Review – Ballet Black, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th April 2019

Ballet BlackAlthough Ballet Black was founded in 2001, I’ve never come across their work before, so when I saw they were having a night at the Royal and Derngate, this had to be the perfect opportunity to see what they are all about.

PendulumIt’s a small company with just seven dancers appearing in the three short works performed in the current tour. I don’t think they’re awash with cash either, so staging and props are kept to the minimum, but that concentrates the mind wonderfully on the quality of the dance and the choreography – and, in this production, some beautifully effective lighting and costumes.

ClickThe programme kicks off with a short work, Pendulum, choreographed by Martin Lawrance, whose work with Richard Alston I have long admired. Originally produced for the company in 2009, it features two dancers, Sayaka Ichikawa and Mthuthuzeli November, probing each other’s character and sizing each other up by means of collaborative dancing together and combative dancing apart. It’s arresting, powerful choreography set to pounding, vibrating abstract beats, which both excites and disconcerts the audience, not least with its surprise sudden ending. Pendulum tests the dancers’ skills to the limit and they gave it all the strength it requires.

Click 3No break, it’s straight into the next dance, Click!, which couldn’t be more different. Choreographed by Scottish Ballet’s Sophie Laplane, this is a mainly light-hearted work that examines the various meanings of the word Click – whether it be summoning attention with your fingers, changing from mood to mood, two people just clicking in a relationship, and so on. It’s a smart idea and is carried off with great panache by the five dancers. What really grabs your attention is David Plater’s superbly stimulating lighting design, bathing each of the dancers in their own strong colour that stays with them throughout the dance, whichever part of the stage they occupy. Isabela Coracy leads the group, like a yellow circus ringmaster, dictating the pace and the activity of the other dancers. There’s a wonderfully witty and quirky routine performed by Ebony Thomas and Marie Astrid Mence to The Mudlarks’ Just the Snap of your Fingers, which brought out all the fun of the dancers’ personalities, as well as a beautiful, emotional pas de deux by Cira Robinson and Jose Alves. I thoroughly enjoyed the different atmospheres conjured up by each of the dancers in the different elements of the dance.

Ingoma 7After the interval, the final dance is a new work choreographed by Ballet Black’s own Mthuthuzeli November – and the first time the company has commissioned a work by one of its own team. Ingoma (which translates as Song or Anthem, in Zulu) was inspired by the stories of the South African Miners’ strikes in the 1940s as well as Gerard Sekoto’s stunning painting Song of the Pick, which depicts a row of miners, each with their pick raised high above their heads, ready to work in unison for the gain of the white, pipe-smoking supervisor who gazes idly by. That particular stance is very effectively replicated in Mr November’s impressive and bold choreography.

IngomaI’d be lying if I said I fully followed the story of this dance, but it’s full of emotional and heart-hitting images and sequences. The dancers rap their rubber boots to create a soft thud that reminded me of their trudging through water; there are stunning tableaux, affecting moments between the miners and their womenfolk; and depictions of grief that have presumably come from the miners’ deaths. It’s a fully charged onslaught of the senses, perhaps made even stronger by the lack of obvious narrative. Scenes from lives over many years, perhaps.

Ingoma 4It’s always enjoyable to discover a new dance company – even if they’ve already been going for eighteen years! This is a satisfying triple bill creating a variety of moods and memories. The tour continues to June, visiting Bristol, Cambridge, Derby, Birmingham, Edinburgh, and the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Well worth seeing!

Production photos variously by Rick Guest, Mthuthuzeli November, Tristram Kenyon/The Guardian and Bill Cooper

The James Bond Challenge – Casino Royale (1967)

Casino RoyaleIn which Sir James Bond is coaxed out of retirement after M has been assassinated (by himself) and Agent Mimi has taken the place of M’s widow and fallen in love with Bond’s robust strength and physical magnificence. In order to defeat SMERSH, all British agents take on the name James Bond, but the real Bond finally meets his love child from his relationship with superspy Mata Hari (Mata Bond), and, with assistance from more Bond girls than you can shake a stick at, overthrows the evil plans of Dr Noah, before each and every one of them dies in a massive conflagration. And to think that some of the actors involved in this film actually thought it was going to be serious.

Charles K FeldmanBut no. This is the spoof Casino Royale, and not to be confused with the Eon Casino Royale that hit the screens in 2006. Back in 1955, Ian Fleming sold the film rights to producer Gregory Ratoff, but Ratoff failed to secure the funding before he died in 1960. Charles K Feldman then obtained the rights from Ratoff’s widow. Cubby Broccoli offered to buy the rights from him, but Feldman refused, as he had plans to make the film, with Howard Hawks directing and starring Cary Grant as Bond. But with the great success of Dr No, Feldman realised he couldn’t compete with the Eon/Connery/Broccoli/Saltzman team and had to think again. In 1964 further negotiations were underway with Eon Productions to make the film but personal disagreements between the producers made things difficult and, anyway, Connery was looking for a million dollars to make the film – which was outside Feldman’s budget. Eventually Feldman offered it to Columbia, and, as the Bond movies had made the whole idea of spy films popular, decided to make it as a satirical, comedy spoof.

