Review – Caroline’s Kitchen, Original Theatre Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th February 2019

Caroline's KitchenTwo years ago, we saw Original Theatre’s production of Torben Betts’ Invincible, and a jolly fine piece of work it was too. So I was very keen to see this next offering from Mr Betts, produced by the same company. It’s fair to say that both plays have similar themes and subjects. People talking over themselves, pretending to listen but much more interested in what they themselves have to say; people revealing the private emotions that lurk behind a public exterior. There’s even a link between the two plays concerning recent campaigns of war. Mr Betts has a lot to say about the little tragedies that pepper our lives and how they mount up to overwhelm us. He also has a good eye for the surreal, and I can understand why he is spoken of in the same breath as Sir Alan Ayckbourn.

Caroline and CameramanThe play originally saw light of day back in 2016 under the title Monogamy, where it played at the Park Theatre and where it received a variety of extreme reviews. Torben Betts decided to revise the play, presumably enhancing the aspects that went well, and altering or removing those that didn’t. Has he created a sparkling new comedy? Or does it look like something that’s been through the mincer?

CarolineCaroline’s Kitchen is more than just a name of a play; if it was your subject in a game of charades, you’d have to point out that it was also a television programme and a book. Caroline is a TV chef, whose programme is made in her own charming rustic country kitchen in the heart of north London. The first ten minutes of so of the play is an absolute delight, as we see Caroline in full flight, TV camera watching her every move, as she introduces the show, promises us some fabulous recipes and her special guest, the daunting Ingrid from Sweden. Then we realise it’s a rehearsal, and that Caroline has something of a drink problem, which has encouraged some dreadful paparazzi to snap her falling out of a taxi, with only a newt alongside her for comparison.

LeoBut today is a special occasion; son Leo is returning home for a celebratory dinner as he’s just got a First from Cambridge (as Caroline never hesitates to boast about). Caroline’s PA Amanda – a stand-in as her regular PA, Prem, is unavailable – is a 21st century Sloane Ranger with media luvvies stuffed into her phone contacts, and with no idea quite how abrasive and irritating she can be with her pretentious speech patterns. Caroline and Mike’s house is up for sale, and Mrs Minto has booked a viewing that evening, much to Caroline’s annoyance because she doesn’t want the celebration evening spoiled. Handyman Graeme is also on the scene, finishing some little jobs here and there, but wanting a serious word with Caroline. Leo, too, wants a serious word with Caroline. Trouble is, Caroline’s the kind of person who just doesn’t have the time to have a serious word with anyone, apart from God. Add to the mix Caroline’s husband Mike, who manages to be both a boor and a bore, and Graeme’s mentally unstable wife Sally, and you have a recipe for disaster.

MikeThere are dark comedies, and dark comedies. This is a DARK comedy, especially in the first act, where there is a lot of scene-setting and character-establishing. What primarily came across to me was a sense of watching a middle-class tale of suburban angst strung out amongst the sauté potatoes and garnishes of rosemary. With the drama of Leo rebelling by doing charity work, the flashing of cash in order to pay off his debts and buy him a flat, and above all – gasp – smoking! – there was a teeth-jangling tweeness mixed with the darkness, which is a weird combination. Sadly, at this stage, it had also forgotten that it should be funny. At the interval Mrs Chrisparkle and I agreed that, although the performances were good, the play itself was just about limping along.

Leo, Mike and SallyAfter the interval, the second act was considerably funnier, with a few strong laugh-out-loud moments, and the tweeness was replaced by some more demonic undercurrents. I felt uncomfortable at the comic use of the character of Mike’s latent racism and homophobia; of course, it’s absolutely fine to laugh at someone with bigoted viewpoints, but I just felt we were more being asked to laugh with him, which is a very different matter. This wasn’t the only heavy-handed aspect to the play; symbolic rain outside gets heavier and heavier as the evening progresses, even though when people come on stage from the garden, they weirdly don’t appear to be particularly wet. There is, however, a classic Ayckbournian moment; when preparing to toast Leo’s success with champagne, Mike times the popping of the cork a split-second after Sally lets slip that her brother took his own life. Very nicely done.

AmandaAs the relationships between all the characters continue to decline throughout the course of the night, there is some element of farce, but, to be honest, it could have pushed the boundaries of savagery even further than it did. The rather unoriginal ending was a mash-up of Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party.

