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Theatre interlude: The Roaring Girl

5 May


Last weekend I was at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, to see the RSC’s production of The Roaring Girl, written in 1611 by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton. The play focuses on the character of Moll Cutpurse, a cross-dressing ne’er do well based on a genuine 17th century character (real name Mary Frith) who, according to the programme, “associated herself with ruffianly swaggering and lewd company” and “to the great shame of her sex oftentimes drunk hard and distempered her head with drink”.  So, four hundred years ahead of her time then!

For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, the director, Jo Davies, chose to set this production in the 1890s – which worked okay-ish but didn’t add a great deal for me. She also employed, for the music, a (rather good) on-stage all-women rock band which I enjoyed but which was neither Jacobean nor Victorian. The main plot of the play centres on a young man, Sebastian (played by Joe Bannister) seeking to convince his father that he has fallen in love with the notorious Moll Cutpurse (played with great swagger and spark by Lisa Dillon in a bravura performance) so that his real love, Mary (Faye Castelow), of whom his father disapproves because of the inadequate dowry she will bring, looks a preferable match.  Well, what do you expect of a Jacobean comedy social realism?

What made the production interesting though was less the almost Robin Hood-like way that the character of Moll goes around righting wrongs (she seems altogether too ‘nice’) than the sub-plot concerning another battle of the sexes between shopkeepers and their wives where Lizzie Hopley (playing the apothecary’s wife, Mistree Gallipot) almost steals the show. The scene which has stayed in my mind most though was the opening one of act four, set in Sebastian’s father’s house in which Moll and Sebastian seek to conceal Mary from his father – which was high comedy.

Although lacking a real ‘wow’ factor, this production was a joy to watch, not least because of the number of strong parts for women actors. Of the men, perhaps the strongest performance came from Geoffrey Freshwater as a villainous Ralph Trapdoor


Theatre interlude: The Body Of An American

1 Mar


The Body of an American is an award-winning play by Dan O’Brien. It is directed for the British stage by James Dacre, artistic director of  the Royal and Derngate Northampton in a co-production with London’s Gate Theatre in Notting Hill and is the best play I have seen this year.

Using just two actors, playing more than thirty parts, it tells a fictionalised story of the relationship between a playwright (Dan) and a older Canadian photojournalist, Paul (based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Watson), both of who are haunted by ghosts from the past.  In Paul’s case, it is the act of taking a shot of the desecrated corpse of an American serviceman (Staff Sergeant William David Cleveland) in Somalia. The morality of this act and the real or imagined consequences of disclosing the brutality of war crystallises his own depression. For Dan the haunting  is the result of alienation from his family and its secrets – both known and unspoken. The relationship starts by e-mail and develops into a face-to-face meeting in the Canadian arctic.  The two men range over a variety of topics as they seek to explain and understand themselves and each other  and it’s a powerful insight into male conversation.

It is an incredibly intense piece, lasting 90 minutes without a break and requiring enormous concentration from the actors William Gaminara (as Paul) and Damian Moloney (as Dan).   It’s also a pretty intense piece for the audience too.

The production opened in January at the Gate, which is a small 70 seater theatre, and for the Northampton transfer, James Dacre has transformed one of the lesser-used Underground performance spaces of the Derngate theatre  into a claustrophobic tunnel where the audience (probably no more than eighty strong) sit facing each other in two lines of two benches  across an aisle that is some six feet wide and 30 feet long with projection screens at each end, a serious amount of lighting and a ‘bedding’ of shredded plastic on the floor (representing sand or snow). It is in this aisle that the performance occurs – just the actors and two chairs as props which serve as  jeeps, beds, sleds and more). This of course means the audience sees the acting close-up and personal – with the performers not interacting with the audience directly – but certainly making and holding eye contact.

While the economics of this show are probably such that it’s not economic to produce a programme, the venue is selling the playscript, published by Oberon Books (cover image above) at £6.99 and it is well worth it because the author, Dan O’Brien is also a published poet. His words are for reading as much as speaking and the interplay between the actors as they cut rapidly from character to character in mid sentence develops an almost poetic rhythm.

