Tag Archives: Bear Pit Theatre

Blissful

HAY FEVER

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th June, 2018

 

Noel Coward’s 1924 play is perhaps best described as a ‘comedy of bad manners’.  Set in the country retreat of the Bliss family, it depicts what transpires one weekend when each member of the family decides to invite a guest to stay.  In terms of plot, that’s about it – the play lacks the depth and development of Coward’s later works, but the beastly behaviour of the Blisses provides such fun, we don’t seem to care about the script’s narrative shortcomings.

Ruling the roost as former actress Judith Bliss is Lesley Wilcox, serving up the ham in hefty slabs – but all without breaking character.  Judith has quit the stage but has never stopped acting; she spends her days in the throes of melodramatic hyperbole.  Wilcox is a monstrous joy to behold.

Following in their mother’s footsteps are waspish daughter Sorel (Zoe Mortimer in fine form) and dapper son Simon, played by Josh Whitehouse-Gardner, who is perfectly cast.  Of all the company, it is he who gives the best clipped, Cowardian delivery.  As the father, David Bliss, Roger Harding warms into the role and is soon hurling himself into histrionics along with the rest of his brood.

The hapless guests include Vivien Tomlinson, good fun as a kind of prototype ‘cougar’ figure, Myra Arundel; Paul Tomlinson as Richard, delivering a nice line in awkwardness; Thomas Hodge flounders around agreeably as nice-but-dim Sandy; while India Willes’s Jackie is a study in social anxiety and shyness.

Judith’s thunder is almost stolen by her maid of all work, Clara, played by Shirley Allwork, in a hilarious piece of character work in perfect contrast with all the posh nobs she has to serve.

Director Colin Lewis Edwards gets the pacing of the rows and arguments spot on, and the funniest scene comes when our hosts attempt to entertain their motley guests with an abortive parlour game.

Special mention must go to Bel Derrington and Graham Robson for their elegantly detailed and substantial set, contained within the confines of the Bear Pit’s intimate performance space.

Coward is a worthy successor to Oscar Wilde and a forerunner of Edward Albee, and this high quality, classy production delivers the goods.  What does the play have to say to us today, 90-odd years since it first appeared?  Perhaps it’s that the ‘elite’ are still riding roughshod over the rest of us, callous and careless in their conceited conduct.  Or perhaps it’s just that impoliteness and rudeness remain terribly funny – as long as someone else is on the receiving end.

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Lesley Wilcox as Judith Bliss (Photo: Sam Allard)

 

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Steps to Heaven

THE 39 STEPS

Bear Pit Theatre, Friday 11th May, 2018

 

Patrick Barlow’s affectionate spoof draws more from the Hitchcock film version than the John Buchan original novel – and indeed, his script is peppered with direct nods to Hitchcock’s filmography for those in the know.  Director Nicky Cox’s ambitious production is an excellent fit for the Bear Pit’s intimate space; her set design maximises the performance area with a raised level, including judicious use of a screen for projections that both identify the location and bridge the scenes of on-stage action.  Cox works her cast of just four hard; this is a show where the hand of the director is clearly visible, especially during inventive moments like a chase on the roof of a train, and an aeroplane conjured up from a propeller and a ladder.  Also clearly in evidence is the wit of the writer: Barlow’s wordplay spoofs the stilted dialogue with the addition of extra-silliness.

But, of course, it is the actors who draw our admiration the most readily.  Tony Homer is perfectly cast as the protagonist Richard Hannay, tall, slender, his old-fashioned matinee idol looks enhanced by his neat moustache.  Homer proves adept at facial expressions, especially the world-weariness and the self-congratulatory wink, and he uses his pipe to great effect.  I would say he could emphasise Hannay’s R.P. and his stuffy manner to make the most of the character’s ridiculousness, but that’s a quibble, and I don’t wish to detract from his wildly enjoyable portrayal.

Carol Roache reappears as Hannay’s love interests, from a German femme fatale (What is German for femme fatale?) to a crofter’s wife and Pamela, a terribly English young woman who finds herself handcuffed to our hero to great comic effect.  Roache pitches each role perfectly: larger-than-life but never going over-the-top.  That indulgence is permitted to the remaining two cast members, Natalie Danks-Smith and Roger Ganner, who play (tirelessly, it seems) everyone else.  This versatile pair undergo the quickest of quick changes, their characterisations becoming broader and broader, in some breathtakingly silly moments.  Danks-Smith is hilarious as a crofter and the landlady of a hotel; while Ganner excels as the evil professor and the twitchy hotel landlord, to name but four of their many roles.

There are a few first night glitches: a wayward moustache and a runaway pen – but the cast handle these mishaps with aplomb, and it all adds to the fun.  A couple of times, the pace could be quicker – especially during a couple of scene changes – but I’m sure things will sharpen up as the show’s run gets into its stride.

All in all, this is comedy heaven, an excellent opportunity to exercise your laughing muscles for a couple of hours and, generally, the moments when we’re not laughing are times when we’re just marvelling at the brilliance of it all.