GraemeNevertheless, it is a very good production; the detailed, attractive, fully operational kitchen set strongly impresses when you enter the auditorium, and there are faultless performances from the whole cast; particularly Aden Gillett’s objectionable Mike, and Elizabeth Boag’s tragic Sally. However, I have to confess, I was disappointed with this one. I had high expectations that it only partly met; I was hoping for something funnier, something sharper, something a little more original. Unlike Invincible, there were no characters with whom you feel a connection; they’re all on the spectrum somewhere between ineffectual and unpleasant, so you don’t particularly care about their fate.

Leo and SallyBut you can’t win them all, and I expect I’m out of kilter on this one, because the packed Monday night house really enjoyed it. After its week in Northampton, the tour continues to Liverpool, Cheltenham, Norwich, Eastbourne, Bath, Worthing and Colchester.

Production photos by Sam Taylor

Review – Invincible, Original Theatre Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th January 2017

InvincibleSometimes it’s good to see a play with absolutely no-preconceptions as to what it’s all about. All I knew about Invincible is that it was Ayckbournian in style without being by Ayckbourn – which worried me slightly as Ayckbourn is a class apart and I hoped this wouldn’t be a pale imitation. All my friend and co-blogger Mr Smallmind knew about it was that it was set in a flat share. WRONG! I had assumed it would have nothing to do with Swedish singer Carola who performed the song Invincible at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006. In that respect, I was spot on. No, the “invincible” of the title refers to something quite different, and there’s a huge sigh of recognition in the audience when they finally get the reference.

inv9Two rather unhappy couples are forced to be neighbours when the ineffectual Oliver, his patronisingly Marxist partner Emily and their cosseted children are forced to upsticks from London and move up north as a result of their inappropriately low income. They live next door to footie mad Alan, his bored but alluring wife Dawn, their (unexpectedly charming) children and their cat, who has greater significance than cats normally do. A “break the ice” get-together round at Oliver and Em’s for olives and cashews slowly deteriorates into the evening from hell as social and class differences divide the two couples, even though Oliver’s willing to give it a try and Alan is more of a Renaissance Man than you might have imagined. As the Act One curtain falls on Oliver and Emily resolute in the face of adversity to the stoic strains of Jerusalem, you wonder where this can go for the second act. However, carry on it does, as lives are further changed, relationships damaged, and health suffers; but there’s much more to it than that, and a lot of the power of this play comes from its unexpected twists in the plot so I’m not saying any more. No sirree.

inv8Suffice to say that at the end, one couple are able to escape to safer ground, leaving the others to cope with the mess that surrounds them. You couldn’t really call it a happy ending in all fairness – which leads me on to the comparison with Ayckbourn. Not hard to see why people have compared the two, as events of personal tragedy run alongside outwardly comic situations and you laugh (but not through cruelty) as everything a character holds dear crumbles all about them. There’s an extended scene where the four characters are all talking at cross purposes which creates some magnificent laugh out loud moments; but all the way through I found myself guffawing at regular intervals. There’s a lot of sadness in this play, but the humour is absolutely terrific, and many’s the time when the actor has to wait for the laughs to die down before they can carry on with the text.

inv7Maybe the gaps between the comic and the tragic are not quite so seamless as in Ayckbourn at his best, as Torben Betts, the writer, sometimes confronts you with moments of real tragedy without anything comic going on to alleviate the pain. Enough about comparisons; they are odious, and Mr Betts has written a fine play that gives you deep insight into these peoples’ lives. The characterisations are as strong as you could wish. I really felt as though I am personally acquainted with at least two of the characters in the show: the know-it-all joy vampire, who denies happiness because the socialist way forward isn’t funny; and the slobby, soccer-obsessed lager lout who invades your personal space and bores you with endless pointless observations but deep down has a heart of gold.

inv6Where this play excels is when it shows you these characters’ vulnerable private sides as well as their public personas; the Marxist’s longing to love and be loved, the slob’s aspirations to artistic excellence. The play constantly challenges our stereotypical preconceptions of what these people and their wider families are like – indeed Tuesday night’s spellbound audience could barely hold back on a running commentary about the plot and the characters; that sounds tedious, but actually it was quite charming. If one thing really comes through from watching this play – especially in the first act – is how everyone is talking to each other but nobody is listening. The characters are fully prepared to talk everyone else down with their own agenda but never prepared to consider anyone else’s. Apart, perhaps, from Dawn, who has less to say for herself anyway, and is more curious about attracting the love-deprived Oliver. Keeping open the proper channels of communication is vital for a successful relationship, and that includes discussing those difficult topics most people shy away from. Plenty to talk about on the way home, then.