It was an absolutely superlative piece of theatre with remarkable performances by both men – in turns sad, funny, humorous moving and unrelentingly direct.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Theatre interlude: A Tale of Two Cities

1 Mar


This year my blog appears to be mutating into a theatre review site.  I will try and redress the balance shortly (there are several incomplete music pieces held ‘in draft’) but I am attending more plays than gigs at the moment.

This production is based on the 1859 novel by Charles Dickens and when I write that it’s a world premiere, playing for three weeks (running to March 15) at the Royal Theatre in Northampton  you’ll probably start smiling indulgently. Some little production just a step up from am-dram perhaps?  Well, you’d be wrong. Royal and Derngate productions (branded as Made In Northampton) have been developing a national reputation for theatrical innovation over the past few years and this is keeps up the standard.  When I go on to point out that the novel has been adapted by Mike Poulton (whose adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies  are in this season’s repertoire of the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford) you’ll realise that this is a bit special.  A further indication comes with the other ‘name’ on the programme cover: Rachel Portman (Oscar-winning composer for Emma  with further nominations for The Cider House Rules and Chocolat).

Director James Dacre has assembled a larger than usual cast for this production (with eleven professional actors supplemented by the Royal and Derngate Community Ensemble, including a number of undergraduates from the University of Northampton’s BA course in Acting). Given that the Royal’s stage is not that big, things are a bit of a squeeze at some points – although  the set designer, Mike Britton, deserves a name check because of the clever use of space in the trial/tribunal scenes and for putting together a highly atmospheric staging throughout.

The play is constrained by the plot of the novel in that it has to cover a long period of time, with scenes in London and Paris and this means there is not much space to allow for character development since the narrative has to be so fast-paced.  Perhaps Christopher Good, as Dr Manette,  is the actor who gets the most mileage from his part while Oliver Dimsdale, (playing the central character of the depressive barrister, Sydney Carton) was convincing in conveying the depth of his unrequited love for Lucy. In contrast Yolanda Kettle (as Lucy) and Joshua Silver (as Charles Darnay) were hard-pressed to make a mark in their roles.  Mairead McKinley was a magnificently malevolent Madame Defarge – although both she and Abigail McKern (as Miss Pross) need to work on their fight scene which was less than convincing.

At over two hours in length (plus interval), this was a skillful adaptation, well directed and staged and a enjoyable evening’s entertainment. I really hope it transfers to a bigger stage as I think the production would benefit.  I’d certainly recommend it if you can get to Northampton.

P.S. There are some good photos of the production at

Theatre Interlude: Fallen Angels

15 Feb


When this play was first produced in 1925 it was seen as somewhat shocking because the central premise is that two well-to-do Englishwomen friends might have  had sequential pre-marital affairs with the same Frenchman a dozen years earlier.   The play recounts how, on the day their respective nice-but-dim husbands go off for a golfing weekend together, the women learn that their former lover, Maurice, is coming to England and would like to see them.

From this somewhat far-fetched starting point, the playwright, Noel Coward, fashioned a drawing room comedy for six actors in which the three male roles are very much secondary to the two female leads, Jane and Julia, played in this production by Jenny Seagrove and Sara Crowe  along with Julia’s housemaid, Saunders (played by Gillian McCafferty).

Surprisingly, the abiding memory from this production, directed by Roy Marsden (which has been on tour since last summer and reached the Royal Theatre, Northampton this week) is not the words but some great physical comedy.  Anyone familiar with Noel Coward would probably expect witty repartee – and it’s there in plenty, with Gillian McCafferty’s know-all maid getting many of the best lines but what I hadn’t been expecting was the level of clowning.   Ever since Sara Crowe first came to notice (in TV commercials for Philadelphia cheese for goodness sake) it has been apparent that she is comfortable with comic acting – but I don’t think I had expected to see a well-developed sense of comic timing from Jenny Seagrove.

