Review – Fiddler on the Roof, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 22nd July 2017

FIddler on the RoofSometimes you look at a theatre’s listings for the season ahead and a show stands out like a beacon of must-seeishness. I’d seen Fiddler on the Roof twice before; once with the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle in 1983 at the Apollo Victoria, starring the iconic Topol as Tevye, and once with Mrs Chrisparkle at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, starring Paul Michael Glaser (and damn fine he was too.) Professor and Mrs Plum (who accompanied us on our Chichester weekend) advised us that they’d seen it on Broadway starring Harvey Fierstein. Gosh! I bet he was amazing.

Fiddler - everyoneI’m sure you know the background to this musical. It’s based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem about Tevye and his daughters published in 1894. The author was born in present-day Ukraine, and moved to New York City after witnessing the violence against Jews in southern Russia in 1905. The stories have inspired plays, TV programmes and movies over the years – but none so prominent as Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye is the village milkman, with his own philosophy of life that is heavily based on his deep but informal relationship with God, with whom he chats all the time. An upholder and adherent of Tradition, the musical shows you how Tevye copes having daughters who know their own mind and are not afraid to carve out their own way of life. Will he stick with the time-honoured traditions, or will he bend the rules to accommodate their wishes? And what chance does tradition have when it’s up against the outside world of the Czar’s Russia and the violent pogroms of the time?

TevyeSometimes at a show you get that feeling about ten minutes into it when you say to yourself “Wow, I am really loving this!” Gentle reader, I got that feeling. And once that happens you can just sit back and wallow in the pleasure of the whole thing. With all the traditional hallmarks of his Sheffield successes already chalked up, Daniel Evans’ first big show for Chichester – choreography by Alistair David, set design by Lez Brotherston, and a fantastic band courtesy of Tom Brady – is every bit as good as you could possibly dream it might be.

Sabbath PrayerThat’s not to say that in any way it shies away from the harshness of the reality of Tevye’s life and the village of Anatevka. If anything, this was the least saccharine portrayal of their day to day existence I’ve seen. The disruption to Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding celebration, for instance, stops you dead in your tracks with its mindless cruelty. When the villagers are informed that they will have to leave everything and go away, their desolation is palpable. But so much of the strength of the show comes from that balance of emotions between the sweet and the sour. The strongest moments (and songs) combine that hankering after something you just can’t have (If I were a Rich Man), and making the best of the here and now (To Life). Add to that the blind optimism of Matchmaker, Matchmaker and Miracle of Miracles plus the wistfulness of Do You Love Me and Sunrise, Sunset and you have one of the strongest scores in the history of musicals. Obvious, I know, but it occurred to me that, every time you hear Sunrise, Sunset, you’re just a little – significantly – older than the last time you heard it. My reaction to the stunning performance it receives in this production was to feel remarkably mortal. But when some aspect of a show pulls you up short and makes you question your own reality, you know theatre is doing its job properly.

Rabbinical questionsThe production is notable for some mind-boggling staging moments. The Fruma-Sarah dream sequence is extraordinary, with the spectral old biddy hovering large above the bed like a Jewish Sword of Damocles, the eerie presence of an army of demonic ghosts, and at one stage I thought the entire theatre was going to go up in flames! It’s a breathtakingly brilliant scene. Also stunning, but in a much more reflective way, was how the backstage opened up during the Sabbath Prayer so that you could see the other households in the village all following the same tradition; that was extremely effective and rather moving.

Matchmaker MatchmakerOf course, a huge part of the attraction for this particular production is the inspired casting of Omid Djalili as Tevye. He’s a very accomplished stand-up comic – we’ve loved him both times we’ve seen him – who involves uninhibited physicality as part of his humour. He was always going to be perfect in this role and boy does he not disappoint. From the moment you first see him, he’s got that glint in his eye that says we’ve gotta show to do and we’re all gonna have fun whilst never ever coming out of character or indeed turning Tevye into any kind of pantomime.

Mendel, Motel and the boysIn fact, for a larger-than-life comedian, it’s astounding how ordinary and normal he presents the character – which is great, because it’s so much easier for the audience to identify with him. He is a real man, with real problems but also a real sense of fun. As you would imagine, he absolutely made If I Were a Rich Man his own, and every time he comes on he lights up the stage. Make no mistake; when he disowns Chava for marrying the Christian Fyedka, his face is like thunder and his fury is undeniable – this is a man pushed to the limit and, much as it grieves him, he is determined to stand by his God rather than his daughter. This unfatherly reaction is uncomfortable for the audience. Apparently not every problem can be solved by a show tune. He is desperate to put the past behind them; and we can see him start to soften when he reminds Tzeitel to say “and God be with you” when she and Chava part; but he never gives in. Stubborn? Pious? Simply human? Tevye has complex emotions and beliefs which Mr Djalili explores and expresses magnificently.

GoldeThere’s also a tremendous performance by Tracy-Ann Oberman as Golde; funny, wry, spirited, bossy but essentially extremely kind-hearted, holding the household together whilst Tevye’s out working, or chewing the cud with God, or celebrating with Lazar Wolf. And of course she has a stunning voice that comes across so strongly, especially in the beautiful Sabbath Prayer sequence. Simbi Akande, Emma Kingston and Rose Shaloo make a great trio of daughters, presenting their father with challenge after challenge; they give us a fresh and funny Matchmaker, Matchmaker, and Emma Kingston’s Hodel sings a spine-tingling rendition of Far From the Home that I Love.

