Review – Flare Path, Oxford Playhouse, 3rd February 2016

Flare PathI’ve always had a soft spot for Terence Rattigan. I think it’s because I was so impressed when, shortly after my 17th birthday, I took myself off to London to see a production of Separate Tables starring the somewhat legendary John Mills and Jill Bennett. With a supporting cast of elderly theatricals like Ambrosine Philpotts and Raymond Huntley, it was a masterclass in acting understatement. And that is what Rattigan does best – conveying deep emotion and powerful personal dilemma in an environment where the stiff upper lip is all. I’m not sure I understood at the time the irony of casting Jill Bennett in that play – the ex-Mrs John Osborne, whose “kitchen sink” Look Back in Anger has always been seen as the antidote to Rattigan’s “well-made plays”.

Graham SeedThis was the first time I’ve seen Flare Path, although I read it in my early 20s, but I could remember very little of it. Rattigan wrote it whilst he was in the RAF and it’s based on his own wartime experiences. Flt-Lt Teddy Graham is a young officer at Milchester airbase in Lincolnshire, who has recently married an actress, Patricia. She has been performing in a play in London and therefore has not been able to support him in person on his air raids. Teddy is respected and trusted throughout the squadron, especially by his faithful Air Gunner Dusty Miller. After the run of Patricia’s play has finished, she comes up to Lincolnshire to be with Teddy. But that evening, in a local hotel, where the squadron members go after their raids to relax and regroup, Patricia and Teddy’s marriage is threatened by the sudden arrival of Peter Kyle, a Hollywood film actor with whom Patricia had a relationship before she married Teddy. Kyle wants Patricia to break it off with Teddy – and she admits she doesn’t really love her husband in the way she loved Kyle. However, just before Kyle engineers a showdown where Patricia will tell Teddy that it’s all over, Squadron Leader Swanson arrives to inform the men that their evening of relaxation with their wives is cancelled, because they’re all due out on a raid that night. What Patricia has to tell Teddy will have to wait until the morning. But what will happen overnight? And how will it change the course of events the next day? I’m not going to tell you that, you’ll have to see the play.

Lynden EdwardsIt’s a finely structured, deeply moving, rather solemn play but with occasional flashes of surprising humour. We were both struck by how the play examines the theme of sacrifice. Of course, the brave airmen who don’t come back from their missions make the ultimate sacrifice; but those left at home too must sacrifice their homes, their jobs, their lifestyles. Squadron Leader Swanson even sacrifices his sleep so that he can be there for the team when they get back from their raids. And when it comes to affairs of the heart, sometimes these too have to be sacrificed for the greater good and in the cause of simply doing the right thing. Teddy can be seen as a typical Rattigan male – on the face of it, noble; but concealing an aspect of himself of which he is not proud, or cannot come to terms – in this case, his fear of undergoing the air raid missions. Just like Separate Tables’ Major Pollock, hiding the allegations of sexually harassing women in a cinema, or indeed Rattigan himself concealing his homosexuality, Teddy’s a man with a murky secret – a flawed hero. In a few years’ time, elements of his character would develop into Freddie Page in The Deep Blue Sea, drunk and depressed from his wartime experiences.

Hedydd DylanDo you remember the late Brian Hanrahan’s reporting of the Falklands War back in 1982? As he watched the British Harrier jets taking off from HMS Hermes to launch the first air attack on Port Stanley, he wasn’t allowed to report the numbers of jets involved. He just, famously, said: “I counted them all out, and I counted them all back”. Such are the lives of the women waiting behind at the Falcon Hotel in Milchester. Countess Doris listens for the minute details of each aircraft flying overhead, knowing which ones are in trouble (“she’s flying on three engines. Been shot up, I expect”), and which are successfully taxi-ing after landing. They brave the blackout recriminations of Mrs Oakes as they open the curtains to watch the planes take off and land. It really gave me, as a modern audience member, who has never personally been involved with any military combat, an insight into what it must be like to be on the edges of war action – fully supportive of the war effort, but desperately worried about each and every outcome.