Ben HechtThe screenplay was to be written by Ben Hecht, of Scarface and The Front Page fame. However, he died two days before his final version was ready to be presented to Feldman. It was subsequently re-written by Billy Wilder, and then re-worked by the credited writers, Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers. In addition, and for reasons that will become clear, it is said that Peter Sellers commissioned Terry Southern (with whom he had worked on Dr Strangelove) to re-write all the scenes in which Sellers appeared. So, clearly, the script went through several hands before achieving its final version. If that wasn’t confusing enough, the film eventually benefited (if that’s the word) from having no fewer than six directors. Val Guest directed the scenes with Woody Allen and David Niven, and was in charge of stitching the whole thing together at the end. Kenneth Hughes directed the Berlin scenes, John Huston directed the early scenes at Bond’s mansion and the Scottish castle, Joseph McGrath directed the scenes with Peter Sellers, Orson Welles and Ursula Andress, Robert Parrish directed other scenes with Sellers and Welles, and finally, Richard Talmadge, with his speciality in stunt work, directed the final scenes at the casino. Too many cooks? If you watch the film and think it’s unconnected, episodic, bitty and completely out of control, that’s why.

Val GuestIt doesn’t stop there though. Peter Sellers and Orson Welles had a huge on-set falling-out, primarily because Princess Margaret (a friend of Sellers) visited the set and Sellers expected to bathe in her glamour and attention; however, by all accounts she cut Sellers and spent the whole time fangirling Welles. Not for the first time, nor the last, Sellers stomped off the set. That’s why he engaged Terry Southern to write his lines, in order to get the better of Welles and make himself look more important. Sellers refused to be in Welles’ presence, so their baccarat game scenes were filmed separately, with a double standing in for Sellers. There are two versions of the following tale; one is that, eventually, Sellers walked off the set, never to return; the other is that he was fired by Val Guest before the end of filming for being so unreasonable. Either way, it left a whole number of unresolved plot lines hanging, requiring some imaginative deep thinking from the directors as to what to do. No wonder the end of the film just feels like a mindless mish-mash of ideas and lines.

Woody AllenCasino Royale’s original budget was a relatively modest $6 million, but after the rewrites, the stormings-out and all the other tensions and costs, the eventual cost to make it more than doubled to over $12 million. That made it unquestionably the most expensive Bond movie at the time. Its box office take of $41.7 million was nothing like as much as the regular Eon Production films – but at least it was still a profit. Apparently, there was a lot of wastage. Woody Allen spoke of being brought over from America way ahead of when he was required on set, spending weeks in luxury hotels totally needlessly; although, whilst he was waiting, it did give him the time to write the screenplay for Take the Money and Run. And, despite his leaving the production in the lurch a few times, Peter Sellers had negotiated a resounding 3% of gross profits. That’s quite some fee.

Casino Royale bookThe book of Casino Royale was published in 1953 and was the first in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels. There’s very little crossover between the content of the book and this film. In the book, Bond plays baccarat with SMERSH agent Le Chiffre in order to deprive the enemy of funds. Eventually, with a little help from Felix Leiter, he wins, and Le Chiffre is murdered by one of his own agents. Bond and his Soviet assistant Vesper Lynd become lovers; but she takes her own life when it’s revealed she’s a Russian double agent. In the film, of course, it’s Evelyn Tremble who plays baccarat with Le Chiffre, and it’s Tremble with whom Vesper becomes enamoured. Leiter doesn’t appear in the film – and all the other film characters don’t appear in the book!

Milk vanDespite its very obvious failings, I have a very soft spot for this film. It was one of the first times that I was taken to the cinema as a child – I would have been seven or eight – and of course most of it would have gone completely over my head. However, I do remember laughing at some of the slapstick elements – particularly the out of control milk van. And I absolutely loved the score – more of which later.

stupid endingMost of the critics at the time weren’t impressed. The Chicago Sun-Times said “this is possibly the most indulgent film ever made”; Variety said it was “a conglomeration of frenzied situations, ‘in’ gags and special effects, lacking discipline and cohesion”, and the New York Times called the ending “reckless, disconnected nonsense”. With the benefit of hindsight, some of today’s commentators have been a little kinder. Cinema historian Robert von Dassanowsky said “like Casablanca, Casino Royale is a film of momentary vision, collaboration, adaption, pastiche, and accident. It is the anti-auteur work of all time, a film shaped by the very zeitgeist it took on.” AllMovie called it “the original ultimate spy spoof”, and “a satire to the highest degree”. My own personal opinion is that it is crammed with excess, a delightful sense of parody, some extremely funny scenes and lines, and it’s 60s Retro of the highest order. Sadly, nothing can cover up its immensely manic, tedious and stupid ending, but you can’t have everything.