Motel and TzeitelI barely recognised the wonderful Liza Sadovy as Yente; as always, she gives the role a feisty and humorous characterisation. And I loved Jos Slovick’s Motel performing Miracle of Miracles – a couple of minutes of sheer reckless joy in what you sense is otherwise a fairly joyless life. Louis Maskell’s Perchik has just the right amount of confident and disdainful swagger to impress as the intellectual rebel without being a pain in the backside; and you just know that life is nevertheless going to teach him a thing or two as time goes on. And it was great to see Harry Francis again, as the rabbi’s son Mendel, brilliantly integrating outstandingly skilful dance moves into the big numbers.

Tevye takes them awayIt’s a huge cast, and everyone performs with absolute commitment and a sense of true enjoyment. It’s already been extended by a week, so the show now runs until 2nd September – but that’s surely not going to be the last we see of it? A credit to all involved. We all loved it.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The House They Grew Up In, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 22nd July 2017

The House They Grew Up InHurrah for our second Chichester weekend of the year! This time Mrs Chrisparkle and I were accompanied by the sophisticated and intelligent Professor and Mrs Plum, who were desperate for some proper erudition and a slap-up fried breakfast in the morning. They weren’t disappointed on either count.

DanielDo you remember a TV programme from a few years ago, gentle reader, called Life Laundry? It was where people who weren’t coping with aspects of their life for whatever reason just started piling up junk inside their houses so that they could barely move? They needed the help of expert advisers to start understanding their problems and then give them advice as to how they could start reclaiming their home. It was fascinating and frequently very moving to watch.

PeppyWelcome to the home of the Angelis family: sister Peppy (short for Penelope), brother Daniel (short for Daniel). By the sound of it, it’s probably in quite a decent area; certainly their slimy neighbour Gareth is interested in expanding his ownership. But it is The House They Grew Up In, and never left; although Peppy went to Cambridge, apparently; to study art, I would imagine. Peppy’s now looking after Daniel as best she can, but he doesn’t help himself, just sitting there, with music constantly going through his headphones, hoping to be fed every now and then. She tells him things but he hardly takes them in because he’s never using his listening ears. He’s probably autistic. His only friend – not that he really thinks of him as a friend – is next door’s boy Ben. He’s only eight, but he takes an interest. Peppy’s not keen. She doesn’t like people coming to the house.

The Police arrive to see DanielAnd the Life Laundry connection? Their house is crammed, top to bottom, with junk. Trying to find anything is a nightmare. Trying to navigate around the living room is nigh on impossible. Designer Max Jones must have had a field day acquiring all the detritus that dominates the set. It really takes your breath away! Not only has the stuff accumulated over the years simply because Peppy and Daniel live such a private, reclusive life – Uncle Manny at Christmas seems to be their only other link to the outside world – but it also reflects the mess that their lives have gradually become; and the mess that gets steadily worse through the course of the play.

LaurenceAlthough it has the now standard format of one interval in the middle of the show, structurally it feels to me like an old-fashioned three act play. Act One is largely scene-setting, getting to know the characters and their way of life; Act Two is them struggling with the outside world imposing itself on them, in a very extreme and unpleasant way; Act Three is the resolution to the problem and the happy ending. Yes, gentle reader, it has a happy ending, and one that will quite possibly make you gasp with approval, as it did on last Saturday’s matinee. And it is a totally brilliant, satisfying, heartfelt, revealing play that will make you laugh and it will make you cry. At times you may wonder if it is ever going to get “really funny”, and the answer is – no. But you do have that happy ending to look forward to. If you arrive wondering why the foyers of the Minerva are bedecked with bunting, you’ll know before you go home.

Peppy and JodyThis fantastic production sports some great performances but none as much as Samantha Spiro as Peppy. She must be exhausted by the end of the play. She’s constantly messing and fiddling and searching for things and begging Daniel to wear his listening ears. You can tell at once there’s something wrong with her but it takes a good while to draw your conclusions as to quite what. It’s an incredible performance because she’s both endearing and irritating at the same time, just as big sisters often are. She absolutely gets to the heart of this nervous, patronising, helpless, frantic, loving soul. You can see her trying to be open and communicative, and then when things get too invasive, or awkward, or deep, you can see her start to close down, and block out the outside world. Simply superb.

Peppy and DanielDaniel Ryan’s Daniel, on the other hand, is in many ways the complete opposite. He appears to be calm and content to be left alone, although he can fly into a flash fury when he can’t express his inner feelings. It’s another excellent performance, full of hidden anxieties and repressed emotions; and he beautifully shows how a person on the autistic spectrum can accidentally fall foul of society’s accepted norms of behaviour. He appears – as you would expect – appropriately devoid of empathy, but he has some great surprises up his sleeve. He also brings the house down with the occasional, simply delivered, hilarious rejoinder – watch out for the reason he no longer goes out gardening. A beautifully controlled, funny and sad performance.

Daniel and PeppyFor our matinee, we had Leonardo Dickens in the role of Ben and what a little star he is! Technically perfect throughout, not a fluffed line nor a missed cue, brilliant delivery of his comic lines, and totally at ease with a cast of adults. Even at this young age, he’s got to be One To Watch. I also really enjoyed the performances of Michelle Greenidge as the WPC who arrives at the house thinking it’s just another job and then slowly realises that she’s bitten off more than she can chew, Matt Sutton as the detective who has to question the unpredictable Ben, and Philip Wright as the flesh-crawling chancer of a neighbour, trying to browbeat Peppy into a rash decision.

Daniel and BenIt’s a fascinating play, totally engrossing, brilliantly performed, expertly brought to stage and we all absolutely loved it. This ought to have transfer written all over it. It’s only got a three week run, on until 5th August, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

P. S. Sir Derek Jacobi was in the house. He’s looking great. We were only talking about him in the Minerva Brasserie for lunch, and he was there all along. Spooky.

