Tag Archives: Alastair Whatley

Lessons in Love


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st May, 2016


Jack (aka C. S. Lewis to you and me) is a confirmed bachelor, a middle-aged don lecturing at Oxford about pain and suffering being God’s way of showing us he loves us.  Something along those lines, anyway.  The lecture, which opens the show, brings to mind the old saw, “Those who can’t, teach”.  Indeed, it’s not long before old Jack learns the harsh lesson that experience is vastly different from theory, or indeed theology.  Into his stuffy male world amid the hallowed halls of academia, comes American Joy Gresham.  They correspond by post initially until she suggests they meet for tea.  A friendship is engendered, which develops into something more, bringing Jack into real contact with the pain and suffering he has been banging on about.

This touring show by the excellent Birdsong Productions is supremely enjoyable.   William Nicholson’s charming and witty script is brought to sparkling life; director Alastair Whatley knows when to temper the British reserve of the characters with glimpses of emotion.  Often, the understated moments are the most striking.

Stephen Boxer makes Jack a likeable figure, as we watch him thaw and take tentative steps toward expressing his feelings, gradually winkled out of his shell.  We urge him on and it is touching to see the progress he makes.  Amanda Ryan as Joy is the chalk to his cheese, but their differences are mainly on the surface.  She is very much his intellectual equal, someone to stir him out of his stagnation.  The dialogue sparks between them and, perhaps surprisingly, the laughs keep coming despite some difficult subject matter.  Even with a terminal illness, she is funny.  The humour binds the couple and endears them to us.

Denis Lill, for me, almost steals the show as Jack’s lovably gruff brother Warnie.  British reserve has rarely been more eloquent.  Simon Shackleton also makes a strong impression as boorish Professor Riley, offering an atheistic counterpoint to Jack’s faith, while Shannon Rewcroft dons schoolboy blazer and short trousers for a convincing portrayal of Joy’s eight-year-old son.

It’s an entertaining, amusing and absorbing tale of love and loss, superbly presented.  Poignant without mawkishness or sentimentality, it shows us that Romeo and Juliet are not the only star-cross’d lovers that can break our hearts and, while it’s based on a couple from real life, shows us the universals in their story, examining notions of pain, suffering and what we mean by ‘love’.

Powerful stuff.

Denis Lill as Major W.H. Lewis and Stephen Boxer as C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands. Credit Jack Ladenburg

Tea for two: Denis Lill and Stephen Boxer (Photo: Jack Ladenburg)

Four’s Company


The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 18th May, 2016


If Alan Ayckbourn ever took amphetamines he might come up with a play like Torben Betts’s Invincible.  While Ayckbourn lets his middle-class monsters reveal themselves through the action, those written by Betts arrive on stage raging and ranting at each other.  We see them for what they are right away.

Idealist couple Oliver and Emily have moved from London to be among ‘real people’ oop North, in a self-serving, patronising way.  She is worse than he is in her adherence to her principles, almost to the point of militancy.  Her left-wing views, most of them not abhorrent in themselves, are savagely satirised.  She is the hard-nosed ideologue, and he is the weak streak of piss, hopelessly socially awkward.  To further their ends, they have invited the local couple from next door around for the evening.  Their evening soon descends into a nightmarish comedy of manners that makes us cringe and laugh in equal measure.  Alan is an overweight, overbearing football bore; wife Dawn is something of a trophy, stunning looking even after having ‘knocked out’ three children.

But there is much more to this play than social satire and slanging matches.  Betts sets up the characters as laughing stocks and we laugh at them over and over, but then cleverly he shows us the pain behind each of their facades.  We learn why Oliver and Emily don’t drink, why her abstract painting is about grief… We glimpse Alan’s insecurity and Dawn’s fears for her soldier son.  And so we move from laughing at them to feeling for them – the play reminds us that beyond our judgmental preconceptions of people, everyone has their own private pain.