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Jolly good show! Tony Homer as Richard Hannay

 


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)


Stuff and Nonsense

THE BALD PRIMA DONNA

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 13th February, 2018

 

Eugene Ionesco’s work is a staple of any self-respecting Drama course, but the Romanian-French playwright is hardly a household name.  Which is a pity, considering the influence his absurdist style had on the works of Monty Python and the like.  In fact, much of what we find in Ionesco is now deemed ‘Pythonesque’.   Ionesco holds up social convention as something bizarre.  His dialogue is full of nonsense and non sequiturs, repetitions and random outpourings – and this play is a prime example.

Mrs Smith (Emma Beasley) enthuses about lunch while her husband (Thomas Hodge) tuts and grunts behind a newspaper.  She declares her affinity for all things English – including mayonnaise.  Hearing such remarks in today’s England, I can’t help finding resonance with the nonsense of the Brexit vote.  Almost everything we consume is imported from elsewhere.  The play is vibrant with significance, it turns out.

Mr and Mrs Martin (Tom Purchase-Rathbone and India Willes) arrives late for dinner and are admonished.  This couple struggle to recollect the circumstances of their acquaintance – even though it transpires they travel on the same train, live in the same street, the same flat, it turns out they are not who they think they are… This is a puzzling little sketch, beautifully performed by the pair, and expertly built to a crescendo by director Steve Farr.

The Maid (Claire Bradwell) is the only character to address us directly, breaking the frame, and is the most artificial of the bunch, flipping from hysterical laughter to wracking sobs in a flash.  Bradwell radiates impudence and fun, to the exasperation of the waspish Emma Beasley and the boorish Tom Purchase-Rathbone.  The company is completed by Barry Purchase-Rathbone’s Fire Chief, who is touting for business.  He regales the group with rambling, pointless anecdotes and impenetrable fables, and his deadpan delivery is hilarious.

The whole group play things dead straight and speak what can be meaningless strings of words with conviction, and so the dialogue sounds as though we ought to understand it.  Scenes are broken up and interrupted by a lighting change and the chimes of a clock, during which the characters tip back their heads, close their eyes and open their mouths, before getting on with their lives.  These interludes symbolise how our lives are governed by time, by natural processes, by convention.  Above all, these surreal episodes remind us what we are watching is stylised and artificial – just as the manners and etiquette of society are stylised and artificial.

Repetition of phrases, that become slogans, does not imbue them with meaning.  And so, “She’s a true blue Englishwoman” spoken in a loop reminds me of “Brexit means Brexit”.  Vague remarks about British decency and fair play are bandied around as if there is consensus on what these things are, or that they exist.  The play ends as it began, with the opening lines of dialogue, except the Smiths have been usurped by the Martins, who now refer to themselves as the Smiths, and on the nonsense goes…

On the surface, this is a very funny production of a difficult script, with an excellent cast breathing life and emotion into nonsense.  Beneath the surface, the play couldn’t be timelier as a snapshot of the nonsense of living in Britain today.

Prima-Donna


Awesome Foursome

QUARTET

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 22nd September, 2017

 

Ronald Harwood’s play is set firmly in Waiting For God territory, here a retirement home for opera singers and classical musicians.  Among the esoteric inmates we meet eccentric Cicely, rambunctious Wilfred – who seems more at home in a Carry On film than the Royal Opera House – and prissy Reggie who makes pronouncements about Art – when he’s not hurling abuse at the staff who deny him his marmalade fix.  The trio appear to have accepted their fate and are looking forward to performing in a gala to celebrate Verdi’s birthday.  Their peace is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of former diva and Reggie’s ex-wife, Jean.

Will three become four in order to perform a quartet?  Will they be able to recapture at least a glimmer of their former glory?

These are questions posed by the plot but really it’s a play about things we can all recognise: the ageing process, our own mortality, what will be our legacy…

The four singers are presented as flawed individuals but above all as relatable, likeable human beings.  The unseen villains of the piece are the spectres of death and dementia which make their presence known from time to time.  The characters approach old age and infirmity humorously and philosophically but every now and then we glimpse the sting of their predicament.  Kevin Hand brings a lot of fun as the coarse and lecherous Wilfred while Graham Tyrell’s effete and brittle Reggie is a perfect foil.  Juliet Grundy is endearing as the dramatic and lively Cecily, gradually losing her marbles before our very eyes.  Margot McCleary’s haughty, haunted diva has an air of faded royalty.  We like them all immensely and enjoy their company.

Director Estelle Hand balances comedy with poignancy – Harwood never allows us to dwell in mawkishness, touching on themes such as the sexual appetites and histories of the elderly, the necessity of living in the present rather than the past, of making the most of whatever time we might have left.  Hand gets nuanced and well-observed performances from her cast.  Yes, there are a few first-night stumbling over lines, but the tone is spot on.

“Art is meaningless unless it makes you feel,” observes Wilfred in a rare moment of insight.  This entertaining and touching production certainly makes us do that.