P. P. S. I usually take a photograph of my programme as the first illustration of a theatre review. However, torrential downpours of rain rendered it soggy and no longer fit for purpose. Fortunately I had the wit to take a picture of the poster outside the theatre. I’m sure you won’t mind.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Sweet Bird of Youth, Festival Theatre Chichester, 24th June 2017

Sweet Bird of YouthWhen they write the history of 20th century American drama (they probably already have, actually) three names will stand out as being the greatest writers amongst them: Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. When I was first discovering theatre In A Big Way in my teens, I acquired the scripts to so many of their plays and totally devoured them. Of course, a play is a very different entity when you see it on stage as opposed to when you read it; and I’m not sure how much of the 16-year-old me would have really appreciated the niceties of Sweet Bird of Youth, just reading it propped up behind the bikesheds at school. My Penguin edition also contains A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, both of which I saw in my teens and confirmed me as a massive Tennessee Williams fan. It’s taken another forty years for me finally to see a production of Sweet Bird of Youth and I confess to you, gentle reader, I have committed the sin of overlooking this incredible play all my adult life.

SBOY1Lousy gigolo and wannabe actor Chance Wayne is found in bed with formerly great actress Alexandra Del Lago, now hiding behind the soubriquet of Princess Kosmonopolis, in a posh hotel room littered with empty champagne bottles. Wayne’s back in his home town of St Cloud, much to the horror of the local Finlay family and their acolytes, who govern the town with a corrupt iron fist. Wayne’s former girlfriend, Heavenly, is the daughter of Boss Finlay and he’s not happy. In fact, he wants Wayne “gone by tomorrow – tomorrow begins at midnight”. Last time Wayne was with Heavenly, she got “infected”, and the infection had to be cut out, so that now she’s barren. If he stays, the local heavies are going to apply the same treatment to him (nasty). Wayne has this self-delusional idea that Miss Del Lago could get him into the movies (she could probably barely get him into the two-and-sixpenny’s) and that his new-found success will win Heavenly back. But none of this is going to happen. The women are washed-up, the men are corrupt, and hapless Wayne is caught in the middle. The only person in St Cloud on Wayne’s side is kindly Aunt Nonnie, who begs him to leave for his own safety; but Wayne is too much in love with himself to listen. How’s it all going to end? I was going to say, you’ll have to go see it for yourself, but you can’t because we saw the final performance! So you’ll just have to find another production!

SBOY4It’s interesting that it is among the later of his great plays – Glass Menagerie first saw light of day in 1944, Streetcar in 1947, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955; Sweet Bird of Youth first appeared in 1959. Whereas those older plays were the product of Williams’ fervent youthful imagination – and considerable life experience – of his early to mid-thirties, by the time Sweet Bird hit the stage he was 48, and entering that time of life when it’s traditional to start your midlife crisis. The play is packed full of reminiscence, regret, and harking back to a time of youth. Alexandra Del Lago has lost her youthful attractiveness and box-office power; at 29, the wretched Wayne has only a few years left in him of his wayward lifestyle which showed such promise in his youth; his ex-girlfriend Heavenly is only a shadow of her former self (she was just 15 when Chance “had” her). In addition, local political scumbag Boss Finlay is holding a “Youth for Tom Finlay” rally upstairs at the Royal Palms Hotel, which emphasises the importance of youth and associates it with success; but what we actually see is the youth followers of Finlay beating up an (older) heckler, showing us the violent and destructive side of youth. Finlay has a policy of “southern segregation”, so these beautiful young things are actually supporting a thoroughly ugly concept. Youth may be a sweet bird at first, but it turns into a tough old bird if it doesn’t realise its promise.

SBOY7This is the kind of big play and production that always feels absolutely right on the Festival Theatre stage. Anthony Ward’s brilliant set surprises you, scene by scene, as he creates a decadent hotel suite, the Finlays’ grand mansion, and the bar at the Royal Palms hotel with flowing ease. You get glimpses of the backstage area at the Royal Palms, where the rally is taking place, giving the illusion that the room goes on for miles. That bar scene is particularly effective, with all its bar-room trappings: the lethargic pianist; the vacuous young things laughing whole-heartedly at nothing at all; the well-paid discarded mistress dolled up to the nines; the very well-stocked bar tended by an arrogant young barman. It’s a superbly convincing staging.

SBOY3The marketing for this show was very heavily based on the star performers playing the roles of the Princess and Wayne: Marcia Gay Harden, who’s done loads of films, TV and Broadway work; and Brian J Smith, who’s also done loads of Broadway, films, and Netflix’s Sense8. You know what I’m going to say, don’t you, gentle reader? Yep. Hadn’t heard a jot about either of them. Sometimes I feel we live on a different planet. However – hopefully this marketing did attract the audiences, because I have to say Miss Harden and Mr Smith both turn in incredible performances.

SBOY2Much of the text concentrates on conversations between just the two of them – all of the lengthy first scene, and of course the final scene – and they are mesmeric. In that first scene, they instantly capture the atmosphere of both decadence and failure; Mr Smith in his offensively expensive satin pyjamas, always hovering around the bed but never comfortable in it; Miss Hayden, the opposite; emerging under the sheets in her black nightie that just manages to cover her enough to be decent, making sarcastic demands from the boy so that she doesn’t have to lift a finger. It really conveys the power imbalance within the relationship. Through the course of two and three quarter hours, Miss Hayden lets loose a full range of emotions from wheedling insecurity to provoked anger, and you just can’t take your eyes off her. Mr Smith, too, is fantastic at revealing his character’s catastrophic emptiness, always playing No 2 to those around him, relying on drunken happy-go-luckiness to survive his experience at the Royal Palms bar, understanding in the final scene that he has no more aces to play. It’s a brilliant performance.