Parisian pissoirAs this is nothing to do with the Eon Production films, don’t expect the opening credits to begin with Maurice Binder’s iconic glimpse of Bond walking across the screen. This is pure parody, so we start with a saucy visual joke. Bond – as played by Peter Sellers – meets Mathis of the Special Police in a Parisian pissoir. We can only see them from the chest up. “These are my credentials”, says Mathis, as Bond gazes down towards his nether regions. “They appear to be in order” replies Bond. And it’s straight into the opening titles and the magnificent Casino Royale theme, written by Burt Bacharach and performed by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

titlesThe titles feature the names of the lead performers with an embellished (and animated) capital letter at the beginning of their first name – rather like one might see in a lavish old book. However, the animation that we can see inside the letter shows many of the characters strumming on a heavenly lyre – so we know, before it starts, that they die! Peter Sellers, of course, gets top billing, followed by Ursula Andress and David Niven; so, interestingly, James Bond is given third billing in this film. The anarchic animation of the opening credits is pure swinging sixties.

Mereworth CastleAnd the locations? Unlike the other Bond films so far, this is a very British-based story. The scenes depicting Trafalgar Square and 10 Downing Street were indeed shot at those esteemed locations. Sir James Bond’s stately pile was filmed at Mereworth Castle in Kent, M’s Scottish castle was filmed at Killeen Castle in Co Meath, in Ireland; other scenes were shot in Killin in Perthshire and Windsor in Berkshire. In the book, the Casino Royale itself is located in the fictional French town of Royale-les-Eaux. However, I can only presume that the casino in the film was on the set of Pinewood, Shepperton or Twickenham Studios, where the majority of the film was shot.

David NivenBond, James Bond. David Niven has a damn good stab at creating what James Bond might have become in retirement (tongue firmly in cheek, of course). Prudish, dedicated to Debussy, and with a disconcerting stammer, all that womanising is way behind him now, and he loves to live a comfortable but reclusive life, with lions on his front drive and a black rose in his garden. Once he’s back in the saddle as head of MI6, he’s self-assured, debonair and really quite mischievous. I haven’t really seen David Niven in many films, but I think he’s terrific in this. He was, of course, a much lauded and experienced actor, having appeared in almost one hundred films between 1932 and his death in 1983. His two volumes of autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon, and Bring on the Empty Horses were massively successful, and he was something of a war hero too, joining the army on the day the Second World War started, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

steel barBoo-boos. Continuity errors and mistakes don’t feel quite so important in an anarchic comedy like this, but there are a few moments worth noting. In the scene where Le Chiffre, who is obsessed with magic, levitates a woman over the baccarat table, you can actually see the steel bar that’s holding her up; and when M’s widow enters Bond’s bedroom, you can see the reflection of the cameraman in a mirror on the wall. When the remotely operated milk van is chugging its merry way around the roads of Berkshire, in one scene it swerves and loses half its milk crates into the street; seconds later, it’s fully laden again. Maybe Le Chiffre was working his magic.

Deborah KerrThe Bond Girl. If it’s a Bond film, it’s got to have a Bond girl, right? This one, as befits its excessive status, has at least four. Agent Mimi is first up – she’s a SMERSH agent pretending to be M’s widow, the Lady Fiona McTarry. She’s desperate to seduce and discredit the very upright Bond – and encourages all M’s “daughters” (eleven of them, aged between 16 and 19 – we are on very shaky ground here) to do the same. But when she sees how successfully Bond “pays the piper” by handling those cannonballs, she can’t hide her genuine love for the man. Superbe! Formidable! Splendide! Bravo! Magnifique!!!! she moans. Agent Mimi was played by Deborah Kerr, a fine, experienced actress, best known for her appearances in The King and I, and on stage in many plays.

Joanna PettetThen there’s Mata Bond, his estranged daughter following an intimate liaison with the famous spy Mata Hari. She’s full of spirit but a bit annoyed with him for being an absentee father. But she’s up for a fine piece of espionage as she’s driven to Berlin to infiltrate International Mothers’ Help, an au pair service that is a cover for a SMERSH training centre. Later, she’s captured in a giant flying saucer – it happens; and it’s while on their mission to rescue her that the Bonds all get trapped in the Casino Royale. Mata was played by Joanna Pettet, whose film career started promisingly with a number of good roles in the 1960s, and then she migrated to small roles in dozens of TV series.

Barbara BouchetAnother Bond Girl that Bond really oughtn’t to be attracted by is Miss Moneypenny – in fact, she’s Miss Moneypenny’s daughter, and we probably oughtn’t to ask who her father is. Unlike the traditional Moneypenny, this one’s more prepared to get her hands dirty out in the field. Her finest hour is when she samples all the contenders for a new Bond to be trained to resist the attractions of women; as I say, getting dirty in the field. Moneypenny was played by Barbara Bouchet, who has appeared in dozens of films, mainly in Italy, and who branched out into fitness books and videos and still has a successful fitness studio in Rome.

