Tag Archives: Alan Bennett

History Worth Repeating

THE HISTORY BOYS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, 12th February, 2020

 

Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre continues its recently established policy of producing at least one in-house show per year with this thoroughly excellent staging of Alan Bennett’s modern classic.

Charting the progress of a group of lads as they prepare for Oxbridge applications, this is a hilarious comedy with a serious backbone, as it questions the very nature and purpose of education.  Veteran English master, Hector (a splendid Ian Redford) believes that education should prepare us for what life throws at us, that it should round us out as human beings; fresh out of the box teacher Irwin (a pitch perfect Lee Comley) is of the widely held belief that education is preparation for exams, and he is full of pro-tips to make the boys’ essays stand out from the crowd.  Redmond’s florid outbursts contrast nicely with Comley’s more repressed approach.  Both are superb and infuse their respective roles with subtlety and therefore credibility.

Jeffrey Holland plays against type as the unlikeable Headmaster, all league tables and quantifiable results, in a hugely enjoyable turn, demonstrating once again he can tackle weightier roles and still be very funny.  Victoria Carling mediates as the pragmatic Mrs Lintott, in a wryly humorous portrayal.

And then there are the boys.  Frazer Hadfield’s Scripps is a wizard on the piano.  I enjoy Crowther (Adonis Jenieco) and Timms (Dominic Treacy) in their re-enactment of an old Bette Davis film.  Joe Wiltshire Smith is delightfully blunt as the taciturn Rudge, and there is strong support from Arun Bassi’s Akhtar and James Scofield as Lockwood.  Standouts are Jordan Scowen as the roguishly charming, cock-of-the-walk Dakin, and Thomas Grant, stealing the show as the sensitive, lovelorn Posner while treating us to some wonderful renditions of standards like Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered and the works of Gracie Fields and Edith Piaf.  This is lovely stuff.

Director Jack Ryder gets the tone absolutely right.  The comic timing is impeccable (the French lesson set in a brothel is a hoot) but Ryder pays equal attention to the quietly dramatic moments of Bennett’s superlative script.  Scene transitions are covered by huge video projections, affording us glimpses of life around the school, while 1980s pop hits blare out, to remind us that this is a period piece – although given the state of education today and the obsession with testing and data-compiling, there is much that is relevant still.

With this production the Grand builds on and surpasses previous successes – how they’ll top this one next year remains to be seen.  A key part is the selection of the play.  Here, they get everything right and it’s a real pleasure to see work of such a high quality being produced at my local!

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Ian Redford and Thomas Grant (Photo: Tim Thursfield, Express & Star)

 

 


Seaside Sauce

HABEAS CORPUS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 16th March, 2018

 

Alan Bennett’s curious farce from the early 1970s doesn’t feel like an Alan Bennett.  The cosy, Northern bleakness of his bathos is not present in this early work, in which he strives to dazzle with his intelligence at the expense of character development.  A farce needs a light touch to make its contrivances palatable; Bennett peppers his with dark observations about mortality amid all the libido-driven incidents and misunderstandings.  The play sounds very much like a Joe Orton.

Vanessa Comer gives her production a decidedly seaside postcard appeal: bathing huts and bunting serve as the setting, and the performance style is very much end-of-the-pier revue.  The cast adopt a larger-than-life style to suit the excesses of their characters – ciphers, by and large, with their individual lusts and longings driving their actions.

Niki Baldwin kicks things off as charwoman-cum-narrator-cum-host, Mrs Swabb, an impudent but charming presence – a working class character bemused by the goings-on of this middle-class mob.  Pamela Hickson is pitch perfect as the frustrated Mrs Wicksteed, neglected by her husband, flitting between deadpan and melodramatic posturing.  As her husband, Dr Wicksteed, Peter Ward can afford to be more exaggerated in his lechery, to increase the contrast between his professional and his personal demeanours.  Kathy Buckingham is a hoot as lonely spinster Connie, proudly sporting her mail-order mammaries – the triggers for incidences of mistaken identity.  After a bit of a flustered start, David Draper’s Sir Percy provides some funny moments with his trousers down.  Abi Deehan is sweetly conniving as young Felicity, hoping to trap a man into marrying her and legitimise the child she is carrying, but for me, the most consistent and developed characterisation of the show comes from Nathan Brown as the Wicksteed’s weedy, spotty, hypochondriac son, Dennis – an Emo Phillips lookalike, the antithesis of the dashing young hero!