SBOY5The large ensemble company, many of whom have very brief but nevertheless effective roles, are all excellent. Dominating the stage in his own scenes is a superb performance by Richard Cordery as the horrendous Boss Finlay, chomping on and spitting out his cigar with all the finesse of a warthog, shaming his family members because they’re too weak to stand up to him, deluding himself about the existence of Miss Lucy; basically encapsulating everything you’d hate about a Southern Political Baron. And there’s definitely something of the Trump in there. I also really loved Ingrid Craigie as the much put-upon Aunt Nonnie; her scene where she approaches Wayne to encourage him to leave is heartfelt and gently funny – I loved how she goes there full of resolve but then just melts with his charm – totally believable. Emma Amos is a delightful Miss Lucy, fluttering around the bar like a true Tennessee Williams southern belle, relying on the kindness of strangers even though she isn’t in A Streetcar Named Desire.

SBOY6I thought this was a stunning night’s theatre, performed with heart, a sense of injustice and a truthfulness that reveals the horror of life for a number of rather dissolute people. As I mentioned earlier, that was the final performance so I hope you got to see it. For me, Sweet Bird has now definitely taken its place among the great plays of the 20th century. There’s so much to get out of it; so much that’s only hinted at; so much to fear in it, so much to empathise with. Absolutely first class!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The Country Girls, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 24th June 2017

The Country GirlsEdna O’Brien is one of those very famous authors whom absolutely no one I know has ever read. “What play are we seeing for the matinee in Chichester?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle showing surprising interest a couple of hours before curtain-up. “The Country Girls”, I replied, “it’s an adaptation of that book by Edna O’Thingy…” She looked blankly at me, but I don’t think she would have been any the wiser if I’d remembered her surname. “It’s a very famous book” I added, although by then Mrs C was back on the Guardian website.

KateYou are, of course, much better informed, gentle reader, and will be aware that The Country Girls was Edna O’Brien’s debut novel back in 1960 and she’s written around 40 books in all, including short stories, poetry, non-fiction as well as her best-selling novels. The book was banned by the Irish censor upon publication, so it must be doing something right. Set in the West of Ireland in the 1950s, the first act introduces us to Kate and Baba, two girls subjected to the full convent regime of education and repression; we see Kate’s friendship with the young Sister Mary; and the girls’ shameful expulsion when some sexual teasing goes wrong. The second act sees the girls in Dublin, freed from their shackles and finding their own way; meeting unsuitable men and struggling to pay the rent. Whilst the story really builds beautifully in the first act, and you really get to understand the main characters and their motivations very well; for me the play rather fizzled out in the second act, as whatever relationships they had came to nought.

BabaNevertheless, it’s still a very entertaining play, which gives you a very good insight into what life was like in Ireland in the 1950s, and how very different the country and the city life were. Fathers were either kind and helpful or drunk and violent; nuns were either warm-hearted or sadists. Similarly, girls were either like Kate – ambitious and innocent, or like Baba – reckless and sinful; and both were equally entertaining for the audience to watch. Little moments, like when Baba buys an ice-cream when they first arrive in Dublin, speak volumes and paint a much bigger picture than the words of the play alone can do. Isobel Waller-Bridge has composed some very elegant but inevitably sombre music which recurs throughout the piece and for me had the effect of bringing the mood down, as if preparing us in advance for some great tragedy. Call me shallow, but I’d have killed for a little fiddle and a tin whistle.

This could get a girl expelledThe play is dominated, wonderfully, by the brilliant performance of Grace Molony as Kate. From the very first scene she captures your heart and you spend the next two and a half hours willing her to succeed and survive at everything life throws at her. Both as a gullible girl and an out-of-place young woman, Ms Molony expresses so much about Kate’s character without even having to say a word. Her conversations with Mary are charming – a delightful performance from Jade Yourell; and as she opens up to Rachel Atkins’ superbly Germanic Joanna you see her becoming an independent woman, holding her own opinions whilst still being kind and thoughtful. It’s a beautiful performance.

Joanna and GustavGenevieve Hulme-Beaman’s Baba is an amusingly irreverent character; the archetypal naughtiest girl in the school, always chirpy with an answer for everything. She longs to lead Kate astray in Dublin, but when she finds she cramps her style, it’s easy for this Baba simply to dump her. Again, it was a very realistic presentation of a spirited young woman, desperate to make her way without any restrictions, and it was a joy to watch her; even though we thought her re-appearance at the end of the play was rather improbable. The remainder of the cast give a great ensemble performance to suggest the stifling backwardness of the countryside and the diversity of Dublin.

Baba buys an ice creamI’d have liked the story to have a bit more oomph in the second half, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a very enjoyable, intelligent and rewarding piece of drama that leaves you much better informed about Ireland in the 50s. It’s on until 8th July.