Emily Bowker is both fearsome and devastatingly vulnerable as firebrand Emily, while Alastair Whatley proves he is perfect for Whitehall fodder or middle-class sitcom.  Graeme Brooks’s Alan is hilariously boring and surprisingly sensitive, while Kerry Bennett’s glamorous Dawn falls apart before our very eyes.

Christopher Harper’s direction maintains a breakneck speed.  This is a loud and brash production that knocks the wind out of you with the savagery of its humour and the emotional intensity of the characters’ circumstances, superbly portrayed by a remarkable quartet.

Hilarious and devastating, Invincible is another jewel in the crown of The Original Theatre Company, best known for powerful productions of historical drama.  It is great to see them branching out into contemporary comedy.


When worlds collide: Alastair Whatley and Graeme Brooks

In the same boat


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 15th October, 2014


The Original Theatre Company – who brought us the superlative Birdsong – return with their rip-roaring adaptation of Jerome K Jerome’s classic comic novel, a book which is one of the forerunners of modern British humour. Craig Gilbert’s script uses great swathes of Jerome, interspersed with quick-fire contemporary jokes and visual gags. The result is a delightful concoction for which the phrase laugh-a-minute is inadequate, and I am delighted to be able to see it again.

Three men walk into a pub. Two are there to support the third, who is to give a talk detailing their recent boating trip up the River Thames. The talk is abandoned in favour of a more physical re-enactment and so, using what there is at hand in the back room of the Elusive Pelican, the trio embark on a lively, inventive and witty piece of narrative theatre.

Alastair Whatley is J, the would-be lecturer, urbane and, I suspect, louche, while his companions (Paul Westwood as George and Tom Hackney as Harris) hurl themselves around the stage. Between them the three men populate the tale with a multitude of characters. At the piano is Nelly (Anna Westlake) who provides a silent-movie type soundtrack for the action sequences and accompaniment whenever they burst into music-hall songs (the one about cucumbers is a particular favourite).  In short, they are a skilled and talented quartet whose comic timing is nothing short of perfect.

Victoria Spearling’s artfully cluttered and cosy pub set makes a remarkable substitute for the banks of the Thames and Alan Valentine’s lighting is literally ‘spot-on’. Craig Gilbert directs his own script and doesn’t miss a trick. The performance is so detailed and fast-paced, you hardly dare blink in case you miss something. Thankfully, there are moments of quiet and the tone becomes bittersweet, rather than an unrelenting barrage of madcap silliness.

It’s a play about what three men did on their holidays, but there are undercurrents of other things: friendship, for one, and a relaxed way of looking at life that is rather appealing.   The evening is a holiday for the audience.

Do yourself a favour and get on board. Three Men in a Boat plays at the Belgrade until Saturday. Tickets are available from the box office on 024 7655 3055

Put this in your pipe. Paul Westwood, Tom Hackney and Alastair Whatley

Put this in your pipe. Paul Westwood, Tom Hackney and Alastair Whatley


Sights and Sounds of the 60s


Malvern Theatres, Wednesday 25th September, 2013

Peter Shaffer, best known as the writer of Amadeus and Equus, penned this brace of one-act plays at the outset of the Swinging 60s.  The inestimable Original Theatre Company follow their barnstorming production of Birdsong with this radical change of pace, and what we get is a couple of hours of well-presented comedy-drama that bear up rather well after 50 years.

The Private Ear

Ted (Rupert Hill) dances into best mate Bob’s bedsit to do his friend a favour: Bob has a girl coming around for a meal and Ted has been enlisted as chef – well, someone’s got to open the cans of soup and marrowfat peas.  Ted is a man of the age, with his polo neck sweater and his sharp suit.  He is all patter and obviously does very well with ‘the birds’ and their ‘bristols’.  Rupert Hill gets Ted’s energy just right and when he confesses to being a Tory, we are not surprised.  What’s dismaying is how current his deplorable views are (strongly anti-union, for example) and what is very telling is how he tempers his views in order to impress Doreen (the ‘bird’) – to win her vote, you could say.  By contrast, Bob is skinny and socially awkward.  We first see him in his vest and pants and dressing-gown as he frets about his impending date.  Steven Blakeley keeps Bob on the right side of tolerability, letting his passion for classical music override his gawkiness.  His scenes with Siobhan O’Kelly’s Doreen are delightful and it is here amid moments of physical comedy, Shaffer surprises us with Bob’s heartfelt exposition on the human condition, that we weren’t made to look at entries in ledgers all day, were not built for the repetitive nature of our jobs.