Daliah LaviCertainly not to go unmentioned is The Detainer; the British spy who tricks Dr Noah into taking his own atomic pill. She’s not really a Bond Girl though – because she hardly has anything to do with Bond. She was played by Daliah Lavi, an Israeli actress, singer and model, who appeared in a few films and also found fame as a Schlager singer in Germany. She died in 2017 at the age of 74. Also not to go unmentioned, and also not a Bond Girl, is Miss Goodthighs. She’s a SMERSH agent who attempts to kill Evelyn Tremble at the Casino; so as she’s not working with Bond, but working against him, she’s a baddie. She was played by Jacqueline Bisset, whose film career hasn’t stopped since she appeared in her first movie in 1965.

Ursula AndressBut we definitely have to include Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynd. Ms Andress, of course, played Honey Ryder in Dr No, and so was already a Bond Girl before Casino Royale came along. Vesper Lynd has been tempted back into espionage in return for writing off her tax arrears. She approaches Evelyn Tremble to get him to play baccarat against Le Chiffre (almost a part of the original novel emerging there!) Whilst she and Tremble have a definite dalliance, at the end she betrays him because she is a double agent after all. But, anyway, everyone dies, so what’s the difference?

Dr NoahThe Villain. Dr Noah – no real clue necessary to guess where his name came from – has a plan to use biological warfare to make all women beautiful and kill all men over 4 foot 6 inches tall. Much to everyone’s dismay, Dr Noah turns out to be little Jimmy Bond, James’ nephew, who cannot speak in his presence because he’s so overawed. But he is hoist by his own petard when he’s tricked into swallowing his own atomic pill – which causes the grand explosion at Casino Royale and the subsequent death of all and sundry. He was played by Woody Allen, who needs no introduction in the world of cinema. It is said, though, that he was so aghast at the awful management of this film – the on-set arguments, the wasted time, the six directors, and so on – that he vowed never to let anyone else direct a film that he was involved in. So it did contribute something significant to the world of cinema!

Orson WellesOther memorable characters? Casino Royale is so full of tiny roles played by significant actors, that, to be honest, I don’t know where to begin? I suppose first up must be Orson Welles’ Le Chiffre, the SMERSH agent who loves his baccarat not quite as much as his magic. Orson Welles, of course, had an extraordinary career in all the arts – and I believe the feelings between him and Peter Sellers were mutual.

Peter SellersAh yes, Peter Sellers, who played Evelyn Tremble. A man of amazing talent, and some (obviously) difficult problems. He punched director Joseph McGrath who said he would never work with him again. Some of the frustration in making the film must have come from the fact that Sellers thought this was going to be a relatively straight film, and that he would take a relatively straight and serious role. This was never going to happen.

Jean-Paul BelmondoI doubt if I’ll name all the significant performers in this film. Peter O’Toole, Jean-Paul Belmondo (at the time, Ursula Andress’ other half) and George Raft all make brief cameo appearances with a couple of lines at the most. Racing Driver Stirling Moss doesn’t say a word, nor does M’s driver, John le Mesurier. Flavour of the month at the time, Anna Quayle is a terrifying Frau Hoffner, accompanied by the battery-driven, sex-mad Polo played by Ronnie Corbett. John Huston directed himself playing M; Charles Boyer and William Holden are the other two Intelligence Men in the opening scene. Bernard Cribbins drives a taxi all the way to Berlin; Derek Nimmo is Bond’s new office assistant, Hadley; Geoffrey Bayldon (aka Catweazle) is Q, with John Wells as his simpering assistant, Fordyce. Alexandra Bastedo, she of The Champions, features as M’s “daughter” Meg. Richard Wattis is the British Army officer present at the auction that was to be chaired by Vladek Sheybal (Kronsteen in From Russia with Love). The list goes on, but I’ll stop there.

Dusty Springfield Look of LoveAnd what about the music? Now we’re talking. Burt Bacharach’s soundtrack is a sheer joy throughout – and the CD has long been one of my favourite Easy Listening collections. Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass’ rendition of the main theme was a smash hit single, reaching No 1 in the United States, although only No 27 in the UK. Dusty Springfield’s exquisite performance of The Look of Love, whilst never a single success by itself, remains one of her finest recordings and it’s impossible to hear it without all your extremities tingling with joy. The remainder of the incidental music is full of hilarious motifs, sexy arrangements, period pastiches and sheer musical madness. Although they’re not on the soundtrack album, it’s also fun to hear the musical salutes in the film – a brief snatch of Born Free (written by regular Bond composer John Barry) when M is driving past Bond’s lions; a moment from the theme to Moulin Rouge when Peter Sellers’ Evelyn Tremble is pretending to be Toulouse-Lautrec; even the echo of What’s New Pussycat emerging from a manhole cover, a 1965 film which had previously united the talents of Sellers, Allen, O’Toole, Andress, Bacharach and producer Charles Feldman.