The vehicle for this is the second act – when Jane and Julia get increasingly drunk, worked up and frustrated at dinner while awaiting the arrival of Maurice. Acting increasingly drunk is probably a lot harder than getting increasingly drunk (I’ve had experience of the latter but not the former) and the two protagonists carry it off well – including a food-fight, pratfalls, bonhomie, befuddlement and aggression.    I can see that  the comedienne, Miranda Hart will be a shoo-in for either leading role if there is another revival in the next five years.

Before this centrepiece came a wordy first act setting the scene of both women’s affectionate but passionless marriages and the longing with which they remember being swept off their feet. Following the dinner scene comes the morning of the next day, the reappearance of the husbands and the arrival, at last, of Maurice, oozing gallic charm. Eventually the plotline is resolved with the two women leaving their bemused husbands alone to go and help Maurice ‘choose wallpaper’ for the upstairs flat he is now renting.

Although the play was popular with audiences when it opened, it proved outrageous to the daily press of the 1920s, with the Daily Express describing the lead characters as “drunken sluts” . Other critics apparently found the idea of women getting drunk and having pre-marital sex as “degenerate”, “disgusting” and “vulgar”.

I didn’t think of the play as any of those things but, despite some funny and clever lines, it remained a two-dimensionally shallow and artificial vehicle. What made the evening though, was the acting of the two principals and the suspicion the audience went away with, that they were having an absolute ball playing the parts!

Theatre Interlude: Eric and Little Ern

1 Feb


This show originated at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 and is now combining a West End run in London (at the Vaudeville Theatre, Sundays only now until March) with a national tour.  I caught it at Northampton’s Royal Theatre and its intimate Victorian auditorium which is just the right sort of venue for this performance.

It’s a two-person piece, created by Ian Ashpitel (who plays Ernie Wise) and Jonty Stephens (who plays Eric Morecambe), telling a little of the back-story of  this much-loved British double-act of comedians and recreating some of their material.  Morecambe and Wise were child performers who built their career as a double act immediately after the second world war and were massively popular together on television  in the 1970s and early eighties until the premature death of Eric Morecambe.

The play’s starting point is  1999, when Ernie Wise was in hospital and on the verge of death following the same heart problems which had killed his partner in 1984.  From this (true) premise, the show imagines the white-coated figure with a stethoscope entering the room to be Eric, come to revive their association.  It sounds a pretty hackneyed devise – but it works – in a touching way – because the two men had such a close professional partnership for so long that, in truth, it was and is difficult to think of them apart.  It also allows the actors to fill in the audience and orientate them with the back-story while getting the characters to  repeat some familiar lines and reminisce about the relationship which led so many people to hold them in such affection.  It’s not deeply psychological stuff with new insights but it does prompt the audience to reflect on how the two men complemented each other so well that they could work together for nearly forty years without splits or significant solo excursions.

It succeeds in this because the creators were permitted to draw on the material produced for Morecambe and Wise by their scriptwriters (at different periods) Eddie Braben and also Dick Hills  & Sid Green. This meant that the play could use some of the jokes, catchphrases and parts of  routines with which this (largely mature) audience was familiar.  The whole thing could not have worked however without the performers’ absolutely remarkable skill in capturing the physical presence, mannerisms and comic timing of the original Morecambe and Wise . This really was impressive acting from two performers whose track records have been more in supporting roles than as leads or ‘stars’.

The second half of the evening comprised a run-through of elements from many of the duo’s famous ‘front of curtain’ sequences and if you remember the originals, you’ll appreciate the tribute meant when I write that ‘you can’t see the join’ between new material and old!

Morecambe and Wise were loved by their audiences and this is a skillful, warm-hearted and affectionate tribute.

Theatre Interlude: Wendy and Peter Pan

12 Jan


Back in the 1990s I enjoyed a couple of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s seasonal productions for family audiences at the Barbican in London. I can remember both Alan Bennett’s adaptation of  ‘Wind in the Willows’ and Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. Just because my youngest son will shortly be 17 doesn’t seem to be any reason for stopping, so yesterday I took the family off to Stratford to watch ‘Wendy and Peter Pan’, a feminist re-telling of J.M. Barrie’s classic story.