The Public Eye

Before our very eyes, both Blakeley and the set are transformed before the second play can get under way.  At this moment our appreciation of Hayley Grindle’s design is doubled.  It’s an ingenious transition that reminds us of the artifice of what is going on.  Blakeley becomes private detective Julian Cristoforou, a sort of Inspector Clouseau figure in appearance.  He has been hired by Charles Sidley (Jasper Britton) to follow Mrs Sidley (Siobhan O’Kelly) whom he suspects of having an affair.  Cristoforou appears at Sidley’s office to give his report.  What unfolds is slightly absurd and bordering on the farcical.  While Blakeley and O’Kelly are equally good, this piece is dominated by Jasper Britton’s well-observed Sidley, with his double takes and blustering – the comic timing is perfect.  Director Alastair Whatley keeps energy levels high so that Shaffer’s pieces, which alone might seem little more than extended comic sketches, presented together give us a look back at the views and social mores of a different time, attitudes that are alien and familiar in equal measure.  There are subtle links between the two pieces, helping to unify the evening. All four actors give well-honed characterisations but for me it is Britton’s Sidley that stands out, as a man forced to change his ways in order to save his marriage.  The double bill is worth seeing for the quality of its performances and presentation but also for hints at the greatness this playwright was to go on and create.


Acts of War


Festival Theatre, Malvern, Monday 4th March, 2013


Rachel Wagstaff’s stage adaptation of the Sebastian Faulks novel yields an intelligent and stirring production, making the point that the First World War is now only knowable to us through secondary sources.  The territory is familiar to us from poetry, literature and film.  R C Sheriff’s classic play Journey’s End springs immediately to mind, and also Blackadder Goes Forth with its depiction of men of all classes thrown together in the trenches.

Wagstaff’s script takes us back and forwards in time.  We begin in 1916 when the war is deeply entrenched (sorry) in France.  The men are cheery – given the title of the play, you might say ‘chirpy’ –  singing music hall songs and repeating well-worn patter to keep up their morale.  Enter cold fish of a commanding officer, Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford.  Distant and aloof, he has a habit of slicing rats open in order to read the future in their entrails.  He excuses a hard-working sapper from a court martial, setting in motion the chain of events that will bind these two men together until death does them part.

It is Wraysford’s story we follow back and forth from scene to scene.  Sent to France to work with a factory owner, he embarks on an affair with said factory owner’s wife, a holiday fling that increases in magnitude with the advent of war in Europe.

Sarah Jayne Dunn (Mandy off of Hollyoaks) is elegant and pained as the wife, struggling to keep a lid on her emotions. Malcolm James is imperious as her abusive husband –you can see why she’d stray.  The mood is leavened by Berard – Arthur Bostrom in fine fettle; inevitably, when he starts to speak in his French accent, you are reminded of his turn as the language-mangling gendarme in ‘Allo, ‘Allo! but this image soon fades.  Charlie G Hawkins is energetic and powerful as young recruit Tipper; his snivelling and sobbing from fear before the men go ‘over the top’ is heart-wrenching.

Victoria Spearing’s set – a bombed-out ruin of a building – serves for every scene: the trench, the home of Wraysford’s French hosts, the tunnels dug by the sappers.  The action flows from one to the next seamlessly as the cast bring on and take off chairs and tables and so on, flitting across the stage like ghosts in Wraysford’s memory, his past life in rubble and ruins.  This all works very well but I can’t help thinking I would like to see more differentiation in Wraysford himself.  You quickly acclimatise to the fact that he’s going to appear in his army uniform even in the pre-war scenes but Jonathan Smith, although indicating through physical attitudes the change of time, place and circumstance, could do with extending his range of vocal choices; it seems as though he addresses everyone in the aloof and strident tones of the officer he becomes, even the supposed love of his life.   I wanted to see more of a change in him on an emotional level.

