Tag Archives: Bear Pit Theatre

Pillow Talk

THE PILLOWMAN

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 25th June, 2019

 

Martin McDonagh’s 2003 play is given a fresh revival in this Bear Pit production directed with great care by Steve Farr.  One of the first things I notice is the gender-swapping of a couple of characters, and this is more than a nod to equal opportunities or the prevailing fashion in contemporary theatre.  Farr chooses to make female the play’s most violent characters: a brutal police officer and a mentally stunted killer, thereby bringing a new dynamic to key scenes.  It works brilliantly.  And so, Hannah McBride’s tough-talking, volatile Ariel can be mock-seductive in her interrogation of the suspect Katurian, and the scene drips with menace; and there is something more sinister about Emma Beasley’s childlike Michaela and her homicidal re-enactments of her brother’s macabre short stories.  It is these stories that have brought the writer Katurian to the attention of the police because of the similarities between the gruesome narratives and a recent spate of child murders…

The action unfolds in the interrogation room of the police headquarters in a totalitarian state, somewhere vaguely Eastern European maybe… Farr creates tense atmosphere on an almost bare stage by eliciting compelling performances from his superlative cast, wringing just as much menace and tension from the silences between outbursts as from the outbursts themselves.  As with other works by McDonagh, the language is strong, the humour a deep shade of black, and the subject matter exceedingly dark.  We laugh to relieve the horrors McDonagh makes us contemplate, and Farr, wisely, works on our imaginations rather than overusing schlocky stage effects.

Equally as strong as the women in the cast are the blokes.  Graham Tyrer is pitch perfect as Detective Tupolski, the putative ‘good cop’ while Alexander Simkin shines as troubled writer Katurian, blending fear with indignation, vulnerability with inner strength.  Special mention must be made of Annabel Peet’s onscreen appearance as ‘Little Jesus’ in a pre-recorded visualisation of one of Katurian’s twisted tales.

It’s gripping stuff, intriguing and hilarious, a dark mystery with absurdist elements.  It’s about stories and storytelling, the stories we tell to protect ourselves, to protect our loved ones, the stories that carry our understanding of an often senseless world.  The explicit horrors within Katurian’s tales are matched by the implicit horrors of the unnamed totalitarian state, where the police have powers to bypass the judicial system.  Also, this production contains some of the most disturbing noises off this reviewer has ever heard.

It’s yet another top-quality production at the Bear Pit, following the great success of The Cripple of Inishmaan back in March.  Perhaps McDonagh should be sponsoring these endeavours!

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Alexander Simkin as Katurian

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TB or not TB

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 1st March, 2019

 

Martin McDonagh is one of the finest stage- and screenwriters currently working.  This production of his play from 1996 clearly demonstrates his use of Irish settings, idioms and characters, mining the same comedic vein as Father Ted and Stones in His Pockets.   On the craggy island of the title, news comes of a Hollywood film crew on a neighbouring island, seeking locals to appear on celluloid.  It’s big news for a community used to hearing word of geese and cats and sheep with no ears.  ‘Cripple Billy’ is especially keen, forging a letter from the doctor in order to cajole a boatman to take him across the sea…

As the action unfolds against the backdrop of a gorgeous set by Chris Jackson and Martin Tottle, we meet a host of colourful characters.  Seemingly hostile to each other, if the insults they hurl at each other and their coarse language is anything to go by, the community has been keeping a secret from Billy his entire life.  It seems the worse they say to each other, the more they care.

We meet Eileen (Niki Baldwin) and Kate Osbourne (Viv Tomlinson), Billy’s adoptive aunties, who run a ramshackle shop that appears to stock little else but tins of peas.  Baldwin and Tomlinson are a fine double act, gossiping about local affairs, but also as characters in their own right, each handling stress in their own way: the one stuffing herself with sweets, the other talking to stones.  Paul Tomlinson’s Johnnypateenmike O’Dougal is a superb piece of character acting among an excellent cast.  Sophie Mobberley’s Slippy Helen is fierce and feisty, oozing violence and sociopathy, while Thomas Hodge as Helen’s brother Bartley is convincingly simple, his one-track mind fixated on telescopes.  Graham Buckingham Underhill makes a strong impression as boatman Babbybobby Bennett.  Dorothy Barlow gives an hilarious turn as Mammy O’Dougal, and there is credible support from David Derrington as Doctor McSharry.

The accents ring true, never veering into ‘Oirish’ parody, diddle-de-dee, and director Vanessa Comer gets the overall tone and pacing just right.  It’s a genuine pleasure to see this consistently funny piece presented so excellently.  It’s a play about community and fake news, gossip, rumour and the truth.  While we enjoy the shenanigans of the community, our sympathies hinge on the central performance by Nathan Brown as Billy.  Today we would never address a person with disabilities so bluntly, and it’s not just a matter of political correctness making us mealy-mouthed.  McDonagh shows us that the disabled have hopes and dreams of their own and a desire to be loved just like anyone else, and they make mistakes just like everyone else.  Brown arouses our compassion for Billy’s predicament rather than his condition.  The truth emerges about Billy’s past and his current tuberculosis diagnosis, packing a poignant punch.  It’s superbly done.

Thoroughly entertaining, this black comedy is a joy from start to finish.  As one of the characters observes, we know we shouldn’t be laughing, but we do.  It’s one of the best productions I’ve seen at the Bear Pit – and that’s saying something!