GrouseThere are plenty of opportunities for comedy from the complicated and unlikely gadgets in use – the scene with Q and his assistant is a perfect parody of all those genuine Bond scenes, where army types are trying out the new gadgets, some with greater success than others. And as Sir James points out, early in the film, as he’s discrediting his guests with their feeble spy accoutrements: “You, Ransome, with your trick carnation that spits cyanide. You ought to be ashamed. And you, Smernov, with an armoury concealed in your grotesque boots. Listen to them tinkle. And you, Le Grand, with a different deadly poison in each of your fly buttons. And you, M, with your flame-throwing fountain pens. You’re joke-shop spies, gentlemen.” However, I do like the magnetic buttons that attract the artificial grouse with their built-in machine guns. Very clever.

Vesper's OutfitThere’s no point examining the death count on this film as it’s all pure pantomime, everyone dies and, in a sense, no one dies, as we see them in Heaven. However, I do want to share with you some of my favourite lines from the film.

“I present you with the levitation of the Princess Ayisha, an illusion taught to me by an ancient vegetarian in the mountain fastnesses of Tibet.”

“It’s the first john I’ve ever gone around with.”

“Which side do you dress, sir?” “I usually dress away from the window”.

“Listen. You can’t shoot me. I have a very low threshold of death. My doctor says I can’t have bullets enter my body at any time. What if I said I was pregnant?”

“I’m the new secret weapon. I’ve just been perfected.” “Yes, haven’t you?” “They’ve kept me under wraps.” “Lucky them.” “What do you do that’s so secret?” “I don’t do anything. But unless you’re one of them, you do […] You’re really learning to put up quite a resistance.” “It goes against my nature.” “I sense that too. What are you doing after the exercise?” “Getting my head examined.”

“Call me Coop.” “Like something for keeping birds.” “That’s me.”

“What a charming outfit that is. Do you often wear that in the office?” “If I wore it in the street, people might stare.”

“Just how personal is a toupee?” “It can only be regarded as a “hairloom”.

In the BathIffy Material: There’s no doubt that there’s quite a lot of material that has dated badly in a post-Operation Yewtree world. A man of David Niven’s age getting into the bath with a girl of (allegedly) 17 years makes one feel a little squeamish today. And consider this conversation between Agent Mimi masquerading as Lady Fiona and James Bond, describing a portrait hanging on the wall: “To your right, Sir James – Lady Mary, daughter of Lord Douglas McTarry, raped by the Campbells in 1662, in retaliation of which, Lord Douglas sent his only son Hamish out to rape twa Campbell lassies.” “At the same time?” “Eldest first, of course. As prescribed by scripture.” It has an Ortonesque naughtiness to it, but it’s really not acceptable in this day and age.

BAFTA_awardAwards: The Look of Love was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, losing to Talk to the Animals from Doctor Dolittle. Burt Bacharach’s score also earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Show. Julie Harris was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Costume Design.

you_only_live_twice_-_uk_cinema_posterTo sum up:
In so many ways, this film is a complete oddity; one of those star-strangled indulgences that no doubt looked great on paper but had a lot of difficulty reaching the screen. For me it has some serious highlights but also a lot of longueurs; but it’s part of my childhood and I love it for that. I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions of Casino Royale – and whether you agree with me! Please leave a comment below. Next, we’re going to be returning to the classic Bond films and You Only Live Twice, released just two months after Casino Royale. I’m sure the diehard fans couldn’t wait!

My rating: 4 Sparkles

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All photos from the film of course belong to their various copyright holders.

Review – The Long Walk Back, Underground at the Derngate, 13th April 2019

Chris LewisDo you remember the story about cricketer Chris Lewis? He played in thirty-two Test Matches and fifty-three One Day Internationals for England between 1990 and 1998; was a county cricketer for thirteen years, and came out of retirement to play Twenty 20 matches for Surrey in 2008 – not very successfully. He was also found guilty of smuggling cocaine from Saint Lucia into the UK in December 2008, for which he was sentenced to thirteen years in prison. He was released after six years in June 2015.

Martin Edwards and Scott Baylis 2It was quite a cause célèbre at the time. Why did he do it? Surely not for the money? Didn’t he have the world at his feet? Dougie Blaxland’s The Long Walk Back goes some of the way to tackle these questions. Only some of the way though, because it also raises just as many new questions as it answers! With just a bunk bed, a wicket and a toilet as the set, Martin Edwards as Lewis and Scott Bayliss as his cellmate (whether real or imaginary is up to you to decide) act out various short scenes – in a rather stylised, non-realistic manner, that show Lewis’ distress at incarceration, his mental self-examination and his resolve to survive the experience.

Martin Edwards and Scott BaylisPersonally, I can’t imagine how I’d cope with being sent to prison. I guess, somehow, I’d manage it, but don’t press me on the details. The play does make you think how you’d behave if you were in Lewis’ shoes, as it shows how imprisonment affects not only you but your wider family and friends. It also reveals how vulnerable you are – indeed, largely at the mercy of your cellmate in order somehow to get through it all.

Martin Edwards and Scott Baylis 3You get greater clarity on Lewis’ motivations and explanations when you actually meet him after a short break for a Q&A session with Rough House Theatre Director Shane Morgan. Charming, self-deprecating, and extremely honest, Lewis comes across as a thoroughly decent man, who’s still looking for the answers himself, and using this whole theatre experience as a way of trying to sort out his head. The play tackles the question of taking responsibility for one’s own actions and it’s clear that he blames no one for what he did other than himself. A question from the audience asked whether or not the player associations should take more responsibility for what players do both during and after their career – and Mr Lewis’ answer was, basically, no.

