Tag Archives: Alexandra Gilbreath

Romp with Pomp

THE PROVOKED WIFE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 5th June, 2019

 

John Vanbrugh’s comedy from 1697 is given an exuberant revival in this new production for the RSC by Phillip Breen.  A prologue points out that the playwright got his inspiration from us, the audience – and this is all we need to remind us that human nature, and in particular, human foibles have not changed a jot.  Breen sensibly keeps everything in and of the period and because of this, the show works admirably.  Mark Bailey’s set is a theatre, with plush crimson drapes and a pelmet, and footlights around three sides of the stage, setting the action against a backdrop of artifice, while the lavish costumes denote both class and character.

Lady Brute (a magnificent Alexandra Gilbreath) seeks distraction from her loveless marriage to Lord Brute (Jonathan Slinger in excellent form) by plotting with her niece Belinda (the charming Natalie Dew) romantic intrigues involving her suitor Constant (Rufus Hound has never been more dashing).  Constant’s best mate, professed woman-hater Heartfree finds himself enamoured of Belinda – in a masterly comic performance from John Hodgkinson, tossing off Vanbrugh’s sardonic epigrams with effortless bitterness.

A big name draw for this splendid company is TV favourite Caroline Quentin as the monstrously vain and conceited Lady Fanciful.  Quentin is made for this kind of stuff, and gives a hugely enjoyable performance.  Hardly subtle, Vanbrugh names his characters to suit their natures – Quentin’s portrayal is far from one-note and is an absolute joy to behold.

Also appearing, but mainly as a supernumerary is veteran comic Les Dennis, cutting his teeth at the RSC.  I’m assuming he has a more featured role in this play’s companion piece in repertory – but more of that anon.

Released from the confines of their gallery, the musicians feature on stage, coming and going to cover transitions and to accompany the songs – Paddy Cunneen’s  original composition, vibrant, sometimes discordant, enhance the period flavour and the comical nature of proceedings.  Rosalind Steele and Toby Webster are in splendid voice as Pipe and Treble respectively.

After much farcical comings-and-goings, including Lord Brute donning a frock and beating up the night’s watch like Old Mother Riley, the action takes a more dramatic turn, and we appreciate the depths of despair and danger Lady Brute endures.  Gilbreath and Slinger flip from wry comic barbs to horribly tense domestic abuse and it’s gripping stuff.  The plot is resolved with a quick succession of gasp-worthy revelations but the Brutes remain together, a bitter note among the hilarity and happiness.

Expertly presented, this production will get you laughing from the off.  It does run a bit long; this bum on a seat was a bit numb on the seat well before the end.  I advise you to get out and stretch your legs during the interval.  It’s a long haul but it’s more than worth it.

"The Provoked Wife" by John Vanbrugh

Behaving badly: Caroline Quentin as Lady Fanciful (Photo: Pete Le May, c RSC)

 


Cavalier Attitudes

THE ROVER

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 12th October, 2016

 

Loveday Ingram’s exuberant production of Aphra Behn’s raucous comedy is almost a reversal of The Taming of the Shrew, in which a wayward character (here, the titular Rover) is brought to heel by the machinations of another (the wily Hellena).  In the Shakespeare, the shrew is completely cowed and rendered submissive; here it is more of a meeting of minds, a matching of appetites.  Things are on a more egalitarian footing from the off – in fact, it is the females who rule the roost, in terms of plot devices and spirit.

Joseph Millson is marvellous in the title role.  His Willmore is a swaggering braggart with ratty pirate hair and an Adam Ant jacket.  He exudes bluster and charm in equal measure.  He is outrageous and irresistible.  Faye Castelow’s Hellena is adorably lively and witty.  As her sister Valeria, Emma Noakes is a livewire, while other sister Florinda (Frances McNamee) is more elegant but none the less funny.  Patrick Robinson is suitably noble and upright as good guy Belville, but things take a darker turn when the gauche Blunt (Leander Deeny), gulled by a prostitute, seeks violent revenge on any female who happens across his path.  Even in these scenes, Ingram keeps the energy levels high – this is a show performed with unrelenting verve and brio.  The cast are clearly enjoying themselves immensely, transmitting that sense of fun to us, the lucky audience.

The carnival atmosphere is propagated and maintained by the superlative music, composed by Grant Olding, and performed live on stage throughout the action.  The Latin rhythms are infectious, the Spanish guitar, the muted trumpet – every note is delicious.  If the RSC doesn’t release a CD, they’re missing a trick.