Production photos by Manual Harlan

Review – Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, Chichester Festival Theatre, 29th October 2016

Love's Labour's Lost & Much Ado About NothingRestricting ourselves to just two Shakespeare comedies on the same day seems like a mere bagatelle in comparison with the Young Chekhov trilogy we saw in Chichester this time last year. An interesting contrast in fact; because everyone thinks of Chekhov as being dark and dismal, whereas Platonov, in particular, was a complete riot; and everyone thinks of Shakespeare comedies as being heaps of lightweight fun resulting in multiple weddings, whereas these two plays have more than their fair share of sinister undercurrents and both leave you at the end with a certain degree of discomfort that unsettles your laughter.

rebecca-collingwood-as-hero-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-c-manuel-harlan-137I mustn’t walk before I run. Our Chichester weekends are always a celebration of love, life and having a good time. Thus, we were joined not only by Lady Duncansby and her butler Sir William, but also Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters. The six of us ate and drank our way through lunch at the Minerva Brasserie (I can’t tell you how recommended that experience is), late night dinner at Cote (always a pleasure) followed by the gorgeous gluten-free fry-up breakfast at Spires on Sunday morning. All this and we even got to see a couple of plays too – Love’s Labour’s Lost in the afternoon and Much Ado in the evening – sounds like the story of my life. They’d been playing in repertory for the previous four weeks; in fact, we saw the final performances of both plays in Chichester; but worry ye not, they will be returning, no doubt revitalised, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in time for Christmas.

lisa-dillon-leah-whitaker-paige-carter-rebecca-collingwood-loves-labours-lost-cft-c-manuel-harlan-40We’d seen the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s Love’s Labour’s Lost earlier in the year. I’m very fond of this play, and for some reason, feel very well acquainted with it. By contrast, I’m not at all familiar with Much Ado About Nothing; I’ve only seen it performed on stage once before, a semi-professional production at the Pendley Festival in Tring in 1995. We did, however, catch the delightful film version three years ago. The film probably isn’t much help in preparing you for this production by Christopher Luscombe, as it’s already a very modern take on the original. Mr Luscombe’s double-header of Shakespeare was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2014 and I’m not surprised it’s come back with a vengeance because it’s an absolutely first rate production.

the-company-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan-240We’re no longer in the sixteenth century, for Mr Luscombe has transplanted these plays to the twentieth, with Love’s Labour’s Lost set in the summer of 1914 and Much Ado at Christmas 1918, like two bookends either side of the First World War. Simon Higlett’s fantastic set serves both plays, appearing more like an Oxbridge college in LLL and a gentleman’s club in Much Ado. The flexible set glides in and out over the stage, sometimes lingering on the end of a scene as it slowly retreats into the back darkness, giving additional emphasis to whatever final image was presented. Nigel Hess’ incidental music, played with West End show stopping aplomb by Bob Broad’s excellent band, comes across a little incongruous at first, but gradually provides a Hollywood movie-type accompaniment to every dramatic development. It works really well, although it’s not really 1910s in feel, more 30s-40s. There are also a few songs scattered throughout the plays – they don’t quite make them into musicals as such, but again they help to provide a vintage, retro feel to the whole thing.

peter-mcgovern-nick-haverson-roderick-smith-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-cft-c-manuel-harlan-124The two plays have been associated together for this production because there is reason to suggest that Much Ado is, in fact, the missing Shakespearian play Love’s Labour’s Won. Personally, I haven’t delved into the analysis of how likely this is, but I do appreciate that the two plays make an excellent pairing. In LLL a very funny story of love developing between four young and rather charming people comes to a sudden and sad end when the news of her father’s death forces the Princess to retreat into mourning, thus requiring her followers to do the same – sorry if I spoiled it for you there. If after a twelvemonth of hermit-like abstinence, the King still feels the same way about the Princess then he is invited to renew his wooing (and his followers can do the same.)edward-bennett-benedick-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan-75 However, in a throat-chokingly moving final scene, we all realise that the likelihood of that renewal of affection in a year’s time is comparatively unlikely. In Much Ado, the fortunes are reversed; an honourable but gullible soldier is tricked into believing that his beloved is inconstant with her affections – indeed, it’s alleged she’s having it away with all and sundry. But the plot against him is discovered, the lovers are reunited (there’s an awful lot of forgiveness that has to take place) and together with the infamously bickering Beatrice and Benedick, all four get married and live happy ever after Or so we presume.

edward-bennett-tunji-kasim-sam-alexander-in-loves-labours-lost-at-cft-photo-manuel-harlan-Both productions make the most of the comic opportunities that arise from both the text and Mr Luscombe’s vision of what’s really going on. For example, Much Ado features the extraordinarily funny scene where Benedick is hiding in order to listen in to Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio’s conversation about how Beatrice adores him. On the one hand, you have the challenges facing the three conspirators of how best to spin their yarn so that Benedick is hoodwinked, whilst trying to come up with these ideas off the top of their heads. On the other, you have Benedick, allegedly hidden, popping up at odd angles within the ostentatious Christmas tree that has been standing with enormous pride in the corner of the stage, enduring every humiliation under the sun that could be associated with Yuletide Alpine foliaged concealment. It’s a combination of brilliant comic timing and slapstick and works a treat.

steven-pacey-nick-haverson-chris-mccalphy-peter-mcgovern-john-arthur-in-lll-at-cft-c-manuel-harlan115There are also some moments when your laughter catches in your breath as you realise the stark awfulness of someone’s suffering. Normally I would dread the performance of a character such as Dogberry, the hapless constable who’s always just a slapstick figure of fun. It’s the kind of thing you’d think had them rolling in the aisles in the 1590s but today seems immensely tedious. This is precisely what you expect to see in this production too, with Dogberry’s malapropisms and nervous tics; an almost cartoon version of reality. The prison scene, where Dogberry gets the criminals in front of the Sexton to finally hear their case, starts off as classic slapstick comedy but develops into something that really digs deep into the heart of Dogberry. It’s a stunning coup de theatre that genuinely arises from the characterisation and the plot development, and I was shocked. There’s a similar, but lighter, exposé in LLL, when Dumain joins the other three lads on the roof secretly to declare his love for his lady. I think there are few things more rewarding in a modern Shakespeare production than the sight of a cuddly toy. It’s very funny indeed – and deep down, ever so slightly disturbing.