Quartet-Web-Home


Come Die With Me

DINNER

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 17th June, 2017

 

One of the many commendable things about the Bear Pit Theatre Company is they are not shy of staging productions of works that provide challenges for cast and audience members alike.  Ostensibly, Moira Buffini’s 2002 play takes us to somewhere similar to Ayckbourn country, with its premise of a middle-class dinner party attended by monstrous people.  Buffini is less subtle than Ayckbourn; here the savagery is not beneath the surface, the savagery is the surface.  Also, while Ayckbourn’s middle-class monsters are often likable or at least amusing, Buffini doesn’t bother trying to endear us to any of hers.  They’re a pretty rotten bunch and that’s all there is to it.  That’s not to say they’re not fun, and the roles are gifts for the actors.

Our hostess is Paige (an enjoyably arch Charlotte Froud).  She has hired a man off the internet to act as waiter for the evening.  The dinner party is in honour of the success of her husband’s book, success that Paige begrudges.  The book, Beyond Belief, sounds like a dreadful tome bursting with self-help psycho-babble.  Husband Lars (a strong and convincing Tony Homer) behaves like a spoiled brat and moody teen from the off.  He is also pompous and condescending in his bitterness, most of which he directs at his wife.

The sparks fly between Froud and Homer as this embattled couple, although we never really get to the bottom of why they are at loggerheads.  Could it be Lars’s reacquaintance with old flame from college, hippie throwback Wynne (Penelope Sandle-Keynes in a hilarious, detailed characterisation)?  There are cheap laughs at Wynne’s vegetarianism but otherwise Buffini serves up a buffet of barbs that are generally as sharp as poisoned darts.

Abi Deehan is laugh-out-loud funny as the blunt and outspoken Sian while Ben Coventry warms into his role as her husband Hal, providing some of the funniest moments of the night.

The dinner is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of young Mike, a stranger whose van has broken down in the fog.  Nathan Brown is instantly appealing as the cocky interloper who is not all that he claims – it’s a fine contrast with Richard Ball’s stony-faced menace of a Waiter.

Arguments boil over and fizzle out.  Rows build to crescendos and are followed by immediate silence.  This is always effective but it happens at least once too often as director Steve Farr helps his cast ride out the sometimes patchy quality of the script.  Farr injects some lovely touches of comic business and keeps the action far from static – always a danger when the set is dominated by table and chairs.

What’s it all in aid of?  There’s a lot of grandstanding, point-scoring and cod philosophical discourse.  The nature of life is bandied around between the courses of Paige’s ridiculously pretentious and ultimately inedible menu.  It turns out there is nothing like death to make you appreciate life.  The Waiter has other services to offer and the middle-class ritual of the dinner party becomes a darker and more arcane, more primal affair.

With Buffini serving up seafood and the C-word in generous measure,  this is perhaps not to everyone’s taste but there is a great deal to delight in the comic playing of this committed and capable cast.

Dinner-Web-Home


Tour de Farce

ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS

The Bear Pit, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 15th May, 2017

 

Ever ambitious, the Bear Pit brings to its intimate space Richard Bean’s hit comedy, a knockabout farce based on a much earlier work by Goldoni.  Subtle, it ain’t.

David Mears plays Francis Henshall, the conniving if dim protagonist driven by basic appetites (hunger and desire), striving to keep two employees happy – and apart.  As ever with Mears, it’s a masterclass in comedy.  Characterisation, timing and physicality are all done to perfection, although from time to time, especially in the more intense moments, it’s as though he is channelling James Corden, the originator of the role at the National Theatre.  Given Corden’s phenomenal success in the part, this is no bad thing!

Others in the excellent ensemble also dazzle.  Roger Ganner’s upper class Stanley is a wiz with comic exclamations and comes complete with comedy back hair.  Jack Sargent’s histrionic, wannabe actor, Alan, is an absolute treat, while Flo Hatton’s Pauline makes a delightfully thick ingenue. Natalie Danks-Smith’s Rachel, in disguise as her murdered ‘identical’ twin is also a lot of fun.

For me though, the show is stolen by a towering performance from Ruth Linnett as Dolly, having to tilt her beehive do sharply every time she comes on or goes off – a running gag that never gets old.  Linnett is a match for Mears in the comedy stakes, able to throw away asides to the audience with quickfire precision.

There is strong and enjoyable support from the likes of Mike McClusky as Charlie Clench, Rob Woolton as Lloyd, and Graham Tyrer in dual roles of Harry the brief and Alfie the geriatric waiter.

The laughs come thick and fast – from Bean’s hilarious script, the cast’s larger-than-life, energetic playing, and the attentive eye of director Nicky Cox who doesn’t let a detail pass her by, keeping the action focused and the pace consistent in order to maximise our laughter.

An onstage skiffle trio plays through the leisurely scene transitions – the economic almost Spartan set proves to be versatile in its suggestion of the action’s locations, allowing the actors to come to the fore.  It’s a pity there isn’t more space for the running around, which would crank up Francis’s frenetic activity, but this is a taut production of Bean’s genius with plenty of sauce, relentlessly funny and expertly executed.

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