Claire AndreadisMrs Chrisparkle and I were chatting during the interval. “You know it’s not going to end well, don’t you” she suggested. I agreed. Every indication was that at least some of our brave boys were not going to see it to the final curtain. But, without giving too much of the game away, you can appreciate that the original 1942 audience might not have warmed to too tragic a finale, and I don’t suppose Rattigan wanted theatregoers sobbing in the aisles every night. If you’re after a happy ending, you might be lucky.

Daniel FraserSo what of this production by the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions? It seems very faithful to the original, dividing up Rattigan’s three acts into the current popular requirement for two, by bringing in the interval between Scenes One and Two of the second Act. I enjoyed the adherence to Rattigan’s original stage direction of having aircraft noises and communication sounds carrying on all through the interval, which keeps the audience in the zone whilst fighting over their ice-creams. “Wiggy Jones” has been replaced by “Betty” but that’s hardly material. Hayley Grindle’s set changes the position of the reception desk from Stage Right to Stage Left and brings the ever-burning fire more to the centre of the action, but otherwise is barely changed from the original. The sound effects – on which the play relies quite heavily – are authentic and crystal clear. For our performance, we had text captions either side of the stage which I have to say is an innovation that I really like. I think my hearing’s okay on the whole, but sometimes you can really benefit from having accents clarified or quickly spoken sequences visually presented to you.

Jamie HogarthA strong, mature play like this with some meaty roles cries out for some top quality performances; and this is where it gets a little disappointing. I think the production has a new cast for its 2016 tour and some of the scenes haven’t quite bedded down properly yet. It’s not badly performed by any means, but a couple of the more important roles were, for me, a little wooden and didn’t quite convey everything that I think Rattigan would have intended. To be honest, Lynden Edwards as Peter Kyle didn’t make the role particularly interesting. When he translated the Count’s letter for Doris, I sensed you should have been overwhelmed with emotion of some sort – but you weren’t really. I wouldn’t say it was like reading a shopping list, but you would have suspected an actor like Kyle would have put a little more expression into it. In some of the earlier scenes too, I just didn’t feel Polly HughesMr Edwards quite got it. Hedydd Dylan, as Patricia, was also rather slow to get going in her role, although by the time we reached the final scene I thought she brought out all the appropriate self-doubt and emotional turmoil.

William ReayFortunately, there were also some excellent performances. I was really impressed with Daniel Fraser as Teddy, a confident and credible performance as the archetypal hero playing the game whilst deep inside feeling distraught. His breakdown scene was tremendously moving and believable. I’ve not seen Mr Fraser before and I think he could be One To Watch. Claire Andreadis gave us a very bubbly Countess Doris, amusingly conveying her starstruck-ness in the presence of Peter Kyle, yet resolute and strong in the face of the apparent death of her husband. Jamie Hogarth was excellent as Dusty Miller, balancing friendliness and respect with his Skipper, whilst gently remonstrating with his wife for her uselessness on buses; the embodiment of salt of the earth. Audrey Palmer was delightfully frosty as the proprietor Mrs Oakes, and the ever-reliable Graham Seed was perfect as Swanson, the senior officer who was more of a friend than a superior, yet could command his men effortlessly when needs must.

Audrey PalmerDespite any reservations about the performances, Flight Path still comes across as an engrossing and emotional play, with timeless themes and a huge amount of dignity. Whilst somewhere in the world airmen are still flying bombing raids to attack the enemy, this play will never go away. Congratulations, Sir Terence, your play still rocks! The tour continues throughout the UK until May.