inv5It’s a smart little production with a no-nonsense but perfectly suitable set by Victoria Spearing and snappy, unsentimental direction from Stephen Darcy. It’s produced by the Original Theatre Company who gave us their Flare Path at Oxford last February, but this strikes me as a much more confident production. What really gives it its strength and charisma is the cast of four who knock spots off the script as they engage with the characters and the audience with a really likeable and honest delivery. Alastair Whatley plays Oliver with superb self-control, neglecting his own desires for the good of the household and because he genuinely loves Emily, although she doesn’t reciprocate much. Totally alien in his new environment, he seeks to assert himself as best he can – which in some ways doesn’t go as far as it should – and in others goes way too far. Emily Bowker’s Emily is a teeth-jarringly accurate representation of a neurotic, condescending mess, who conceals any sense of reality beneath a mask of communist dogma. Her refusal to politely lie, when it would have been far more socially acceptable and far less hurtful than telling the truth, is agonisingly realistic. When she finally lets her hair down, you see the real character lurking beneath, and Ms Bowker’s portrayal of a woman more damaged by the past than she can express is very moving.

inv3Next door, Graeme Brookes’ Alan is the complete opposite of his uptight neighbours, with his perfect Man At Sports Direct look, the belly that insists on protruding no matter how many times he pulls his shirt down, the loud and potentially menacing voice that usually (but not always) hides his inner self-esteem issues, and his unexpected ability to reveal his private emotions in a way men like that are Simply Not Meant To. It’s a fantastic performance, and Mr Brookes revels in all his opportunities to play the noisy oaf, to the delight of the audience, whilst still remaining absolutely faithful to the character. Elizabeth Boag, whom we really loved in Ayckbourn’s Arrivals and Departures three years ago, makes a stunning first appearance as the overlooked Dawn, a true Jessica Rabbit to Mr Brookes’ Homer Simpson, and you really do wonder (as does he) how it was that she ever fell for him in the first place. Ms Boag creates an excellent sense of aloofness from where she can observe the other characters and quickly size them up – especially Oliver, whose size she gauges quite quickly, if you get my drift. Dawn also does not escape from the harsh reality of life, and her final scene actually brought tears to Mrs Chrisparkle’s eyes (though not mine, obvs.)

inv2I thought it was a terrific play, full of insight and understanding, showing the various ways people deal with sadness and grief; are they all invincible at the final curtain? You’ll have to see it to find out. These four stonking good performances will keep this touring production delighting its customers for weeks to come. After Northampton, you can catch it at Derby, Doncaster, Huddersfield, Scarborough, Cambridge, Southend, Harrogate, Lichfield, Brighton and Newcastle-under-Lyme. And you definitely should catch it!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Arrivals and Departures, The Ayckbourn Ensemble, Oxford Playhouse, 6th February 2014

Arrivals and DeparturesYou know that thing when you’re having a conversation with someone, but actually you’re hardly concentrating because you’re wrapped up in other thoughts about other problems – and you hope the person you’re talking to doesn’t notice; well, has it ever occurred to you that the person to whom you are talking is also not concentrating because they too are immersed in their own thoughts and daydreams? No, me neither. But that is the central tenet of Alan Ayckbourn’s 2013 play, Arrivals and Departures, his 77th, would you believe; I was going to call it his new play but I see that there’s already a 78th opening in Scarborough this summer.

BaggageThis very inventive and rewarding play is set at a London railway station and, from reading the programme notes, you get the feeling Ayckbourn has always wanted to set a play in a railway station. Observing people in transit, people waiting for others to arrive, and the people who work at the station, and so on – I think this has been an ambition. For Arrivals and Departures, it’s almost as though he has taken the ideas for two separate plays – a “train station” play and a “memory, obsessed with one’s own thoughts” play, and very successfully woven the two together.

