Tag Archives: Bel Derrington

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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Rattled Cages

GOD OF CARNAGE

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 6th May, 2016

 

One young boy has knocked out a couple of teeth of another boy.  Their parents meet to discuss what is to be done.  It all begins in civilised fashion: they are agreeing the wording of a definitive statement of events.  Soon, however, as blame is hurled from one side to the other, the thin veneer of civilisation begins to crack and peel away.

Yasmina Reza’s black comedy of manners, played here in a sharp translation by Christopher Hampton, makes acute observations about the human condition – the middle-class human, that is.  One of the fathers, Michael, has tipped the family hamster out onto the road.  It’s not a wild animal or a domesticated animal, he observes.  This incident is a metaphor for the entire piece.  Out of their cages of etiquette and civility, the characters flounder.  They turn on each other but their attacks are as effectual as an assault by hamster – I imagine; I’ve never crossed one’s path.  There is always something enjoyable about seeing people behaving badly, in ways we would never dare to in our real lives.

As Michael, Roger Ganner brings Black Country bathos, forever undermining the pretensions of his wife Veronica (Penny Sandle-Keynes) whose African masks and artefacts adorn the set – clues to the primitive tribalism we are about to witness.  This powwow of chieftains is not going to be fruitful.  Tony Homer’s Alan, apparently surgically welded to his mobile phone, emits waves of cynicism effortlessly, while his brittle wife Annette (Ruth Linnett) does a marvellous turn in falling ill and getting pissed.  In short, this quartet delivers an excellent performance of well-defined characters, whose excesses are within keeping of their established tropes, and the contrasting moments of action are adeptly orchestrated by director Colin Lewis Edwards, staging a mini-Lord of the Flies meltdown in Bel Derrington’s detailed but not cluttered set.

We only care about ourselves, opines Alan – between phone calls.  Reza holds up this attitude to ridicule.  If we only care about ourselves, we are no better than selfish, squabbling children.  Like the unfortunate hamster, we need our cages for our own protection, whether those cages are good manners, convention, or indeed technology like Alan’s ever-ringing mobile.

A bleak view of society but a darkly entertaining and thought-provoking piece of theatre, tightly played by an excellent cast.  I enjoyed every wince-inducing minute.

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Steam and Steaminess

BRIEF ENCOUNTER

The Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 5th December, 2015

 

Emma Rice’s glorious adaptation of the Noel Coward classic is brought to life by a small but versatile company of actors, directed with sophistication and style by Nicky Cox. In a railway café, a woman has something in her eye. A tall, handsome stranger, who happens to be a doctor, comes to her aid – and so begins a romance, an affair – scandalous, when Coward first wrote it, but he makes us egg them on. We want to see them together. Meanwhile, around them, minor characters of lower social standing are having flings of their own.   Not for them the soul-searching and the agonising; they just get on with it and, consequently, have a lot more fun!

Juliet Grundy is a treat as Mrs Bagot, running the café and trying to chivvy  her skivvy, Beryl (Charlotte Froud), putting on airs and graces one minute, and enjoying a bit of slap and tickle behind the counter the next. Steve Farr is her paramour, railway worker Albert, complete with Carry-On film chuckle. Farr is in especially fine singing voice and his comic timing is spot on. Also, Matthew Collins, as Albert’s younger colleague Stanley, impresses vocally and at the piano. Richard Ball makes more of an impact as a trouble-making squaddie than as cuckolded husband Fred – but I suppose that’s the point: Fred is so boring, it’s no wonder that his Mrs finds solace elsewhere.

The other man, Alec, is someone who declares his feelings rather than expressing them – perhaps he is the most dated character of the piece in this respect – but Tony Homer cuts through the British reserve and stiff upper lip and plays Alec with a good deal of truth. We see it in his eyes rather than feel it through his words.

As Laura, the wife, Natalie Danks-Smith is magnificent. You can see her heart breaking while she listens to a train taking away the man she loves, as annoying friend Dolly (Lindsey Allwork in a striking cameo) prattles on. It’s the emotional climax of the piece.

The show is a lot of fun, peppered with period songs and also original compositions from the Kneehigh production. The ensemble singing is lovely. The coarse humour of the working-class characters is sharply contrasted with the more tentative, well-mannered courtship of the protagonists. Nicky Cox marries naturalism with more stylised staging for humorous and romantic effect – an impressive feat in this intimate space. Bel Derrington’s set gives us the café, a railway bridge, and the Jessons’ home in one economic design – the piece keeps its theatricality to the fore and is all the more effective because of it.

The cast seemed to warm up as the play went on; like the trains, they pick up steam – the opening scenes could do with more ‘attack’ to match the energy of what follows, but on the whole, they create atmosphere without resorting to the exaggerated or clipped accents of that bygone age, and scenes in which eating takes place have to be choreographed as thoroughly as a dance.

Technically sophisticated, euphonious and hilarious, this is a Brief Encounter that tickles the funny bone as much as it touches the heart.

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