Review – Arcadia, Oxford Playhouse, 14th April 2015

ArcadiaTom Stoppard. A dramatist for whom I have immense respect. As a teenager who used to devour play texts like nobody’s business I did my best to keep up to date with all his works. I read Albert’s Bridge, and If You’re Glad I’ll Be Frank; After Magritte and Artist Descending a Staircase. I hooted with laughter at the production in my brain of The Real Inspector Hound. At school, we read (for fun, because our teacher loved him) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with its amazing off-stage existence – we were also taken to see the National’s production at the Duke of York’s. We also went on school trips to see Jumpers at the National (a philosophical fantasy) and Dirty Linen at the Arts (where I sat next to our other English teacher whom we all called Andy, later to become more famous as the writer and broadcaster A. N. Wilson). I read Travesties, even though I hadn’t a clue who Tristan Tzara was. I took a prospective girlfriend to see Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (no chance). I saw the original productions of Night and Day, The Real Thing and On The Razzle and found them riveting. I took the newlywed Mrs Chrisparkle to see Hapgood and we loved it. Then, for some reason, I don’t think we saw any new Stoppards again – only revivals.

It didn’t take long for Stoppard’s reputation as a master dramatist to take hold. Certainly when I was reading English at Oxford (not known for its fondness for the avantgarde) Stoppard was a featured author if you took drama as a specialised subject – and that was way back in 1980. Today there are student crib notes and study guides for many of his works. It seems to me that he is as studied as he is performed or watched on stage.

Flora MontgomeryNormally, at about this point in a review, I would give you a quick run-down of the plot. However, this time I don’t think I can give the plot justice. There’s so much in there, so much to understand, so much that you need to be able to recognise from your own knowledge; and I confess, especially as a non-scientist, there were considerable areas of it that I just didn’t understand at all. Stoppard assumes a level of intelligence and education in his audience, and, frankly, although I am no dimwit (honestly), I don’t think I came up to the mark. What I can tell you is that events in the early 1800s and events today are mirrored and juxtaposed in a clever and telling way. I can tell you that the 19th century plot contains a tutor who enjoys sexual congress with married women, a wronged husband/poet, a precocious student, and an ambitious plan to create a landscaped garden. The 20th century plot contains rival academics with their own theories to prove about the same wronged poet and same garden. And those academics get it wrong.

There are some particularly enjoyable aspects. We both really appreciated the central notion that modern day academics will misinterpret events in the past to suit their own ideas. Much sweat is shed over the identity of the secret hermit (an invention in a schoolgirl prank) or whether Byron shot the missing poet (no he didn’t). The facts as they are actually known get reassembled, and the gaps filled with hope and guesswork, by the academics to create a lie. As you can imagine that idea went down very well with an Oxford audience. As Christopher Hampton wrote in his excellent 1970 play “The Philanthropist”: it’s much more important for a theory to be shapely than for it to be true.

Arcadia comes top of many people’s lists as one of the best plays of the 20th century and as Stoppard’s finest hour. I can see why. As I’ve indicated earlier, it encompasses a vast array of thought. It’s extraordinarily inventive, has plenty of witty Stoppardisms, and even features a tortoise (just like Jumpers). It pits chaos theory against determinism, 19th century against 20th century, academic motivation against sexual motivation. It ties up all its loose ends into a very satisfactory whole. I bet it’s magnificent to read.

Wilf ScoldingAnd that’s really at the heart of the problem, as I see it. I think this could have been the most gripping and rewarding comic novel, giving you the time to come to understand concepts you don’t come across on a day by day basis, and to get to grips with characters and their peccadilloes. However, as a reasonably fast-paced play, it lost me. It sacrificed emotion and action on the altar of theory and cleverness. We both found it very heavy going, very wordy, very static, lacking any real sense of drama and really quite dull to watch. I liked the general setup that we were watching the same room two hundred years apart, and that it constantly went backward and forward telling separate stories – but when the two eras merged in the final scene I found the clever-cleverness of Stoppard’s device rather smug. It doesn’t help that it’s almost entirely populated with difficult, spiky or rude characters. I found that I didn’t have any personal empathy with any of them – except perhaps for Septimus, the 19th century tutor, because he’s a roué, a cad and a bounder which sets him apart from the rest of the characters, having something of a personality.

