Tag Archives: Anita Dobson

A Basket of Laughs

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.

Stars War

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 15th May, 2012

Anton Burge’s witty play is set during the filming of camp cult classic, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? the film that brought Hollywood royalty, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, together on screen. For most of the duration, we see the women separately in their respective dressing rooms. They bitch about each other and reminisce about their lives and the history and circumstances that have brought them to this day in 1962.

As Joan Crawford, Anita Dobson (EastEnders, PlayAway) gives a highly mannered performance, capturing Crawford’s affected speech patterns. She speaks as though her lines are all recitative, leading up to a great aria that never comes. She postures and preens, keen to show herself in the best possible light, all the while trash-talking her neighbour and professional rival. Dobson’s Crawford is almost other-worldly, taking factual elements (the plastic covers on the seats, the vodka in the Pepsi bottles) and showing us a strong but ridiculous woman, protecting herself from behind the fortifications of a facade: her public image. She punctuates her best lines with a grin The Joker would envy.

She is more than matched by Greta Scacchi’s Bette Davis. The portrayal is staggeringly good. The physical resemblance is stronger and the voice is spot on. It is a more grounded performance. Davis comes across as a real person – but this is not to degrade Dobson’s performance in the slightest. The two stars are depicted in this contrasting fashion to make a point. One is an actress, the other a movie star. The script is largely built from anecdotal monologues, cross-cutting from one dressing room to the other for humorous impact; the women’s take on the same events couldn’t be more different.

When they appear together in the same dressing room, the bitchiness reaches critical levels as they fire off one-liners at each other’s expense, two drama queens in a spat. It’s handbags at dawn stuff and very, very funny.
There is depth too as well as sniping and one-upmanship. We get a sense of Davis’s loneliness and come to understand Crawford’s affectations; she strove all her life to escape the taint of her humble upbringing in poverty and pornography.

They both seized upon …Baby Jane grateful for the chance to return to the silver screen, bewailing the fact that women of a certain age find the parts drying up (so to speak). You still hear it today, but what this play goes to show is the wealth of talent, skill and power actresses beyond the first flush of youth can bring to a production. I’m sure Scacchi and Dobson identify with their onstage counterparts’ gratitude for the opportunity to put their skills and talent to such entertaining and effective use.