Long Walk Back Q&AThis is an unusual way to spend a Saturday night at the theatre, and, whilst it didn’t soar to heights of great tragedy or huge revelations about the human condition, it did give you an insight into what it’s like to be someone who had it all, then had nothing, and then slowly turned their life back into something positive. The production continues to tour small venues in Bristol, Birmingham, Bath, Leicester, Nottingham and Greenwich.

Production photos by Lisa Hounsome

Review – Edmond de Bergerac, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th April 2019

Edmond de BergeracQuestion: What does Speaker John Bercow say when he sees Cyrano de Bergerac in the House of Commons? Answer: The nose have it, the nose have it.

EDB 5I’d like to apologise for that childish opening, but bear with me, gentle reader. Cyrano is normally all about the nose, but in Alexis Michalik’s Edmond de Bergerac, it doesn’t make an entrance until the final scenes. And that makes sense, because this brilliantly funny account of how Edmond Rostand might have written his famous tragicomedy is all about heart; love for one’s art, whether it be writing or acting, and how you have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous theatre managements in order to get your masterpiece on stage. It’s a wonderfully positive piece, where love finds its true course, hopeless wannabes find success, and even the villains are funny. So, really, the ayes have it, and in abundance.

EDB 3Rostand is down on his uppers, but does have a magnificent patronne in the formidable shape of Sarah Bernhardt, who’s still a box-office draw despite edging towards her best-by date. She organises a meeting between him and Constant Coquelin, the famous thespian who’s been having legal wrangles with the Comédie Française. Although he hasn’t written anything for years, Rostand somehow impresses the Great Man, who commissions a comedy from him; first read-through tomorrow.

EDB 9Thus comes the first of many nights where Rostand works round the clock, with encouragement from the manager of the Café Honoré, and support from his actor pal Léo. A serial womaniser, Léo introduces Rostand to his latest inamorata-in-waiting, Jeanne, and it’s through Rostand’s mentoring of Léo’s otherwise useless romantic small talk that he discovers the muse for Coquelin’s commission. But there’s an awful long way between that initial spark of creativity and Cyrano’s first night.

EDB 4Edmond de Bergerac joins that small but very special group of works of art (whether it be play, book, music, etc) that tries to shed light on its own creative process – and they’re always packed with insight. The film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, for example, intersperses the narrative of the story with scenes where the actors play themselves on set whilst making the self-same film. Elton John’s Your Song and Spandau Ballet’s True take us through the pains and motivations of the songwriter getting the words right. Edmond de Bergerac shows us the individual moments of inspiration that get transplanted into the, as yet, unwritten play; the personal relationships, the overheard arguments, other people’s fantastic one-liners that you just have to steal for your own work. By taking us through the creative process, it also emphasises the truth of what lies at the heart of the new created work. Have I lost you? Sorry, it’s one of my pet favourite things in art.

EDB 1From Honoré’s opening Bonsoir, (to which we all replied) to his final introduction of the curtain call, that fourth wall is always open, and we’re willingly drawn into Rostand’s theatrical world. When an idea comes into his head, he confides it to us. We share in Coquelin’s knife-edge relationship with the law. We love it when the star, who never bothers with stage management’s health and safety warnings, plummets through the trap door. There’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that Rostand is always comparing himself with the ultra-successful Georges Feydeau, because the show is crammed with half farce/half slapstick moments. I also loved the inventive staging suggestions (the train sequences are all hilarious), the over-the-top Frenchy characterisations; and the surprise appearances of the likes of Anton Chekhov and Maurice Ravel. It reminded Mrs Chrisparkle of the fabulously successful revival of Mr Whatnot a few years ago; and with aspects of Noises Off, Kiss Me Kate and Nicholas Nickleby in there too.

EDB 7It’s all performed at fantastic speed and pinpoint accuracy by a hugely likeable and talented cast of fourteen, playing something like fifty or sixty characters. At the still point in the turning world, Freddie Fox is outstanding as Rostand, clearly a devoted family man but unwittingly caught up in what looks like (to his wife at least) an illicit affair. Robin Morrissey is hilarious as the empty-headed matinée idol Léo, and Josie Lawrence uses all her fantastic vocal skills to create a very grande Bernhardt, a grumpy Duenna and a West Country prostitute who saves the day (in a number of ways).

EDB 8Chizzy Akudolu gives great comic presence to the diva-ish Maria, Simon Gregor steals every scene as the camp couturier and the pompous hotel receptionist, whilst Nick Cavalière gives great support in a number of roles including (with Mr Gregor), Coquelin’s creditors, the two menacing Floury brothers. Delroy Atkinson is superb as always as the assertive Honoré and the ham old actor, Harry Kershaw is terrific as the awful actor Jean, David Langham makes for a wonderfully pompous Feydeau, Sarah Ridgeway a kindly, put-upon Rosemonde, and Gina Bramhill a sparkling yet spikey Jeanne.