It was a weirdly strength-sapping experience. As people around us regained their seats for the second act, we heard comments such as “he’s not coming back” and “they hated it”. One man said “why is it always dark outside when the action is taking place during the day?” (good question) ; another said “the table on the stage is just too big. It takes up all the space and you can’t see what’s happening behind it”. I agree. The table is a constant presence in both the 19th century and 20th century elements of the play and gives it continuity. But percentage-wise it really does take up a lot of the acting space, and when characters sit in front of it, they block the characters or events that take place behind it. Another comment I heard was that people just couldn’t hear what was being said. To be honest, I don’t think there was much wrong with the actors’ enunciations or projections; I just think that some of the words and concepts are so alien to get your head around quickly that your concentration lapses in occasional troughs of despair and as a result you find yourself not paying attention to what’s being said.

Dakota Blue RichardsAs I didn’t warm to the characters, I can’t say that I particularly warmed to any of the performances. That’s not to say they weren’t good. Flora Montgomery as Hannah was very good as the modern, hard-nosed, essentially selfish and rude academic who always has to have her own way. I liked Wilf Scolding as the untrustworthy Septimus, considering his next move as though he were deep in chess. Dakota Blue Richards kept her Thomasina, the 19th century student, on the right side of being an irritating know-all. But really, on the whole, I didn’t care.

To get the best out of this play you really have to be match-fit. Don’t go after a hard day at work, or after a meal or a drink; take vitamin supplements and whatever substances you require to make you as alert as possible. Wear light clothing because your brain will overheat. Alternatively, make sure you read it in advance, then you’ll have a heads-up on what the actors are going to say and you can look a lot of the terms up in a dictionary first. And if that makes it more of a scholastic exercise than a play, ay there’s the rub. This is the final week of the English Touring Theatre/ Theatre Royal Brighton co-production. I’d love to see them perform something a little more accessible.

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.

Review – Dickens’ Women, Oxford Playhouse, 25th July 2012

Dickens' WomenWhenever I think of Miriam Margolyes, the first impression that comes to mind is of her triumphant performance as Lady Whiteadder in Blackadder II, the stentorian Puritan miseryguts who leads Lord Whiteadder a life of living hell and disapproves of any meal more extravagant than “God’s Good Turnip”; although if I remember rightly she ends up with her Puritan virtues largely around her ankles. We’ve never seen her live before, so I thought we should take the opportunity to see her one-woman show about Charles Dickens and the women in his life, both fictional and fact.

Miriam MargolyesIt’s a very entertaining way of spending an evening. Ms Margolyes strings together approximately 20 or so character vignettes, each infused with her own personal interpretation of the voice and bearing of the woman in question, but following an informative narrative of Dickens’ personal and career life. You come away at the end of the show feeling much more knowledgeable about the man – including some of his less respectable tendencies. It seems he always had an eye for 17 year old girls, especially in-laws. He treated his wife damn shoddily, and could fall in and out of love on a whim; but he also had a wicked sense of humour and his powers of observation were just as brilliant as you would imagine from his books.

I say it’s a “show”; it’s really more like a dramatically delivered lecture, but not in a pompous or stuffy way. It’s a well thought-out piece of classic Cambridge University author-centric literary criticism, which you could easily imagine being concocted over an afternoon sherry-cum-tutorial at Newnham (which just so happens to be Ms Margolyes’ Alma Mater). It’s rather polite and refined, erudite and improving; but still very funny and also very moving at times.