As sapper Jack Firebrace, Tim Treloar provides the backbone of the show, playing the full gamut of emotions with truth and subtlety.  We feel the loss of his ailing son back home.  We sense his attachment to his trench-mate Arthur.  Through him we see what the war does to decent men.  Through Wraysford we see a man blighted by love rather than war – the war just compounds the damage done.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite match the presence of Firebrace.  More time is needed for us to invest in this man before we meet him as the cold and distant lieutenant.

Director Alastair Whatley has a powerful production on his hands.  There are some striking moments: the love-making scene has a whiff of contemporary dance to it, stylising the passion as we romanticise our own endeavours in that sphere!  The scenes in the tunnels and trenches with their bangs. booms and flashes are evocative and frightening.  The device of characters narrating their letters to and from home serves to give us multiple viewpoints of the situation and to individualise the people involved.

It’s a shame we feel more engaged with these minor, subsidiary characters than the leading man.

Extra Birdsong


Messing About on the Water

Derby Theatre, Wednesday 14th November, 2012

Jerome K Jerome’s book is one of the funniest ever written, even now over a century from its original publication. To make a funny stage adaptation presents its own challenges – you can’t just have actors reciting passages from the book – that does the material and the theatrical form no favours. Craig Gilbert’s script for this show retains huge swathes of Jerome, to be sure, but there is also a contemporary sense of humour at work.

The setting is the back room of the Elusive Pelican, the kind of rural pub the heart hankers for, with junk on shelves, mismatched chairs and even a stuffed trout over the door. An Edwardian lady (Sue Appleby) arrives to treat us to a Chopin prelude on the piano. After some rough treatment from a costumed stage hand, her recital begins, only to be interrupted by the arrival of the titular trio, all resplendent in colourful, striped blazers, singing a spirited rendition of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. And so, the music hall approach is established, although ostensibly this is an address to the Royal Geographical Society or some such, given by “J” assisted and hindered by his two friends, George and Harris.

Using handy items from around the pub, they narrate and re-enact the story of their boat trip up the Thames, portraying all the other characters themselves by donning hats etc and contorting their voices in an almost Pythonesque way.

This approach, requiring an enormous amount of energy from the performers, not to mention versatility and physicality, gives rise to a very entertaining piece. The style reminded me of the highly successful stage version of The 39 Steps. (That show even gets a reference at one point!)

Jerome’s narrative is episodic and meandering but as we get further upstream, the modern sense of humour becomes more prevalent. There is flatulence. There are pop culture references to, among other things, Jaws, Titanic and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly… Purists might not like the sound of this, and I confess I was a little taken aback, but the sheer effulgence of the performance won me over. The book is the springboard or rather the launching place, for this show, which is its own animal. But, even with all the silliness and the vulgarity, often it is Jerome’s words that get the biggest laughs.

As “J”, Original Theatre Company founder Alastair Whatley is an affable if arrogant narrator. Tom Hackney’s Harris throws himself around the set with reckless abandon; and Christopher Brandon’s George delivers some of the funniest character cameos – I especially liked his cat and his sexton. The trio – well, the quartet, really – is a tight ensemble – the movement (directed by Mitch Mitchelson) is well-choreographed and funny. The timing is spot on. I especially liked the asides, but also the use of pub-based items to create settings and situations with speed and economy, is highly effective. The action is supported throughout by Appleby at the piano, adding another dimension to the humour, and there is a knowing ‘breaking of the 4th wall” cheekiness to the whole affair.

Craig Gilbert directs his own adaptation. The pace never flags and there is enough contrast of tone to keep the piece feeling fresh. The spirit of the Jerome original survives intact. Original Theatre’s original take on the material is refreshing, hilarious and so well-presented, you forgive them some of their off-colour excesses. Bursting with energy, banter and silliness, it is well worth the price of the ticket to take a trip with these particular three men, their pianist and their little dog too.

But watch out for marauding swans!