Reg exiting one room and entering another with a waste paper basket, and Tom exiting and entering bellowing his false and hearty laugh. There are other moments where a character has changed costume for no explicable reason, until you discover the reason why in another of the plays. Ayckbourn also sets up deliberately misleading threads for the audience. There’s more than one occasion where a character reflects that they may have upset someone or said the wrong thing; the audience makes an assumption as to what that might be, only to watch one of the other plays and find themselves proved totally wrong. It’s like a stand-up comedian with a routine full of callbacks that you don’t appreciate until they hit you unexpectedly. Round and Round the Garden contains one scene of misunderstanding between Tom and Ruth that is so blissfully executed and that leads on to further scenes of jaw-droppingly inappropriate behaviour that it’s worth the ticket price for all three shows on its own. If you miss it, then much of what happens later on in the other plays will remain a mystery.

NC Tom and Reg in Round and Round the GardenWe saw all three plays on the one day, in true theatrefest style. Living Together was on first (11am – such a treat), with Table Manners at the standard matinee time and Round and Round the Garden in the evening. Whatever you do, see the garden play last. Maybe, on reflection, you should see Table Manners first; that way the character of Norman is kept back from you till the last possible moment.

NC Annie in Living TogetherIt’s interesting to see how the plays have dated just a little in some respects. Each contains a moment of violence which is played primarily for comic effect; two of those occasions you could describe as “domestic violence”, and each time Norman is the victim. Ayckbourn always did have the knack of making you laugh out loud and then cover your face with shame for laughing. He honed that skill with developing subtlety over the years; but back in 1973 it was a little less sophisticated. At one point, Ruth uses the word “halfwit” as an insult, and it stood out to me as being maybe acceptable for a previous era but not enlightened enough for today. However, the age-old themes of marital (dis)harmony, naughty weekends away and an inability to express one’s feelings are never going to go away; nor is the mention of “East Grinstead” ever going to create anything other than risible scorn, especially to an audience of Sussex-siders.

NC Norman and Sarah in Round and Round the GardenSimon Higlett’s design preserves a hint of home counties garden at the edges (herbaceous borders I presume) for all three plays, whilst creating homely and slightly drab areas for the living and dining rooms. Would I be a tad picky if I were to suggest a larger dining table might have helped sight lines during Table Manners? From my seat I couldn’t see the visual prankstering between Norman and Tom which forms a considerable part of the comedy of the Act Two Scene One dinner fiasco, because Sarah obstructed my view. Congratulations to Lizzie Frankl’s props department for recreating a Puffa Puffa Rice box, seeing as how they haven’t been sold since 1975.

NC Annie and Reg in Table MannersIn best Ayckbournian tradition, the cast make a brilliant ensemble, with no one actor or character standing out as the star; everyone gets his or her own magic moments. Jonathan Broadbent’s Reg reminded me of the Harry Enfield father-in-law character, with his ghastly positivity, nasty driving gloves and endless insistence on everyone playing his wretched game – although, to be fair, I thought it sounded quite fun. I loved his proof that chess is no more realistic than any other game – that was the best mincing diagonal bishop ever. Sarah Hadland’s Sarah couldn’t be more different, with the white knuckled tension she brings to almost every scene. Rattling through her lines with unnerving urgency, she’s brilliant at playing that bitter, thwarted, disappointed housewife, only occasionally allowing herself a moment or two of release – such as at the end of Living Together, when the subject of Bournemouth crops up. Sarah’s grand moment of comedy comes with trying to seat everyone around the dinner table – her middle-class pretensions ruined by a bunch of unruly co-diners who don’t give a stuff about etiquette.

NC Tom in Living TogetherAs Annie, Jemima Rooper (a mischievous Elvira to Angela Lansbury’s Madame Arcati a few years ago) brings a vulnerable charm to the role, nicely blending the tomboy with the coquette as she stuffs her fists into the pockets of her shapelessly comfy old jumper that hides the alluring party frock underneath. Annie runs the gamut of emotions A to, well not quite Z but a long way down the alphabet. Flirtatious, furious, apologetic, tentative, embarrassed; these are just some of the moods that Ms Rooper uses to represent this very put-upon person whose glimmers of hope for the future are slowly being extinguished. As her wannabe suitor Tom, John Hollingworth cuts a perfectly ungainly figure; the occasions where Tom’s inability to understand the rules of a game or get a joke are genuinely hilarious, as you see the cogs turn behind Mr Hollingworth’s eyes but no ratchets engage. The physical comedy of his scene with Ruth, which ends up with them rolling down the side of the garden is just superb, as is his public-school fisticuffs mistaken defence of Annie at the dinner table. You know someone is getting the role right when the audience just affectionately groans when Mr Hollingworth lumbers on to the stage. A fantastic comedy performance.

NC Ruth in Round and Round the GardenHattie Ledbury also gives a brilliant performance as the disdainful Ruth, accepting life with Norman as a game where she constantly loses, only occasionally allowing us to see the embers of their relationship – on the fireside rug, not inappropriately. As vanity (which she denies) doesn’t permit her to wear her glasses, she stumbles myopically on the sidelines of everyone else’s relationships and doesn’t care at all who she hurts. Trystan Gravelle’s Norman is the catalyst for the disastrous weekend; an excellent performance that allows us both to empathise with and loathe him. It’s important for the plays to work that we can believe that Norman is, strangely, irresistible in a certain light – his so-called magnetism that means women just fall for him. I could just about see it, which is perfect; too obvious and he’d just be a dumb Don Juan character. Irritating, patronising, deliberately pushing for a reaction of any sort, yet also oddly fragile, Mr Gravelle gives us a great performance of a character you’d really be better off not knowing.

NC Ruth and Norman in Living TogetherOne slight quibble; I don’t know if anyone has told the cast they’ve got to get through these plays as quickly as possible because people have trains to catch, but I was surprised how much they continued to drive on with speeches after a big laugh, rather than waiting for the laughter to die down a little. Mr Hollingworth was the best at holding back and waiting; I won’t say who was the worst! But we are all there to have fun and a laugh, it only seems fair to give us a chance to get our belly laughs out of the way before they deliver us more Ayckbourn gems.

NC The whole cast in Table MannersIf you’ve seen The Norman Conquests before – firstly, you don’t look old enough; moreover, you’ll love getting reacquainted with this dysfunctional household of various reprobates. If this is all new to you, you’ve got a wonderful combination of farce and comedy of manners with a 70s twist to look forward to. An early masterpiece by one of our greatest comic playwrights. On until 28th October; it would be great if it were to transfer too.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan