NOT ABOUT HEROES
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 2nd April, 2017
It seems there were a lot of poets sent to fight the Bosch in the First World War. We seem to hear a lot about them in any case. Stephen Macdonald’s play deals with the friendship struck up between two of them, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, when they meet at a military hospital in Scotland, where they are convalescing with nervous disorders. Sassoon narrates the story from fifteen years after the end of the war and Macdonald wisely uses verbatim lines taken from the correspondence between the two friends so what we get is a dramatic reconstruction of scenes – Owen’s poetry is called into service to give us glimpses of life in the trenches and, especially in the second act, the men exchange anecdotes of the horrors they have witnessed. But this is not a war story; it’s more of a repressed love story, a bromance we’d call it these days, as the men dance around their feelings for each other while braving the worst of circumstances.
George Bandy is a somewhat deadpan Wilfred Owen; without overdoing the stammer, he gets over the poet’s nervousness and awkward shyness – and there are also moments when his passionate outcries blaze as strongly as any words the poet penned. As Siegfried Sassoon, Andrew Smith gives a masterly performance, perfectly at home in his character’s skin and affectations. Sassoon is a likeable if slightly pompous fellow and his knack for understatement is especially poignant.
Director Sallyanne Scotton Moonga keeps this wordy, rather slow-moving tale engaging with changes of pace. The set by Dan O’Neil and Keith Harris provides a stark backdrop of silhouetted barricades against a changing sky, along with real world touches to ground the characters at their desks. Mike Duxbury’s lighting and Roger Cunningham’s sound design enhance the nightmares of the men, with flashes and sounds of the war that haunts them both. But it is the presence of the two actors that hooks us in – Smith’s effortless Sassoon will stay with me for a long time.
A timely production that reminds us that in Owen we lost a formidable talent, and far too many lives in a senseless and misguided conflict.
Leaving Sassoon? Andrew Smith and George Bandy
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 26th January 2014
Patrick Marber’s award-winning comedy is resurrected in the Ron Barber Studio by a talented all-male cast under the astute direction of Andrew Smith. Set in a restaurant, the action involves the anticipation of a weekly poker school before, in the third act, the poker school itself takes place.
Marber’s script is very funny and allows the actors to build credible and rounded characterisations. There is Mark Grady as rough-and-ready cook Sweeney, anxious to keep some money aside to spend on his daughter; Frankie (James David Knapp) dreams of travelling to Las Vegas and hitting the big time on the tables; joker in the pack Mugsy (an excellent Mark Payne) seeks funding for his own restaurant, a public toilet conversion that doesn’t sound very palatable; and boss man Stephen the restaurateur (Dave Hill). Added to this bunch is Stephen’s troubled son, gambling addict Carl (Andrew Elkington) and the quietly menacing Ash (Phil Rea) to whom Carl owes several grand.
Andrew Smith keeps the banter tearing along, managing crescendos and silences like a maestro. Some of the rapid-fire cross-cutting between kitchen and restaurant needs a little bit of tightening but this was only the second performance of the run so I expect that will be sorted – This is a slick, well-oiled production with something of the atmosphere of Mojo currently in the West End and, yes, something of the high quality of that show too.
Hill and Elkington have the most emotional moments as father and son, negotiating their relationship over sums of cash borrowed or given. Hill is rather touching in his portrayal, playing his cards close to his chest, you might say. Elkington too is very strong in his selfish outbursts. Grady and Knapp provide comedy and pathos – we see how far these men are steeped in their gambling pursuits, and Rea, the ostensible villain of the piece, does a nice line in understated as well as unequivocal threat. But for me the energy of the performance stems mainly from Mark Payne’s characterisation of the hapless dreamer Mugsy. We take delight and have pity in his ups and downs. It’s a detailed and effective study in comic playing. Sonia Chopra’s set is flexible in its economy – the stairs painted like playing cards are a nice touch – and nothing gets in the way of the cast,
Cards on the table time: if you’re looking for a couple of hours’ worth of excellent, enjoyable drama, Dealer’s Choice is very much a safe bet.