edward-bennett-lisa-dillon-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-c-manuel-harlan-Mr Luscombe has brought together a superbly talented cast to create two fantastic shows that bring these old stories to life with all the freshness and relevance as if they were written yesterday. At their heart are two effervescent performances by Edward Bennett as Berowne (LLL) and Benedick (MAAN). We’ve seen Mr Bennett a few times – notably when he stood in as Hamlet whilst David Tennant was indisposed, and also in Plenty at Sheffield – but I think with his current performances he really secures his position as one of our finest practitioners of Shakespeare. Even if the language is a little intractable, you still understand every nuance of what he says; his amazingly gifted facial expressions tell a thousand tales. He’s master of all the moods; not only can he bring the house down, as in the Christmas Tree scene, but he can also deliver, with perfect solemnity, the regretful speeches of Berowne, after the Princess’ father has been reported dead. He can also create the passionate and stirring sentiment that encourages the other three students into full-time pursuit of their ladies. Opposing him – and a perfect match for him – are his Rosaline and Beatrice, in the form of Lisa Dillon. Like all the LLL ladies, Ms Dillon’s Rosaline is coquettish but ruthless, fun-loving and emotional in her coping with her suitor. As Beatrice, she’s on fire from the very first scene where she spars with Benedick; but she also conveys the perplexed Beatrice – who overhears the others say the Benedick is in love with her – with a beautiful mix of comedy and warmth. And there’s a true chill in her voice when she demands reparation for the harm Claudio has done to her sister’s reputation.

nick-haverson-centre-co-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan159Sam Alexander is excellent in both his roles, perhaps particularly in the more rewarding role of the King of Navarre in LLL, as he has further to fall in embarrassment when his hypocrisy is found out. His Don John is – literally – a tight-lipped evil bastard, sourly looking on with his bandaged leg and crutches – is being wounded in the war sufficient reason for him to be bitterly vengeful against Claudio and Hero? Mr Alexander portrays him as a cold fish who doesn’t show his hand, and it’s very convincingly performed. Tunji Kasim also gives us two enjoyable performances as the wet-behind-the ears Dumain and the slightly more noble but only slightly less wet Claudio, where his refined nobility shines through, albeit devalued by his feeble lack of perception. There were some gasps from audience members – who obviously didn’t know the story – in the church scene when he renounced Hero and delivered his blistering invective against her. It’s as Dumain though that we remember him fondly as he still clings on to his bedside teddy through thick and thin.

sam-alexander-leah-whitaker-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-c-manuel-harlan-1One of my favourite actors, Steven Pacey, is back on the Chichester stage in the roles of Holofernes in LLL and Leonato in Much Ado. Magnificently pompous as the erudite Holofernes, one of the comic highlights of the production is his reaction to John Arthur’s Sir Nathaniel, when he offers him the back-handed compliment, learned without opinion. A great portrayal of an utter windbag. His Leonato, though, is stunning ; we joyfully laugh along when, with his other conspirators, he is teasing Benedick in the Christmas Tree scene; but we’re shattered by his realisation that Hero’s reputation has been besmirched by Claudio – here’s a man torn between love for his daughter and traditional respectability, and with nowhere to go but to cry his eyes out in the pews.

paige-carter-leah-whitaker-lisa-dillon-rebecca-collingwood-in-ll-l-at-cft-c-manuel-harlan-124Leah Whitaker gives a strong performance as the Princess of France, relishing her job as chief tease to the suitors, and loving her mockery of the King of Navarre for his idiotic pomposity; then giving way to dignified grieving when Marcade brings the news her father has died, which absolutely signifies the end of celebrations. Even the final song of Icicles hanging by the wall has at truly mournful feel to it; the words of Mercury have totally put paid to the songs of Apollo. John Hodgkinson provides an enjoyably melodramatic Don Armado, bringing out all the traditional humour of the role (emphasising the J’s as H’s, calling his learned companions “men of piss”, and so on) – which contrasts with his very plain and straightforward playing of Don Pedro: respectable, hearty, uncomplicated. It’s a generous performance of quite a bland role against which he allows the other more interesting characters to shine.

the-company-of-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan-43The other truly stand out performance from both plays is from Nick Haverson as Costard and Dogberry. His Costard is a slovenly but over-confident wretch who embodies the comic spirit of the “lower orders” – and he plays a brilliant scene with Berowne as he compares emolument with remuneration like a mischievous Jack Russell. His Dogberry, however, bears hard his responsibilities and frustrations and shows the signs of a life that is only faintly succeeding. When he is pushed just that little bit too far as he tries to bring the villains to book, his reaction astounds and overwhelms you. I’ve never seen a Shakespearean clown figure portrayed in such a light before. It knocks you sideways.

edward-bennett-lisa-dillon-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan51All the cast give excellent ensemble support throughout; Rebecca Collingwood is a very moving and despairing Hero; Peter McGovern in fine voice as Moth; Chris Nayak insidious as the manipulative Borachio; Chris McCalphy delightfully dull as Dull; William Belchambers a snide Conrade; Jamie Newall a prissy Boyet; Paige Carter a charming Maria. It would be tedious to mention the entire cast, but everyone played a vital part in creating the magic of this double-header production.

Their season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket begins on 9th December and continues to 18th March. Two fantastic shows that I couldn’t recommend more strongly!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – An Enemy of the People, Chichester Festival Theatre, 7th May 2016

An Enemy of the PeopleAfter a much needed afternoon nap, Mrs Chrisparkle, Professor and Mrs Plum and I wandered back to the Festival theatre for our evening main event. Of course I had heard of An Enemy of the People, but I had never seen it before. Nor had I read it. I have three volumes of Ibsen from my teenage years and it doesn’t appear in any of them. In fact, I’ve only seen Ibsen three times – each one a Hedda Gabler. That doesn’t say much for the variety of contemporary approach to Ibsen, does it?