Mrs GampIt’s definitely a pleasure to hear someone so in command of the English language, clarity and diction at the forefront – I’m talking about Ms Margolyes rather than Dickens. It’s also very enjoyable to watch her assume her characters – it takes her a good few seconds each time to get in the zone. Wearing an outfit best described as inspired by Indian Restaurant Flock, she’s a natural successor to Joyce Grenfell, with her ability to give precise and credible voice to both posh and common. For some of her older, more cantankerous characters she lolls her tongue around her mouth in a manner that brought to mind Margaret Rutherford. She started the second half with her portrayal of Mr Bumble and the Widow Corney from Oliver Twist and it was comic genius. I also really enjoyed her portrayals of Martin Chuzzlewit’s Mrs Gamp, Flora Finching from Little Dorrit, and Miss Flite from Bleak House. It’s not all comedy though. Some of it is highly tragic, but wrapped up with a lightness of touch so that the tragedy is just peeping up from underneath the surface. Dickens is the forerunner of Ayckbourn; discuss.

She’s accompanied on the piano by Benjamin Lee, whose sole purpose seems to be to add a little mood music here and there, but both Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt he was rather superfluous. To be honest, he played so softly that you could barely hear him, and when he did chip in with the occasional piano version of “eye-tiddley-eye-tye” it seemed inappropriately flippant.

Oxford PlayhouseMiriam Margolyes is taking her Dickens’ Women on a long tour of the country followed by a North American tour, and you can find all the details here. Her two nights at the Oxford Playhouse were both sell-outs. Plenty of people decided to buy her book, which she was signing in the foyer afterwards. All in all, an aspirational crowd-pleaser for a well-read audience.

Review – Volcano, Oxford Playhouse, 17th July 2012

VolcanoAn undiscovered Noël Coward play? Sounds intriguing and delightful. Will it have the sparkling wit of Private Lives? The horseplay of Hay Fever? The high comedy of Blithe Spirit? Those plays were written when Coward was still a gay young thing, and when he could see every aspect of human life through bright and risqué eyes whilst still reflecting the truth about society. But Volcano – unperformed in Coward’s lifetime – was written in 1956 when the gay young thing had become a gay older thing and, perhaps with a nod to the tough lives being portrayed in the contemporary plays of Osborne and Wesker, this is a much more serious play.

And, for me, that’s its problem from the start. I don’t think Coward does serious very well, unless it’s of the patriotic “In Which We Serve” or “This Happy Breed” kind. This is a play full of downbeat and dismal relationships. Adela was happily married but now widowed, and takes the view that happiness is past and can never return again. Guy is serially unfaithful to Melissa, whose coping strategy is to employ her natural snappy toxicity. Ellen and Keith are on the rocks and will probably only stay together for the child’s sake. The only characters who seem to make a plucky go of their relationship are Grizelda and Robin, but Coward has relegated them to the sidelines as far as the real meat of the story goes. Overall, it’s extremely pessimistic about love and relationships.

Jenny SeagroveBut these are real problems – and according to the programme, based on the experiences of real people that Coward knew at his Jamaican hideaway – Ian & Mrs Fleming no less. So this ought to form a gritty account of relationship problems that you can really get your teeth into. Centre stage, and acting as a metaphor for a seething cauldron of emotions, is the volcano up against which Adela’s house is perched. Unfortunately, despite the potential intensity and depth of the characters’ situations, the play just doesn’t take off and the volcano is reduced to something of a molehill. It felt to me as though the text were just a first draft of something that could have developed into a more satisfying final product. By the second draft the plot would have had more intrigue and by the third he would have scattered it with bons mots and enhanced linguistic dexterity; but as it stands, it’s a bit like Norfolk – largely rather flat. That’s not to say there aren’t some good scenes, there are; Ellen’s two second-act confrontations with Melissa and Keith are full of surprises and very well played; and Melissa’s conversations throughout are spiky and acerbic. But I also felt that many of the speeches were written more like erudite prose than believable conversation. If the author had been alive I am sure there would have been subtle rewrites during rehearsals that would have made the whole thing flow better; not an option forty-odd years after his death, I realise.

