Tag Archives: Carolyn Backhouse

Squid Pro Quo

OCTOPUS SOUP!

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 5th February, 2019

 

This production is the world premiere of a brand-new farce, written by Jack Milner and Mark Stevenson.  Certainly, many of the key ingredients are here: heightened situations, people talking at cross-purposes – the protagonist even gets his trousers off in the first couple of minutes!  And yes, it is very funny but, as it turns out, this farce is more than frothy entertainment.  Like the titular dish, there are meaty bits to chew on…

Nick Hancock is tightly wound insurance consultant Seymour Norse, preparing for a video call with Gillian Bevan’s formidable CEO, Virginia Whale.  Having a character on-screen brings this conventional format up-to-date, and there is a lot of mileage in what Virginia is permitted to see and hear, thanks to the ministrations of hapless, arthritic burglar, Marvin Haynes (Paul Bradley on excellent form).  Add to the mix, Carolyn Backhouse as Gloria, Seymour’s histrionic actress wife, and The Bill’s Eric Richard as menacing underworld boss, Alan, and the stage is set for a fraught dinner party, full of misunderstandings and cracking one-liners – all while trying not to stress out Terry, the burglar’s pet octopus.  Hancock and Bradley make a fine duo, and Backhouse is a scream as the egotistical Gloria.  Eric Richard has a strong presence, on the other side of the law for once, and Gillian Bevan is both glamorous and haughty.  As the plot extends its tentacles, pulling everyone into a scam that could be worth billions, it’s every person for themselves.

It’s in the second act that the show’s message comes to the fore.  Milner and Stevenson use a dated, conventional format to speak to us of the present.  “What the world needs now is brains not bullets” is just the start of it.  Parallels are drawn between insurance CEO Virginia and organised crime boss Alan: capitalism is criminal activity, or certainly immoral and unethical, legal though it may be.  Seymour finally gets to deliver his presentation, a plea for the rehabilitation of the financial sector the world so desperately needs.

Played with energy and conviction by all concerned, this is a hugely enjoyable piece of work, and you get the feeling that things are tightening up as the run gets into its stride.  Pacing is everything in farcical situations and director Joe Harmston clearly has an eye for comic business and another for building tension.

Like Terry the octopus, this show has legs…

Nick Hancock and Paul Bradley in Octopus Soup! - credit Robert Day

NIck Hancock and Paul Bradley in one of the show’s calmer moments! (Photo: Robert Day)

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A Tale of Atrocities

THE HANDYMAN
Malvern Theatres, Wednesday 24th October, 2012

Horrible, self-obsessed couple Julian and Cressida Field sit in their Sussex garden. He is barking business deals into his mobile; she is agonising over an essay for her degree in gender studies. They are also mourning the loss of family pet, Rosie the Cat. Their gardener and general factotum, Roman (or Romka, for short) is also grief-stricken and busies himself with fashioning a marker for the moggy’s grave.

Ronald Harwood’s play gets off to an amusing start. We are drawn to Romka, a man who speaks in a funny accent and looks like he’s stuffed with Werther’s Originals. Suddenly the lives of the Fields are thrown into turmoil with the arrival of detectives from the War Crimes squad of Scotland Yard. Lovely, cuddly Romka is suspected of the murder of 817 Jews in the Ukraine. Who would have thought?

Julian (Adrian Lukis) blows his top, an Englishman averse to having his castle invaded. Cressida (Caroline Langrishe) can’t believe a word of it. They hire a solicitor (Carolyn Backhouse) who though not Jewish herself, is married to one – surely that must work in the old man’s favour!

Romka (Timothy West in a measured, dignified performance) denies everything – he was only the cook, after all. As the play unfolds, Harwood keeps us guessing. It’s perhaps a case of mistaken identity. He was there but took no active part in the massacres… The detectives aren’t really characters but devices who through questioning enable information to come to light. We see testimony given on video by Steven Berkoff in a chilling turn as a cheerful monster and, very powerfully, by Vanessa Redgrave as a surviving eyewitness.

What the play leads up to is an examination of what the holocaust means today. Cressida is dismissive. “It’s ancient history,” she snaps. “Poor old men shouldn’t be hounded”. Further to that, the play warns against the danger of those who seek to deny these most terrible events ever took place. In a shocking outburst, we are shown the true meaning of “the personal is political” – the theme of Cressida’s university essay, and there are parallels drawn between the cat buried in the garden and the hundreds in a mass grave in some Ukrainian wood. The play is a reminder that the holocaust will always be relevant – those who consign it to the past or dismiss it as ‘the Jewish fantasy’ are destined to repeat it.

Director Joe Harmston handles the changing tones very well. The humour and the horrors each get their turn. Of the lot of them, only Romka comes across as a rounded character with warmth and humanity – the point being that it was humans that perpetrated the atrocities not some external ‘evil’ or influence that made them different from the rest of us. West’s performance is for the most part understated, and all the more compelling for it. Lukis and Langrishe are effective as the blowhard couple. Backhouse is attractive as the efficient solicitor who is pushed too far; and James Simmons and Anthony Houghton lend solid support as the investigating officers.

It’s a powerful piece, an important piece, stylishly presented and an intelligent and provocative contribution to the discussion. You emerge thinking more about the issues than the drama – in that sense at least, the drama does its job very well.