William Gaminara and Hugh BonnevilleRather like Barker’s Waste that we saw last Christmas, An Enemy of the People is still enormously relevant to today’s audience even though it was written way back in 1882. In a little Norwegian spa town, whose wealth comes almost exclusively from tourists flocking to take the waters at the town’s baths, local doctor Tomas Stockmann has discovered that the water there is in fact riddled with bacteria and could do terrible damage to anyone in contact with it. The only safe solution is to close the baths down and have the water source safely reconstructed. The Mayor, an arrogant, pompous man who happens to be Dr Stockmann’s brother, and who pours scorn on his attitudes and activities whenever the opportunity arises, demands that the doctor withdraw his report because the cost of repairing the baths would be extortionate. Will the townspeople agree with the doctor that health and safety must come first, or with the Mayor that their taxes should be protected? Aye, there’s the rub. Although it starts Hugh Bonneville and William Gaminarawith issues of how to deal with whistle-blowers, and the rights and wrongs of public funding, the argument moves on to discuss themes of intellectual superiority, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. It’s a very meaty, satisfying play, which really gets you involved, challenging one’s own sense of justice, and making oneself ask the question, what would you do in Stockmann’s shoes? I make no bones about it, I found the play absolutely riveting.

It’s a perfect production for the Festival stage, with Tim Hatley’s gloomy but not austere set creating a very believable, moderately grand house for Dr Stockmann, with an ever-stocked dining room and homely soft furnishings; which transforms superbly to the offices of the local newspaper and even more so to the house after it has undergone some changes at the end. Howard Davies’ direction is clear and pacey, and by the interval I was buzzing with excitement to see how the situation would resolve itself. The remarkable fourth act (being Ibsen it’s a five act play) where Stockmann speaks at a public meeting had me literally open-mouthed in awe. Cast members filled the auditorium, lining up the steps, shouting back to the stage, whilst others sat in seats in front of the audience, themselves watching what was happening on stage. I thought it was astounding. Public meetingI ended up shouting at the stage too, even though Mrs C had to remind me it wasn’t actually a pantomime. I was jealous of people sat at the end of the row, because they were handed copies of the Mayor’s wicked statement and I just wanted to shove it back in their face saying it was rubbish. On reflection, maybe it was just as well I wasn’t sat there. After the high drama of the fourth act, when the final set emerged reflecting the sadness and defeat of Tomas and his household, I actually let out an involuntary cry of sympathy. That’s how much the stagecraft of the whole production took me along with it, making me acutely sensitive to the Stockmanns’ plight. Even before considering the performances, the combination of play and production had me on the edge of my seat. I absolutely loved it.

Hugh BonnevilleFrom a popular culture point of view, they’ve rolled out the big guns in the form of Hugh Bonneville in the part of Dr. Stockmann. Apparently this is Mr Bonneville’s first stage role in twelve years, and no doubt a sizeable number of the audiences will be there to see Lord Grantham in the flesh. (They may recognise another member of the Downton cast as well – under-sub-minor-footman Andy, played by Michael Fox.) I’d certainly never seen Mr B on stage before, and I was most impressed. He’s certainly one of those actors who looks and feels so comfortable on the stage, who is technically so reliable, and whom you look forward to their next entrance. I really enjoyed the way he captured all of the good doctor’s different aspects: the integrity, the family man, the self-appointed hero, the smugness, the misplaced vanity, the devastation. It was all there.

MobHe is matched in snide villainy by William Gaminara playing his brother Peter, the mayor. We saw Mr Gaminara in the extraordinary The Body of an American in Northampton a couple of years ago and he is a very fine actor. His totally credible characterisation of the measly mayor, thin in spirit and generosity, was really striking, and I spent most of the play wanting to throw things at him, he annoyed me so much. There’s a really strong supporting performance from Abigail Cruttenden as Tomas’ wife, wrestling with the opposing desire and obligation to support her husband but also to make him see sense and not cut off the entire family’s security. Adam James plays newspaper editor Hovstad as keen as mustard to screw the mayor once and for all, with Michael Fox as his supporting sidekick vindictively adding his “bloody right”s, only for them to turn cowardly when it comes to the crunch – which was dramatically highly effective. For me the best supporting performance of the night was from Jonathan Cullen – Jon Cullenwhom I remember as a magnificent student actor when we were at Oxford – as the wheedling Aslaksen, who turns coat at the whiff of an extra penny in the tax and becomes a paragon of parsimony. Finally, hats off also to young actors Alfie Scott and Jack Taylor, as Dr Stockmann’s sons Ejlif and Morten, who stayed completely in character throughout, Abigail Cruttendenand whose appalled reactions, from sitting out in the audience and looking back at the stage when their father was being roundly abused by the town, were genuinely agonising to watch.

I appreciate that if I had seen other productions of this play before – McKellen at the National has been brought to my attention – I might not have been quite so blown away by this one. But I hadn’t. And I was. It’s on until 21st May, and I would urge you to see it at once!

Review – Travels with my Aunt, Minerva Theatre Chichester, 7th May 2016

Travels with my AuntA spot of late Spring sunshine was just the perfect welcome as we arrived in Chichester for the first of this year’s two theatrical weekends Sussex-style. We were joined, in their inaugural visit to the Chichester Festival Theatre, by Mrs Chrisparkle’s aunt and uncle, Professor and Mrs Plum. Naturally, we started with a swish lunch in the Minerva Brasserie – one simply just has to, you know. I’m delighted to say that both the brasserie and the bar and grill upstairs have had something of a facelift since we last visited and they both look fantastico.