EDB 6Top of the shop is a superb performance by Henry Goodman as the ebullient and vain Coquelin, the demanding boss who needs his script double quick and insists on a duel scene because he’s quite handy with a rapier. Even though he’s potentially difficult and a nightmare to work with, we support him absolutely in his attempts to see Cyrano on stage. It’s a lovely comic performance but with plenty of serious tinges. But everyone gives a performance of top-quality commitment, and the result is an evening of sheer delight.

EDB 2Michalik’s original production opened in Paris in 2016 and is still packing them in after 800 performances. Of course, Cyrano de Bergerac is second-nature to the Parisien theatregoer; he’s like our Hamlet, but with added proboscis. This short touring production – the play’s UK première – courtesy of Birmingham Rep, in a translation by Jeremy Sams, still has dates at Cambridge and Richmond to follow, and I’m sure will do a lot to raise the profile in this country of not only Cyrano, but also Alexis Michalik. A marvellous tribute to Rostand and a fabulously funny night out. Don’t miss it!

Review – The Nubian Sky, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Looking Glass Theatre, Northampton, 5th April 2019

Flash FestivalAfter a packed week of dramatic highs and lows – almost entirely highs, actually – we come to the last show in this year’s Flash Festival – The Nubian Sky, a solo performance by Shemelia Lewis. It’s an examination of what it is to be a black woman today. Part celebration, part revelation, Ms Lewis takes us through a number of scenarios, including a child growing up in Montserrat with strict but loving parents and only appallingly racist cartoons on TV to watch; and a grotesque TV game show, hosted by the revolting Dave, where we’re asked to judge whether a black woman who has been subjected to domestic abuse should get justice. Fortunately, our audience agreed 100% that she should; but the TV judges, whoever they were, disagreed. And at the end we see the woman in question struggling as a result of the nationwide TV disgrace – unable to keep down her job, no longer able to study, crying out to God for some comfort. Ms Lewis painted a very disturbing and uncomfortable picture on which to end the play.

The Nubian SkyThe performance is full of contrasts. On one hand, Ms Lewis is a joy to watch. She comes across as a very likeable, rather wacky individual; her characters like to dance, to have fun, and simply, quietly, to get on with their lives. Set against this is a constant undercurrent of racism; the hideous cartoon, the denial of justice, the racist terminology in the media and around her. And whilst you sense that the spirit of survival and overcoming the odds will always prevail, that final scene of despair and abandonment tells another story.

Shemelia LewisI think it could have been even more successful if Ms Lewis had taken some of the ideas further. That cartoon, for instance, could have done with some deconstructing, rather than just showing the little girl getting bored with it. There was a scene where the schoolgirl got into trouble because of her hair; I’d have liked to understand a little more about what drove the teacher to raise the issue, and how it made everyone feel. Just a thought.

It sounds odd – and lame – to say that a play about how racism affects someone can be enjoyable, but strangely this performance was very enjoyable, because of the thoughtful and amusing characterisations and Ms Lewis’ warm sense of communication. Congratulations!

Review – Kunene and the King, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 6th April 2019

Kunene and the KingJack Morris, an ailing, white, Shakespearean actor with liver cancer brought on by excessive drinking, has been hired to perform King Lear at a theatre in Johannesburg. The promise of playing this iconic role is the only thing that keeps him going – well, that, and the Gordon’s gin. Enter Sister Kunene – Sister as in nurse, rather than in family – a black carer from Soweto who has been hired to live with Jack until he dies (I mean, until he gets better). Both men will need to learn the art of compromise if this professional relationship is going to work. But they have one thing in common: Shakespeare.KATK 3 Kunene’s only knowledge of Shakespeare is Julius Caesar, taught in the townships as a warning about conspiracy, but he longs to know more. So when he starts helping Jack with his lines, not only does he start to appreciate the grandeur that is Lear, he also learns how best to communicate with his patient. Whether the patient is prepared to meet him half-way is another matter…

KATK 7Janice Honeyman’s production for the RSC and Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre is an engrossing, vivid, and honest (sometimes brutally so) insight into the world of these two disparate men and the search for the common humanity that must link them. Birrie le Roux’s two-part set portrays both the cluttered, egotistical, bookish home of the actor, no longer able to take care of himself; and the simple, clean dignity of the nurse’s kitchen, making the best of sixty-year-old furniture, with just his football team’s scarf as a decorative note.KATK 8 Incidentally, it’s while we’re enjoying Lungiswa Plaatjies’ mesmeric performance of Neo Muyanga’s strong, entr’acte vocal compositions that somehow the actor’s pad gets transformed into the nurse’s kitchen without our even noticing. Very smooth!