Bear Pit Theatre. THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN.Director: Vanessa Comer

Who is taking whom for a ride? Babbybobby Bennett (Graham Buckingham Underhill) and Cripple Billy Claven (Nathan Brown) Photo: Patrick Baldwin

 


Tribute Band of Brothers

BLACKADDER GOES FORTH

The Bear Pit, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 2nd November, 2018

 

I don’t enjoy tribute bands.  I don’t see the point of them – especially when the original act is still alive and kicking.  Similarly, I am puzzled when episodes from situation comedies are brought to the stage; they never work as well on the boards as they do in the medium for which they were intended.  And when you haven’t got the original cast for whom the roles were tailored, I question the whole enterprise.  You can’t hope to match the brilliance of the original so why try to emulate it?  Why not just bung the DVD on?

But here we are: three episodes of the fourth and final Blackadder series by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis.  Half a box set.  The characters are fully formed – there is no scope for development in a sit-com – so with each half-hour piece, we hit the ground running with little in the way of exposition.  The sit of the com is self-contained and self-perpetuating.

Paul Tomlinson’s Captain Blackadder has the sneering, sardonic tones down pat as he dishes out sarcasm, hyperbole and absurdist similes, but he is disadvantaged by not having a funny face.  Rowan Atkinson’s facial expressions go a long way in selling the often-verbose lines; Tomlinson, sorry to say, is too good-looking!

Nathan Brown’s youthful Baldrick channels Tony Robinson rather well and his comic timing is excellent.  Roger Ganner’s bleating General Melchett is perfectly monstrous in his pigheadedness (bringing to mind the stubbornness of a Brexiteer, wilfully disregarding disaster), he’s an excellent foil for Richard Ball’s nervous wet lettuce Darling.  There are amusing turns from Justin Osborne, enjoying himself as the dastardly Baron von Richtofen, and from director David Mears who goes ‘over the top’ as the bombastic, bullying braggart Lord Flasheart.  How much are they imitating the original cast?  How much is advisable?  Audiences expect the familiar intonations and appearances, I suppose – which is why tribute acts have little to do with creativity and originality.  Tonight, the cast member who seems to make the part his own is Thomas Hodge as posh thicko Lieutenant George.

Mears does well to translate the action to the stage (although sit-coms are somewhat stagey in themselves) making efficient use of a changeable set, built by Martin Tottle and Chris Jackson.  The final images, when the series came to a definite and irrevocable end, made for one of the most powerful scenes of television ever, and Mears makes a good fist of emulating them.  It’s a wrenching change of tone, a sobering moment and a reminder that those who died in this stupid and futile war were more than statistics from a century ago; they were real people, with hopes and dreams, a sense of humour, fears and friendships…  And this is the point of this production and what makes it, in the end, a fine and fitting tribute.

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Thomas Hodge, Paul Tomlinson and Nathan Brown (Photo: Sam Allard)


Sex Toy Story

SEX CELLS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 19th July, 2018

 

You would think a play set in a call centre of a company that sells sex toys, marital aids and other assorted paraphernalia would be fertile ground for laughter.  Sadly, Anna Longoretti’s flaccid script is fatally flawed in the first act; what the four women who take the calls are selling is almost irrelevant.  It may as well be household insurance.  Longoretti doesn’t give us time to enjoy the context and enjoy the characters before she switches gear and the women’s personal lives enter the equation.  I suppose I’m saying we need more foreplay to get us into the mood.

Unfortunately, Olivia Jane Parker directs moments of humour and moments of pathos at the same pitch.  The comedy needs to be played broader in order to contrast with the emotional scenes.  And so, the first act limps along and we learn about the women’s problems: one wants a child at all costs; another is snowed under by the five kids she has; a third has a loveless marriage and an estranged grown-up son; while the fourth is a party girl, flitting between men.  Meanwhile, their ineffectual manager bumbles around.  I can barely raise a smile.

Fortunately, the second act is a good deal tighter and is played with more energy.  Although two of the subplots (overwhelmed mum, party girl) don’t really go anywhere, the play has something to say about motherhood, expectations and disappointments.  Plus, they mess around with the stock: dildos, rubber tits, blow-up dolls and the like, like they should have done from the off.

Lucinda Toomey is the strongest of the bunch as longsuffering Lily, armoured with barbed humour, who awakens from the decades-long depression of her married life and seeks to forge a meaningful bond with her alienated son.  Karen Welsh is suitably histrionic as the highly-strung Sylvie (who is French for some reason) while Stephanie Surrey pulls all the right faces as harassed mum-of-five Janice.  Ally Gibson’s party-hearty Tiffany seems natural – despite the ill-advised rendition of Rufus Wainwright’s Vibrate on an ever-so-convenient ukulele.  Philip Hickson flounders and fumbles as the weak-as-dishwater boss.  It’s a shame his declaration of affection is not given more welly.  He needs fire and not just cake in his belly.

The set combines the call centre with a ‘break-out’ space, the manager’s office and the warehouse, with cardboard boxes stacked everywhere as though health and safety regulations mean little to this company – I hesitate to call it a ‘firm’.

The second act shows us the potential of the premise and of the cast, but what should be a real buzz from curtain up disappoints like pound-shop batteries or an inflatable companion with a slow puncture.  A let-down.

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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)

 


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)