Patricia HodgeTravels with my Aunt – which was our matinee treat – is of course originally a novel by Graham Greene, but we have seen a wonderful play adaptation at the Royal and Derngate back in 2010, and now there’s this new version, reincarnated as a musical, with book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe. The story consists of a huge amount of daftness – this is it in a nutshell: Henry Pulling is an old-before-his-time gentleman who has devoted his life to growing dahlias. Aunt Augusta is his septuagenarian aunt who acts half her age, was a prostitute in her youth and even today runs all around the world doing shady deals. She has a much younger lover – Wordsworth – from Sierra Leone, but is also selling everything to pay off the ransom for the true love of her life, Mr Visconti; and this is where she enlists Henry’s help. Henry travels with her, round Europe and South America, on the search for this mysterious man, unwillingly encountering adventures on the way. They find the human dynamo that is Visconti; and all this excitement eventually rubs off on Henry, who, much to his surprise, finds out that survival by illegal import/export trade based in Paraguay has more flair to it as a lifestyle than daily dahlia-tending.

Patricia Hodge and Steven PaceyAs you take your seats, Colin Falconer’s set beautifully recreates a 1969 railway station, complete with swanky lit destination signs just like they used to have at Baker St station (maybe they still do?), dingy waiting room, comfortless wooden benches, a ticket collector’s booth, and many other late 60s railway reminders. With a little movement and relighting, the waiting room turns into many other indoor scenes such as Augusta’s flat, a pub, and a compartment on the Orient Express. The costumes are perfect for that 1969 vibe, with Tooley wonderfully decked out as a pot-smoking hippie, the girls in the ensemble as bright blue stewardesses straight out of Boeing Boeing, and Wordsworth in relaxed splendour in the style of a Rhythm of Life dancer from Sweet Charity.

Travels CastThe show opens with a couple of terrific scenes: Henry, on the point of being executed, comes out of character and addresses the audience in a matter of fact style, and, with his delightfully upper crust accent, instantly creates a surreal atmosphere of quirky comedy. We then see the railway station transformed into a chapel for Henry’s mother’s funeral, which is where we meet Aunt Agatha, who sings a hilariously disrespectful song to the effect that life’s too short to waste time saying goodbye to the dead. It’s a really positive start to the show. But then something rather odd happens for the next quarter of an hour or so. It all seemed to lose energy, it got bogged down in exposition, and it felt a bit twee. I had thought that, as it is a rather bizarre story, one might expect the artificiality of the musical genre to work well with it. But it appeared that it was just going to become bland.

EnsembleFortunately, I was wrong! Before long there is a scene where the ensemble are sweetly dancing to a jolly song with cutesy lyrics but in the middle of the stage sits Aunt Augusta, the amount of her ransom money found wanting, getting physically assaulted by the scum of a lowlife who’s demanding the cash. That really uncomfortable juxtaposition between the musical matinee sweetness and the physical violence really pulled me up short. Perhaps this isn’t going to be as Women’s Institute-like as it first appeared? Indeed it isn’t. Once it really gets going, the show uses the musical format to excellent purpose, playing up the surreal and frequently questionable nature of the subject matter, like sugar sorbet icing on bitter aloes. The tunes are fun, the lyrics witty, and the performances are extremely good.

Jack ChissickAunt Augusta is played by the brilliantly no-nonsense Patricia Hodge, and you couldn’t find a more suitable pair of hands to play this unpredictable and exuberant character. She shows that she still has an excellent singing voice, great comic timing, and a terrific aura of dignity about her. In many ways she is perfect casting, as Augusta is meant to be in her 70s but acting much younger; well Miss Hodge isn’t quite in her 70s yet but certainly behaves like a flirtatious girl, which is just what you want from the character. A most enjoyable performance.

More ensembleBut at the heart of this production is the fantastic portrayal of Henry by Steven Pacey, an actor who never fails to delight. We’ve seen him as an avuncular Sir Politic Would-be in Volpone, a hilarious Peter in Relative Values (opposite Patricia Hodge) and a wonderfully gruff Sir Francis in the Menier’s Charley’s Aunt. But I think his Henry is his crowning glory. You really get the sense of Henry’s journey from gardener to guerrilla (well, not quite that bad maybe), his changing relationship with Augusta, his awakening of the romantic side of life when he meets Tooley, and his natural heroic decency. He brings out all the comedy of the role without ever overplaying his hand, and you really feel that you know Henry deep down as a person. It’s a brilliant performance.

Steven PaceyThere are some very good supporting performances too: Hugh Maynard’s Wordsworth is a larger-than-life 60s retro character, almost a parody of himself as a groovy lurve machine; he wouldn’t have been out of place in an Austin Powers movie. Although we felt the characterisation belonged almost too much to a pre-political correctness age, his enormous sense of fun at the centre of the song and dance routines was irresistible. Haley Flaherty is a rather sweet and impressionable Tooley, surprising herself by her feelings for the older man; and Jack Chissick enjoys himself hugely in his dual roles as the vicious Colonel Hakim and the humorously ineffectual Mr Visconti. The ensemble give us loads of energy with their dance sequences and character vignettes, and the whole vibe is one where the cast come together to tell us a story of war criminals, art theft, violence and adultery, but keeping it light at the same time. We all enjoyed it enormously. It runs at the Minerva until 4th June. As Miss Hodge might say under other circumstances – such fun!

P. S. As a very minor aside, I’ve never seen such unconvincing onstage smoking. Nothing was ever lit, no little glow of heat ever appeared at the end of a cigarette, no smoke ever emerged. It may be healthier that way, but it did look a little silly!

Production photos by Tristram Kenton