KATK 2There are few greater names associated with the last fifty years of South African theatre than that of John Kani. Actor, playwright, director; a shining beacon in the fight against apartheid through the medium of the stage. It had always been an ambition of mine to see him on stage – and with Kunene and the King, all my expectations of his stage presence and performance quality were exceeded. KATK 5And not only John Kani, but we get another of South Africa’s theatrical heroes, Sir Antony Sher. It was only a few months ago that he was chillingly brilliant in One for the Road, part of the Pinter at the Pinter season. As Jack Morris he is delightfully irascible, dictatorial, and bossy; but also, like Lear, vulnerable, confused and a foolish, fond old man. It’s a fantastic portrayal of a once powerful character, losing his potency through age and sickness; still immensely proud and independent, harking back to the old days when there’s absolutely no way he would have allowed a black man in his house.KATK 9 John Kani’s Kunene is also a proud and dignified man; nobody’s maid or servant, but a highly qualified professional person, and he needs it to be recognised. When Morris challenges Kunene’s integrity and position, Kunene has to find a way to work through the anger and resentment of the decades in order to carry out his professional role.

KATK 1The final scene, where Jack tracks Kunene back to his Soweto home, narrowly avoiding a public transport disaster to get there, in order to get his publicity photos taken for the production of Lear, culminates in a grand argument where they both realise the awfulness of what each of them is doing to the other; thus they then have their own equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation process. Written to commemorate 25 years of open elections since the end of apartheid, the strained, yet often joyful relationship between the two characters tells some of the story of how South African society operates today.

KATK 6At barely over 90 minutes without an interval, the play fairly whizzes by. It’s a work of delicate quality, insight and structure, and I could easily have enjoyed another 90 minutes. A chance to watch two masters at work, but it’s only on at the Swan until 23rd April. After that, it opens at the Fugard in Cape Town on 30th April. Unmissable!

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

Review – Rise, Workbench Theatre Company, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Castle Hill, Northampton, 5th April 2019

Flash FestivalWe’ve all been there; attending the first meeting of a group, when no one knows how many people will turn up, or what they will be like; whether you’ll get on with them, whether they’ll like you; all those recognisable little neurotic worries. Welcome to the first meeting of Rise Northampton, a non-violent action protest group that wants to raise awareness of climate change. Founder Emma is there to welcome us into the room; her friend Rod stands at the door shaking our hand; Risehe seems a friendly, if simple soul. Who else is there? Hearty well-meaning Martha, who helps at the soup kitchen twice a week; one of Emma’s ex-students, the well-informed if somewhat distant Saff; the aggressive and humourless Jeoph (son of Jeisen); and the flamboyant, cynical and occasionally creepy Freddy.

Franky HarrisAs the weeks go by, their plans for a protest take shape. But when one of them goes too far and causes a public disorder, this is too much for Emma to bear. We are all British and well-behaved, after all. But the controversy does get them noticed; and eventually, as news keeps coming in of water shortages in the major cities of the world, it occurs to them there might only be one option – what you might call the ultimate protest.

Esther BartholomewThis excellent little play succeeds on two levels. First; it was very funny! The relationships between the characters are deftly drawn as we get to know them better, although, in truth, there are some we’d probably like to know a little less! In particular, I loved the “role play” scene which created great comedy directly out of the characters’ personalities. Secondly, the play genuinely made me think more about climate change – Hannah Magrathand specifically how precious fresh drinking water is as a commodity. I personally am aware about how I tend to waste water by turning on the shower long before I get in – quite unnecessarily – and because of this play’s strong message, I’m going to stop it.

Above all, there are six enjoyable, fully-realised characterisations by six talented performers. Joseph Mattingley Franky Harris is superb as the organiser Emma, all polite and choccy-biccy to start with, filling awkward silences with utterings of pure nonsense, and putting her foot down on any language excesses or perceived hostility between the members that could discourage others in the group, just like a well-trained teacher should be. But when the situation gets drastic, she surprises us with her change of spirit. I thoroughly enjoyed her performance.

Daniel HuberyEsther Bartholomew is great as Martha, delightfully self-deprecating, eager to do the right thing, and very powerful when she shows us her true commitment to the cause. Hannah Magrath gives a nicely controlled and mature performance as the aloof Sapphire, gradually warming as she becomes more involved with the group as a whole. Joseph Mattingley is hilarious as the child-like Rod, incapable of hiding his emotions at the slightest confrontation, taking everything literally, writing an appalling song that thankfully we don’t get to hear. This could have been almost a pantomime comic creation, but Mr Mattingley has created a real, very believable and vulnerable character and it is a superb performance.

Chris CutlerI loved Daniel Hubery’s argumentative, no-nonsense Jeoph; the kind of guy who has no time for small talk or concealing harsh facts with comforting lies, and not frightened of treading on anyone’s toes if that’s what it takes. We all know a Jeoph; Mr Hubery got him absolutely spot-on. And Chris Cutler is also excellent as the theatrical Freddy, throwing extravagant gestures and revelling in over-the-top metaphors. His is the character that, perhaps, undertakes the greatest journey; he almost physically changes before our eyes as he shrinks into realisation of the truth.

A very entertaining yet unsettling play with some fantastic performances – and it certainly makes you think. Congratulations all!