Kim WallMaybe there are even traces of a third play here too – in the actual plot, which is way beyond the boundaries of your average domestic comedy. When the play starts you are a little confused as to the set-up, but you quickly realise that you are watching the preparations for a military security operation, an attempt to ambush and capture a terrorist on the train coming down from up north into London. This doesn’t feel like typical Ayckbourn territory, but then he has written about so many subjects now that I don’t think there is such a thing anymore. As the rehearsals for the ambush team progress, we meet Barry, a well-meaning but over-talkative Yorkshire traffic warden, who is the one person that has met the terrorist and would be able to recognise him in a crowd – so he is there to confirm that the guy they capture is the right one. We also meet Ez, (not Esme, as she will frequently point out) a somewhat wayward and unconventional soldier whose job it is to protect Barry, should it come to that particular crunch.

Elizabeth BoagAs we await the arrival of the train containing the terrorist, code name Cerastes, we see flashbacks in Ez’s mind as she recollects her childhood and the difficult relationships with her mother, and how, as a result, she finds it hard to commit to a relationship with Rob, a seemingly decent soldier type, which has its own unfortunate consequences. Her conversations with Barry get in the way of her thought processes, but his good nature starts to break down her resistance; and when the terrorist does finally appear, she successfully manages to protect Barry, although Barry is convinced they’ve got the wrong man. Here comes the interval.

Barry and QuentinI won’t tell you what happens next, but it’s absolutely not what you were expecting. Suffice to say, this is a “time” play, so expect Ayckbourn to manipulate the usual conventions to make his point. I was kind of dreading a rehash of his play “Improbable Fiction”, which was the last Ayckbourn we’d seen at the Oxford Playhouse, and which had a hilarious first act but (for us) a totally stupid, useless, surreal and not at all satisfying, second act. I needn’t have worried. Arrivals and Departures is a supremely better play, which opens up a lot of loose ends before neatly tying them all together. I do have one criticism though – the structure of the play requires a certain amount of repetition in the plot and dialogue, and I did think that this detracted a little from its overall dramatic intensity. However, there is also the fun for the audience of working out where there will be repetition and where there will be new material – you can’t always second-guess it. The plot climax definitely moves the action forwards, and is one of the most touching conclusions to a play I’ve seen in some time. To be honest, the lady on the other side of Mrs Chrisparkle sobbed her heart out.

AmbushKim Wall plays Barry and it’s a complete star performance. I’ve told you before how I first came across Mr Wall, so I won’t bore you with that story again; however, he remains one of my favourite actors, and I wonder why he has never really hit the big time. Barry’s vocal mannerisms, the way he doesn’t like to let a silence go unfilled, his potential to be really boring, his underlying total kindness, his dignified but positive response to the cruelty of life and his complete lack of regard for his own safety, are all beautifully brought to life in Mr Wall’s performance. Equally good is Elizabeth Boag as Ez, uncomfortable, soul-searching, reserved, but with the possibility of allowing the ice in her heart to thaw. Mrs C pointed out how extraordinarily well she conveyed anger (Mrs C has a great dislike of the default position of “anger = shouting” in some productions we’ve seen). There’s a brilliant scene between Ez and Barry, where she loses her cool with him and tears an unnecessarily sharp strip off him – her gradually changing reaction as she realises what she has done is superbly conveyed.

Rehearsals for an ambushIt’s an excellent ensemble performance throughout, with the cast of eleven playing thirty roles. In the performance we saw, the role of Quentin, the leader of the security operation, was played by Peter Halpin and he was superb; a vain, self-absorbed little Hitler if ever there was one. When his operation comes to a not-entirely-satisfactory conclusion, all he can think about is himself. It’s a very clear depiction of someone who isn’t actually as good at their job as they think they are, or indeed ought to be. In all the memory scenes, I particularly enjoyed Sarah Parks as Ez’s worrisome mother, and James Powell as the young Barry, all 70s suit and ineffectual bonhomie; but all the cast give an excellent account of themselves.

Railway station sceneI would have liked to see the other productions that are in repertory with this play, all performed by this Ayckbourn Ensemble company; namely a revival of 1992’s Time of my Life, and two one-act farces combined under the title Farcicals, which sound like an antidote to the serious themes of Arrivals and Departures. However, as Mrs C often tells me, “you can’t see everything”. The plays are on at Warwick Arts Centre this week, and then go on to Cambridge, Cheltenham, Bath, Watford and Windsor. If Arrivals and Departures is anything to go by, these audiences are in for a treat.