Just a couple of years ago said son’s school mounted a remarkably accomplished production of Barrie’s own ‘Peter Pan’ play so I was interested in watching a production which told the same tale from a different perspective. Most blog readers will be aware of the broad Peter Pan storyline which was first told in 1904. I expect that the animated Disney film of  1953 is the best known version – but there’s also the 2004 live action film and several stage versions of which the current telling, by Ella Hickson is the latest.

The main theatre auditorium at Stratford is such a well-designed space that it gives every production a little boost before it even starts and this was no exception. In addition, the RSC’s reliably inventive  set and lighting design (by Colin Richmond and Oliver Fenwick) contributed a lot to the production, not least the aerial work.

Fiona Button (as Wendy) and Sam Swann (Peter) together with Guy Henry as Captain Hook played the lead roles but the performances that impressed most were those of the Lost Boys (especially Josh Williams as Tootles and Dafydd Llyr Williams as Curly), of Arthur Kyeyune (acting a crocodile cannot be easy using only physical theatre and without a crocodile ‘costume’) and of Charlotte Mills (as Tink the fairy). The play is very much an ensemble piece and for me the only weak performance was that of Tiger Lily who too often rushed her lines at the expense of audibility.

Jonathan Munby‘s direction was very good but really the whole play’s success depends on the new insights Ella Hickson brought to the script and her decision to focus on the character of Wendy rather than Peter. This was inspired. Barrie’s original imagining of  Peter as ‘the boy who never grew up’ did mean his character is a little two-dimensional and the original story was very’ male’ with lots of pirates, lost boys and brothers with the few female characters (Wendy, Mrs Darling, Tinkerbell and Toger Lily) confined to almost cameo roles.

In the new version, Hickson’s Wendy is a girl on the the cusp of becoming a young woman and realising that growing up might be more exciting and empowering than simply conforming to stereotypical expectations. And also coming to understand that a role of ‘mothering her brothers, Peter and the Lost Boys’ is both narrower and less fulfilling than finding things for herself.  This is done in a cleverly understated way by Fiona Button, rather than stridently (not least through her costume, which changes from a little-girl’s white nightdress and bare feet to a teenager’s blue dress and ankle boots when she drinks grog and dances with the pirates)! It’s also written in a way that had something to say to the adults in the audience as well as the children.

In contrast to this, Hickson’s Peter is less sympathetic: good-hearted but thoughtless and almost exasperatingly impulsive.  In addition the links to the Pan of Greek mythology are certainly there – with his red quiff suggestive of horns  and qualities more alien than little-boyish, although no suggestion of Pan’s satyr-like qualities.

The other dimension developed in Ella Hickson’s play is that of death: The motive for Wendy’s journey to Neverland is to bring back a brother ‘lost’ to fatal illness. Again this was shown in a gentle, understated way which could speak both to children and to adults.

Of course there was all the action expected of the original narrative with planks being walked and Captain Hook conforming to the role expected of him and suitably villainous pirates.

Overall it was very good. Not great but certainly four out of five stars. And it’s playing until March – so some tickets may be available.

Theatre Interlude: All’s Well That Ends Well

1 Sep


Yesterday saw me enjoying yet another production from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) – my fifth this year and the fourth at Stratford on Avon – a venue which is, conveniently, just an hour from home!

All’s Well That Ends Well is awkward, problematic and ambiguous as a play – and I rather like it for that. It’s neither a comedy, tragedy nor history – so it forces audiences to think.

Because of this it’s performed far less often than  Shakespeare’s more reliable crowd pleasers (indeed I believe it’s the first time in 25 years that the RSC have done it on the main stage at Stratford).

In the UK press, this production garnered 5 star reviews in the The Guardian and Daily Telegraph but only three stars in The Times and The Independent.  I’d give it four out of five.

My problem with the play is that I don’t warm either to the female lead character (Helena, played by Joanna Horton) or to the male (Bertram, played by Alex Waldmann). Both were enormously accomplished performances but, at the end of the play, audiences are left wondering:

(a) whether things really do end well for either or both characters and

(b) not really caring either way!