Director Roy Marsden and designer Simon Scullion have gone for a very naturalistic presentation of the house and volcano. This means the representation of the volcanic eruptions, with the sound and lighting effects and subsequent destruction of part of the set, have to be very naturalistic and believable too; and with the best will in the world, it’s a big ask. Some minor pyros and flickering lights that dislodge at an angle of 30 degrees doesn’t quite suggest terrifying semi-devastation to me. The next morning after the eruption, Adela goes around cleaning up the garden and washing all the black soot off the chairs and tables – she refers to the dirt and dust a few times in her speeches – but you can see that her cleaning cloth is as free from lava residue post-wash as it was before. That also contributed to the lack of credibility of that big central stage effect. To be honest I think the whole thing would have worked better in a smaller space – somewhere like the Menier or the Sheffield Crucible Studio – with much less in the way of intricate stage design and demanding greater reliance on the audience’s imagination. That intimacy might also have made the character interaction more telling.

Jason DurrAdela is played by Jenny Seagrove, who I haven’t seen before on stage. She gives a good impression of a strong-minded and intelligent woman reining in her emotions, but vocally I found her delivery rather samey throughout; the tone she used to address Ellen when they were remembering good times and her tone of disappointed anger with her in the second half were pretty much identical, for example. In fact the only time she actually sounded enthusiastic was at curtain call when she was encouraging us to donate change to her new animal welfare charity on our way out of the auditorium; a gentle form of chugging that felt strangely inappropriate given the time and place.

Jason Durr as the licentious Guy subtly underplayed the role I thought – he could have been more over-the-top with his protestations of love and general spoiltness, but instead made the character more credible and realistic. No doubt this was the role that Coward would have played himself. As Melissa, his justifiably bitchy wife, Dawn Steele probably has the best lines in the play and she too could have played it more savagely and ostentatiously at the expense of credibility, so that was a very thoughtful interpretation I felt. The other members of the cast all gave good solid performances.

Dawn Steele But I’m afraid both Mrs Chrisparkle and I found the whole thing rather boring. In fact I had to look sternly at Mrs C when she lightly suggested skipping the second half. It wasn’t that bad. Apparently Coward wanted Katharine Hepburn to play Adela – she turned it down, and I can see why. Gertrude Lawrence had died four years earlier; if he’d written the role of Melissa for Miss Lawrence the character would probably have been both more adorable and spiteful which might have made the play punchier. Regrettably, as it stands it lacks dramatic intensity and drive. Fascinating to see it, of course, to complete one’s knowledge of Coward’s oeuvres; but essentially disappointing.

Review – Barefoot in the Park, Oxford Playhouse, 23rd April 2012

Barefoot in the ParkMany years ago Mrs Chrisparkle declared “Barefoot in the Park” to be one of her all-time favourite films, so it was a no-brainer that we should see this new touring production of Neil Simon’s original play, directed by, as well as starring, Maureen Lipman. It was a huge success on Broadway back in the 1960s, but a 2006 revival flopped.

So is it risky to resurrect it again? As the curtain goes up to the strains of Jack Jones’ Wives and Lovers, you expect some 1960s New York glamour, trendiness and sophistication. But of course, the reality is newlywed Corrie and Paul’s tiny basic apartment has no heating and a broken skylight. In New York’s 2006 people felt reasonably affluent and secure in their jobs, and maybe this setting didn’t connect much with those theatregoers. In Britain’s 2012, however, times are hard, and I think we can all understand the plight of the young couple starting out in life with a grotty flat and not a lot of money, but full of hope in their hearts.

So, whilst the play is rather dated in some aspects – in this world of children owning smartphones, Corrie’s delight in having her first telephone delivered and installed is charming but seems anachronistic today – the basic themes of the play are still relevant, and I think it’s a good choice of play to revive. Plenty of young couples still start out with nothing but enthusiasm; there are always going to be potentially tricky mothers/mothers-in-law; and that fine line of blending your leisure time and home life with the demands of your work remains blurry. And of course, as long as people are people, and are therefore flawed, they are always going to be a source of disappointment to their partners at some point, which is when you have to work out your compromises in order to get a happy balanced life together. This is the stark reality that faces Corrie and Paul once the initial excitement of the wedding and the moving in together has died down.