It’s familiar territory but Bennett heightens the theatricality; the cast need to sharpen the quickfire asides to the audience and I’m sure the first-night fluffs will disappear as the show’s run progresses, and the entrances and exits need sharpening to maintain a fast pace.

The plot winds up with a direct riff on The Importance of Being Earnest with Margot McCleary’s Lady Rumpers doing a Lady Bracknell and Dennis paraphrasing John Worthing regarding his adopted fatal illness.

And so Bennett, yet to find his own voice, gives us Orton and now Oscar Wilde – it makes sense.  All three are gay men holding up to ridicule the social and sexual mores of heterosexuals, making the audience laugh at themselves.  Society has moved on since the play’s first production – does the audience recognise itself on the stage?  Probably not very much; these two-dimensional stereotypes are old hat.

All in all, this makes for an enjoyable production, with the energy of the cast just about covering the creaking of the plot.

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Mrs Swabb (Niki Baldwin) introduces Dennis (Nathan Brown)


Agent and a Scholar

SINGLE SPIES

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 18th February, 2016

 A double -bill of Alan Bennett plays concerning two of the men exposed as spies for the Soviet Union. Based on real people and true-life events, the plays differ from the typical Bennett fare of maudlin Northerners and their bathos, and give us an evening of sparkling dialogue and barbed language, but little in the way of plot.

An Englishman Abroad

It’s Moscow, 1958, and actress Coral Browne (Belinda Lang) is in town, performing in Hamlet. A chance encounter with the English exile Guy Burgess (Nicholas Farrell) leads to her visiting him in his less than luxurious apartment, where she is importuned to measure him for a new suit. Lang is marvellous as the brassy Browne and Farrell evokes sympathy as the vain but slovenly Burgess – Am I supposed to feel sorry for him, I wonder? They’re certainly both very charming, thanks to Bennett’s dialogue. It’s a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain from which we learn the Soviet Union was dull and dreary, a kind of open prison for the traitor who misses London so much. Apart from their discourse, very little takes place. There is a brief musical interlude with Burgess on the pianola, accompanied by his young boyfriend Tolya (an appealing David Young) on the balalaika. What we take from it is the evocation of a bygone age in a foreign land as well as the enjoyment of seeing such larger-than-life characters exquisitely portrayed by impeccable actors.

A Question of Attribution

It’s London in the late 1960s. Here we meet ‘fifth man’ Anthony Blunt (David Robb), years before his exposure. Dramatic irony abounds because we know what’s coming. Blunt is questioned on a regular basis by Chubb (Nicholas Farrell) who has granted Blunt immunity but not anonymity for helping with enquiries. These scenes are interwoven with Blunt at work as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures – there is a painting, said to be by Titian, that reveals a third figure beneath the varnish. Further investigation by X-ray reveals traces of a fourth and even a fifth man… The parallel is clever, the metaphor perfect. Robb is a twinkling yet dignified Blunt. His discourses on Art History are fascinating and arch but it is Bennett’s intelligence that we are admiring. Robb is a charismatic presence – we don’t get to the root of Blunt’s sympathies with Communism (the man professes to hate the public!) but we are captivated by him. Belinda Lang does a delightful turn as the Queen and we can’t help wondering how much the real one is like this in her unguarded (pun intended) moments.   David Young appears as a student of Blunt’s and I also enjoy Joseph Prowen as Colin the security guard who knows more about the paintings than the student! Bennett puts words in Colin’s mouth that makes us feel that art appreciation is within the reach of all of us – which, of course, it is.

Rachel Kavanaugh directs with a light touch, giving us an enjoyable couple of hours that tease us with history and nostalgia. Peter McKintosh’s imposing set suggests Whitehall, Moscow, the Courtauld Institute and the Palace, with only slight rearrangements of the furniture. It is a treat to see actors of such presence and skill deliver erudite and amusing writing. The plays sparkle like champagne but lack the kick of home-distilled vodka.

'Single Spies' Play by Alen Bennett. Touring Production

‘To be perfectly Blunt – David Robb (Photo: Alastair Muir)

 

 


Class Acts

THE HISTORY BOYS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 8th September, 2013

 

Alan Bennett’s widely acclaimed play, examining approaches to and effects of education, is presented in this excellent production by Birmingham’s little gem of a theatre.  The house was full for this performance and I believe everyone went away happy and perhaps even edified a little.