Bertram is  undoubtedly immature, shallow and priggish – although perhaps capable of emotional growth while Helena is still a sanctimonious, two-dimensional goody-two-shoes – although perhaps realising, as the evening ends, that this is equally immature!

Despite this formidable challenge I really enjoyed the performance – which showcased the RSC’s sheer strength as a repertory company and, above all Nancy Meckler’s assured direction.

The strongest performances were from Charlotte Cornwell (as Countess Rousillon – one of Shakespeare’s finest roles for a mature woman), David Fielder (as Lord Lafeu)  and Jonathan Slinger who by playing the braggart Parolles as a frustrated homosexual with a crush on Bertram, managed to draw real pathos as well as  comedy from his part.

There are three more plays in the RSC’s autumn repertoire which I’d love to see if I can get tickets – but my next confirmed date isn’t until next year.

Theatre Interlude: A Mad World My Masters

23 Jul


A couple of days ago I went to Stratford (one of my favourite theatres) to see the Thomas Middleton play A Mad World My Masters at the Swan auditorium. It was great!

Written in 1605(ish), it is an immensely bawdy and cynical Restoration Comedy re-imagined into 1950s Soho by Sean Foley and his company. Given that One Man, Two Guv’nors survived such a transposition, I am not complaining!

If I write that in this production, Middleton’s ‘Master Shortrod Harebrain’ becomes ‘Mr Littledick’ and another character is called ‘Peninent Brothel’ you’ll get the picture. It was full of double entendres – indeed triple entendres! Wonderfully filthy! The director has cheerfully acknowledged that this production has sought to preserve the jokes for 21st centrury audiences and focusses on sex and money as prime behavioural drivers – and his team have done well! I never thought that I’d say that I can appreciate the ancestors of the Benny Hill Show and Carry On films but, being honest, I do!

None of this would have worked without a top-notch company of actors. Outstanding were Ian Redford as Sir Bounteous Peersucker, and a strong performance from Sarah Ridgeway as Truly Kidman. Ellie Beaven was a sexy, alluring Mrs Littledick – especially in the succubus scene of Mr Middleton’s original and Richard Goulding was an almost sympathetic (if unreformably stupid) Dick Follywit. Special mention goes also to Linda John-Pierre whose singing made the show.

I’m watching so many Royal Shakespeare Company productions this year – but the RSC seems on a roll at the moment!

Theatre Interlude: The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time

7 Jul

Curious Prog  Scan

I spent yesterday in London and saw the matinee performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. This play, adapted by Simon Stephens from the 2003 award-winning novel of the same name by Mark Haddon, started life at the National Theatre and then transferred to the commercial West End stage.

The production, like the book, is centred the world as experienced by Christopher Boone, a fifteen year-old boy with learning difficulties associated with Asperger’s Syndrome. The part of Christopher is played by Luke Treadaway in an outstanding performance and the production utilises an amazingly inventive set design and creative lighting and sound to tell the story.  The central performance is so dominant that it rather overshadows fine performances by other actors, especially Sean Gleeson as Christopher’s father,  Holly Aird as his mother and Niamh Cusack as his teacher.

For all its inventiveness though, the transfer of the book to the stage took away some of the novel’s richness for me. This was probably inevitable since conveying in any depth how and why Christopher thinks as he does would be an enormous dramatic challenge – the book’s attempt to do this is simply more successful. In addition, by focusing the play so much on the character of Christopher (who is, of course, self-centred and finds others a puzzle) , something is lost of the the complex motives and  struggles of his parents and the way their relationship fractures because of the way his behaviour drains and impacts on them.  I was left feeling that the adaptation resulted in the audience rooting so much for Christopher that it diminished the love and stoicism (however flawed) of his parents.  This is understated in the play compared to the book.

Tickets to the production I watched are now almost impossible to get (especially after it won no fewer than seven of this year’s Olivier Awards). It was pure dumb luck that led me to book the day before nominations were announced! If you’re in London though, I’d recommend queueing for returns – and even if you’re not in London, the book is worth reading or re-reading.