Tim Goodchild’s set very evocatively recreates that top-floor Brownstone apartment – bare and basic, with a very dismal and dirty glass roof; the door to the bedroom that you can hardly open because the bed is in the way; the clothes rail inconveniently far from the bedroom (no space for a wardrobe); the useless tiny kitchen that would be impossible to cook in; all looking tired and drab, but nevertheless suggesting that exciting prospect that with a bit of time and effort you could make it look really swish.

Faye CastelowRight at the centre of the story is Corrie, played by Faye Castelow. Young, idealistic, and keen to experience everything she can, her delight in her new surroundings is a joy – she’s playing at being an adult for the first time and loving every minute. You don’t want life to knock the innocent exuberance out of her, as it inevitably will. It’s a very good performance, quirky and funny, whilst remaining totally within the bounds of reality. She is matched by Dominic Tighe’s Paul, his feet firmly on the ground, aghast at the number of steps you have to climb to get to the flat Dominic Tighe(one presumes Corrie agreed the deal on a girlish whim), deeply in love with her but also very aware of his responsibilities and obligations with work and the more serious aspects of life. It’s an equally good performance. Their second act argument scene is conducted with a splendid mixture of pace, silliness, outrage and genuine disappointment. For me it was the highlight of the play. Through their argument they learn the art of compromise and it’s a heart-warming moment when you realise Paul did actually go barefoot in the park.

Maureen Lipman Maureen Lipman is Corrie’s mother, Mrs Banks, and it’s a beautifully understated comic performance. She conveys all the regular motherly concerns without ever becoming a real nag. The role gives her ample opportunities to show off her brilliant comic timing; and you also get very telling insights into her personal loneliness, which will be more acute now that Corrie is living away from home. On top of all that you can just glimpse that slight twinkle in her eye suggesting there might be a more companionable life ahead for her with Victor, played by Oliver Cotton, Oliver Cottonwho gives a funny but again totally believable performance of the weird neighbour with outrageous tastes and extravagant gestures. Ms Lipman’s direction of the play is what makes this production really tick. It emphasises the laughs within the text – some of the lines are still very, very funny – but without ever going over the top. It could have been tempting to make Mrs Banks a hideous dragon and Victor a grotesque foreigner and poke cruel fun at their backgrounds and attitudes. Instead the production allows all its characters to have their personal motivations and genuine emotions recognised and respected. It makes for a much more believable and rewarding scenario.

David PartridgeThere’s also some entertaining support from David Partridge’s Telephone Repair Man and Hayward Morse’s Delivery Man – how nice (if surprising in this kind of role) to see him on the stage again (original Brad in Rocky Horror, Nick in What the Butler Saw, Tony award nominee in Butley on Broadway, and son of the late Barry Morse). Hayward Morse The full house at Oxford gave a warm reception to this surprisingly thoughtful production of a charming play, with lots of funny lines and a feelgood factor. It’s still touring, and with Richmond and Cambridge still to come, I’d recommend it for an entertaining night out.

Review – The Lady in the Van, Oxford Playhouse, 1st July 2011

The Lady in the VanFather, would you hear my Confession please. It’s been 15 months since my last visit to the Oxford Playhouse. Last time we went, the staff were very offhand, signage was poor and it all felt a bit substandard. Great news is that it’s back to its former welcoming self, with polite and friendly front of house staff, and a clean and bright foyer that actually makes it feel bigger than it really is. They still don’t have a sign up saying which side of the auditorium you should enter to get closer to your seats, and you have to rely on the ushers to point you in the right direction, but at least it didn’t cause the same confusion as last time. And Father, you might enjoy the play, it’s got quite a lot of Catholic references.