The Headmaster of this fictional school is all too recognisable from life, fixated as he is by league tables and his obsession with being able to quantify everything.  He recruits Irwin, a supply teacher to help prepare a bunch of high fliers for their Oxbridge entrance exam.  Irwin’s methods are at odds with those of General Studies teacher, Hector, who sees education as enrichment for life rather than a means to jump over prescribed hurdles. The boys themselves come to appreciate the contrast in their deliveries, on their way to becoming rounded individuals and/or members of the academic elite.

Bennett treats us to comedy high and low.  One scene, in schoolboy French, is particularly funny, as the boys enact a transaction in a brothel.  Other moments are more subtle; and among the humour there are also moments of pathos.  Of all the boys Michael Jenkins shines as sensitive, lovelorn Posner, in a detailed and layered performance.  Jenkins’s singing voice is a particular asset for this production.  This is a young man with a future in musical theatre or there is no justice in the world.   Other standouts are David Harvey as Scripps, whose narration is assured and philosophical.  I also liked Scott Richards’s Lockwood and Gwill Milton’s Timms.  Robert Dean grows into the cockiness of school stud Dakin but needs to be more at home in himself from the outset, and Dominic Thompson needs to slow down his delivery of Rudge’s punchlines at times in order to maximise their effect.

Alan Marshall is a wonderful Hector, warm and funny, he holds the audience in his thrall as much as his charges.  The fact that his approach to education (along with his groping of the boys on his motorcycle) is damaging to the young men is treated largely as an undercurrent, balanced against preparation for exams as too limiting a function of the education system.

As young Irwin, Mark Payne is equally good, dazzling in the classroom, nervous and out of his depth outside of lessons. Annie Harris gives solid support as Mrs Lintott, who gets the choicest words to shout out in the staff room, and Brian Wilson is suitably uptight as the results-driven Headmaster.

There are a few moments when the energy of some scenes seems to drop but for the most part, director Ian Robert Moule gets the tone just right.  Keith Harris’s multi-levelled set allows for swift and efficient transitions, accompanied by bursts of 80s hits to remind us we are looking back, just as the boys are looking back in their history classes.

Set in the 1980s, the play is still all too relevant today, considering we have a Minister for Education who seems to equate memory with achievement.  Sad to relate, only one point made seems to have been overridden: there are now female historians on the telly – Bennett did not foresee the advent of Mary Beard.

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Open House

 

The REP reopens with the National Theatre touring production of Alan Bennett’s People, a hit comedy.  It concerns two sisters, one a former model, the other an archdeacon, squabbling over the fate of their ancestral seat, a crumbling pile with a leaky roof that the ex-model still calls her home.  In fur coat and pyjamas, she huddles under blankets in front of an electric fire, singing Petula Clark with her companion.  There are interested parties: the National Trust wants to open the house to the public; the representative of a shady yet powerful group, “The Concern” is keen to buy up house and contents and move it from South Yorkshire to Dorset; and a maker of adult (i.e. “mucky”) films is scouting for locations.

Sian Phillips is Dorothy the former glamour girl and socialite, now a virtual recluse, still catching up on current events in 30-year-old newspapers.  She is the beating heart of the house and also the play.  Phillips imbues Dorothy with the right amount of eccentricity, tempered with likeability, vulnerability and glimpses of her former beauty – in fact, when she dresses up in her mothballed haute couture, it is clear she is still a striking woman.   She is reluctant, to put it mildly, to allow people to traipse through her home.  This is the main bone of contention between her and sister June – Selina Cadell in a superb comic performance, as the stuffy clergywoman, flabbergasted and disgusted in turn.  She even brings on a comedy bishop (Robin Bowerman) for one of the funniest scenes.  The bifocaled bishop squints at the cast and crew of a porn film, taking them to be the W.I.  In scenes like this (and the shooting of the porn movie) Bennett gives us crowd-pleasing comedy, along traditional lines.

But the play has other riches to offer.  Despite Dorothy’s assertion, the house is a metaphor for England.  England repackaged and sold off as a version of itself it never was, a “serving suggestion” England.  On one level it’s throwing into question the practices of the National Trust, but on another, the wider view is that ‘everything has a price’ and ‘if it’s worthwhile, it has to be paid for’.   June is plotting to sell off Winchester Cathedral to the “Concern”.  She is David Cameron in a tweed skirt, peddling the NHS to the highest bidders.

Phillips and Cadell are both excellent.  So is the third of this play’s three leading ladies.  Brigit Forsyth is Iris, Dorothy’s lifelong companion, in hacking jacket and slippers and unwashed in living memory.  She is the antidote to Dorothy’s glamour, another aspect of the faded quality of the house.