A highlight for me is a flamenco-off between Dons Pedro and Antonio (Gyuri Sarossy and Jamie Wilkes, respectively); another is Alexandra Gilbreath’s melodramatic courtesan, holding Willmore at gunpoint – there is a wealth of things to enjoy in all the comings and goings, the disguises, the misunderstandings and the mistaken identities.  It’s fast-paced, rowdy, riotous fun, performed with gusto and charisma by a vivacious ensemble.  Ultimately, Millson dominates with his colossal presence, but we love him for it and egg him on.  Willmore is flawed, at the mercy of his appetites – indeed, the men are victims of their own desires – but Behn celebrates human frailties without moralising.  She was way ahead of her time.

rover-ellie-kurttz

Wild Rover: Joseph Millson as Willmore (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

 

 


A Basket of Laughs

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 8th November, 2012


Legend has it that this play was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I who was eager to see more of lovable rogue Falstaff. Whatever the play’s provenance, director Phillip Breen brings it right up-to-date and delivers an evening of non-stop laughter, setting the action in an Ayckbournesque world of anoraks, rugby matches, folding chairs and picnic coolers. It fits Shakespeare’s most farcical comedy very well and yet again proves, to me at any rate, the mastery of the playwright in every genre.

The titular wives, Mistress Ford (Alexandra Gilbreath) and Mistress Page (Sylvestra Le Touzel) each receive love-letters from Falstaff. They recognise at once he is on the make and plot to humiliate him mercilessly. They make a formidable double act, with Gilbreath’s sensuality and Le Touzel’s more regimented approach. As their schemes come to fruition, and we, in on the joke, laugh along with them, they are merry indeed.

Other plotters are not as adept or as successful. Ford himself (John Ramm) dons a disguise and hires Falstaff to test his wife’s fidelity. It’s a hilarious, sit-com turn from Ramm, complete with dodgy wig and bombastic seething. Though he isn’t cuckolded by his merry wife, he is certainly held up for ridicule for his unreasonably suspicious nature. When he realises what an absolute, misguided fool he has been, he bursts into tears in a manner that is equally hilarious. There is very little sentimentality in this production. Thank goodness.

Anita Dobson dazzles as go-between Mistress Quickly. Dressed like Sybil Fawlty, she charms with her word play and clearly character and actress alike are enjoying themselves immensely.

There is strong support from a host of actors in the subplot about Ford’s daughter’s three suitors. Calum Finlay amuses as the ninny Slender; Bart David Soroczynski struts and frets as the French Doctor Caius, mangling English and swishing his fencing foil. This is Allo, Allo with better dialogue. Contrasting performances, both very funny.

David Sterne is an energetic Shallow, Thomas Pickles an engaging Simple but without doubt the evening belongs to Desmond Barrit’s Sir John Falstaff. From his first entrance in a chequered tweed suit, through his disguise as the Fat Woman of Brentford and his adventures with a laundry basket, to his final, antlered humiliation in the forest, this is a master class in comedic acting, making the most of his padded physicality as well as the excessive nature of the character. You can’t help loving him.

Naomi Sheldon has poise as teenage daughter Anne, keeping her on the right side of headstrong, and Paapa Essiedu charms as her handsome suitor Fenton.

Breen doesn’t miss a trick. The attention to detail wrings the humour from every moment. I particularly enjoyed the drunkard Bardolph (Stephen Harper)- the energy of the show doesn’t let the pace slacken for a second. There are some riotous moments of action but it is the comic playing of the cast (too numerous to mention them all individually) that keeps things ticking and sometimes sprinting along. Max Jones’s set design allows transitions that flow like a musical, seamlessly taking us from the pub to the rugby field to the Fords’ living room and so on.

The fifth act contains the final humiliation of Sir John. It’s a sort of parody of a masque that would have been all the rage back in the day. Here it’s updated with some hilarious costumes. It’s a play about practical jokes and the cruelty involved. Sir John pays for his confidence tricks but so too do the tricksters. Their machinations to marry Anne off to their preferred suitor come to nought. And it serves them right.

A delightful production on every level, this will get you merry on a cold winter’s night. If we have Good Queen Bess to thank for this play, I am very grateful indeed. Royal Command Performances have gone downhill, I fear, since her day.