For several years Alan Bennett’s garden became the home to the Lady in the Van – Miss Shepherd, who apparently lived in the van, and several other vehicles besides, for many years. A combination of her self-confidence, his soft-heartedness and a rather Zen acceptance that This Was How It Was Going To Be created this surreal neighbourly situation. And the presentation of the story in this play is pretty surreal too.

Alan Bennett is played by two actors, who simultaneously provide two changing aspects of his personality. This could be Bennett the talker and Bennett the thinker; Bennett’s actions and Bennett’s conscience; later on in the play it becomes Bennett the neighbour and Bennett the writer. This sounds a bit confusing but actually it works effortlessly well. Miss Shepherd’s conversation drifts from flights of fancy to the banal, and her larger-than-life character fits well into this surreal environment. Towards the end of the play she gets even more surreal, but I won’t spoil it for you. There is also a shadowy figure, who comes knocking at her door at odd intervals, using threatening obscenities – which seem a little out of place – and which doesn’t get explained until right at the end (and only then just).

Nichola McAuliffeThe best aspect of this production is that there are some excellent performances. Nichola McAuliffe is Miss Shepherd and she is every inch the feisty, cheeky, emotional character you would expect her to be. Nichola McAuliffe always brings huge gusto and verve to every part she plays and in this role she can be as brash, bold, wily and beguiling as she likes. You can always be assured of vocal clarity with Miss McAuliffe. Nobody sleeps while she’s on. It was because she was in the cast that we decided to see this play. She’s great. She’s one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites.

Paul Kemp The two Alans were Paul Kemp and James Holmes and they gave very credible presentations of someone who the general public probably feels they know inside out – that must be a hard task in itself. I thought James Holmes in particular caught Bennett’s genteel ironies especially well. James Holmes The story takes place at a time in Bennett’s life when he was also dealing with the dwindling health of his mother, and that was very sympathetically put forward. They got a huge reception from the audience at curtain call.

Tina Gambe Two other performances I would single out are Tina Gambe, in the role of the social worker, who has some fantastically funny lines as she subtly imbues Bennett with the role of carer; Martin Wimbush and Martin Wimbush as the scary threatening figure, if for no other reason than he is the original Mr Crisparkle (without the H) from Edwin Drood – and therefore one of my favourites.

Bennett seems to like to put a “big event” in his plays. When we saw “Enjoy” a few years ago (a dreadfully overrated play I thought), the big visual impact moment came when the walls of the house were flattened out and the acting area became the whole stage – surrealism again. In “Lady in the Van” a similar moment comes when Miss Shepherd’s campervan is chained up and slowly raised into the sky. It sparked a round of applause from the audience. I always find it slightly depressing when something like that receives that level of appreciation – it’s just a device; something incidental to the story, the writing, the characterisation, the drama.

And that it the main problem with this play – I didn’t feel as though it had a lot going on in the Drama Department. It’s as though – much as Miss Shepherd herself points out – Alan Bennett could not decide whether the play was about Miss Shepherd or Alan Bennett. Apart from the fact that she lived in his garden, in reality their paths didn’t seem to cross much. He obviously decided it would be about both, but I’m not sure it worked.

I’ve done a Venn Diagram to show the problem. Bear with me, I’m no graphic designer. The black bit in the middle shows where the lives of the two characters cross, and that’s basically the drama of the play. And as you can see, it’s only a small percentage of their existences. The white unshaded bits might have made for a more focussed play. In addition to this, I have to say there were a few dreary speeches as well. Miss McAuliffe did her best to maintain the energy of the play at those times but it was an uphill struggle. So whilst it’s a good production, and with some excellent performances, as a whole I found it curiously unsatisfying.

Also, please spare some sympathy for people sitting in the first few rows. They could hardly have seen a thing. The stage is very high – I presume because there has to be a revolving circle to the stage floor so that Miss Shepherd’s vehicle can swing around. I’m guessing the Oxford Playhouse doesn’t have a revolving stage, so they had to build it in on top. Bear this in mind if you’re going to see it in Harrogate or Bradford in the final weeks of the tour.