Among a very strong ensemble, I particularly liked Alexander Warner’s porn star, Colin, struggling to ‘perform’; his Latvian co-star Brit (Ellie Burrow); and their director Theodore (Paul Moriarty) an old flame of Dorothy’s.

Bob Crowley’s set is absolutely magnificent, evoking the solidity and permanence of the stately home, and the clutter and decay accrued by just sitting there – it in turn is a metaphor for Dorothy and Iris, who are decaying just sitting there.  It is when they let people in that they are revived to some kind of life, even if it’s not the life they would have chosen.

A high quality play in a high quality production, People is particularly apt for the reopening of the Rep after two years dark.  As Artistic Director Roxana Silbert points out, quoting a line from the play, “The house has come home.” Unlike someone’s home, however stately, a theatre needs people traipsing in to have a look.

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Brigit Forsyth and Sian Phillips sing Downtown


SENTINEL review: Talking Heads

SENTINEL review: Talking Heads

TALKING HEADS

New Vic Theatre, Friday 25th January, 2013

Here is my review for the opening night of the New Vic’s new production of Alan Bennett’s classic monologues.


Toad Away!

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th December 2012


Birmingham Rep’s Christmas show this year is Alan Bennett’s adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic. It’s been yonks since I’ve read the book but the play seems to be me remarkably faithful to the original incarnation.
The animal characters are undeniably people with the odd little touch to denote their species: ears protruding from the brim of a hat, a tail hanging from the seat of a pair of trousers, that kind of thing. Imagine Beatrix Potter characters with human heads.

First we meet Mole (Nicholas Prasad) taunted by a couple of critters when he emerges blinking from his underground home. The tone is that of petulant children and I began to be concerned: I wouldn’t be able to sit through two hours of this. I needn’t have worried. Mole soon meets Ratty (Oliver J Hembrough) and suddenly the piece lifts. Ratty is very spiffy in his blue blazer and white sailing hat, rowing his little boat on the revolving river. I think he could do with being a little more stuffy from the off, so that his changing moods later on are more strongly contrasted but director Gwenda Hughes is obviously trying to establish the friendship of these two. Hembrough becomes ‘rattier’ in later moments but never to the extent that it undermines his character’s lovability. And that’s it: they’re all absolutely adorable.

The show really gets into its stride with the appearance of a camp old otter (Robert Pickavance, if I’ve attributed the role correctly) and moves into brilliance when Michael Hugo arrives as Chief Weasel – it’s a performance that is broadly physical and yet detailed and nuanced to perfection. The man is a living, breathing cartoon character. Badger (Robert Pickavance again) is a delightful old thing, vying with Ratty for Mole’s attention.

The long-awaited entrance of Toad does not disappoint. Matthew Douglas hams it up delightfully as the bombastic hedonist, a verbose buffoon – like Boris Johnson but without the calculating evil (until he sells Albert the Horse to a gypsy, thereby betraying the working class to the entrepreneur…) Speaking of Albert, Chris Nayak gives a scene-stealing performance as the lugubrious Brummie horse, as depressed as Eeyore but hilarious as he catalogues his woes. Or should that be ‘whoas’?

The play works on several levels. There’s plenty to keep the kids amused but under the surface, Bennett’s script is subtly and not-so-subtly satirical. There are nods to political correctness (You can’t tell a rabbit to hop it) and swipes at the establishment (They’re policemen – they won’t hurt anybody!) There is a gay subtext throughout – at one point these confirmed bachelors are quizzed by fieldmice about their lifestyle. And of course the magistrate would look favourably on Toad as a landed member of the upper middle class… It’s all handled with a lightness of touch and an overt theatricality – we accept these characters and the way their world works so that when a toad dons a skirt, we accept that a human woman on a barge wouldn’t see through his disguise immediately.

The set is beautiful, like illustrations from a storybook and there are some wonderful pieces: the train and the gypsy caravan, for example – Michael Holt’s designs help to create this world while retaining the artificiality of the theatre. It’s a toy theatre, pop-up book kind of world, inhabited by characters in human clothes that reflect their animal characteristics.

There is a lovely Englishness to the entire thing and not just the Edwardian cosiness of storybook and a bygone age. The multiracial cast is reflected in the material by the multi-species society of the woods and for the most part, these characters of different make-up and lifestyles rub along together very well, united by the overarching Englishness. It is perhaps a reflection of Birmingham itself.

Wind-in-the-Willows