The Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 5th May 2022
This collection of five short pieces by the prolific Alan Ayckbourn was first produced in 1974 – a fact which informs Jacquie Campbell’s costume choices for tonight’s show, subtly suggesting the period, when the piece is suited to anywhen.
We begin with four park benches on which random individuals are taking their ease — or trying to. What develops is a string of monologues as each individual seeks to escape the stranger who insists on talking to them. It’s funny, with each stranger having their own individual voice, but it underlines the main theme of the piece (indeed of all five pieces): desperation born of loneliness. Ayckbourn can write a funny line sure enough, but he is also an acute observer of the human condition.
Of the strangers, a couple of standouts are Kevin Hand’s Arthur and Margot McCleary’s Doreen. Director David Mears avoids things becoming static by keeping people moving from bench to bench (this also helps with the in-the-round staging). It’s like musical chairs without the music. The cast perform with a sort of heightened naturalism. Every character however bizarre or mundane their situation – rings true.
Next up is Lucy, a woman left too much alone with her children. She has lost the ability to converse with adults, so when the couple next door pop round to check up on her, hilarity ensues. Zoe Mortimer is great as the steely-eyed, assertive mother, and she is matched by Charlotte Froud’s timid Rosemary, with Barry Purchase-Rathbone providing contrast as Rosemary’s bluff husband Terry – until he is put in his place! It’s very funny to see the adults revert to childhood, but the piece touches on darkness based on psychological truth.
The director himself appears in the next one, as Harry, Lucy’s absentee husband, a boorish, sleazy sales rep who thinks he’s God’s gift, trying to cop off with Jemima Davis’s longsuffering Paula. Mears gives a cringeworthy performance as the desperate lothario — one of Ayckbourn’s finest middle-class monsters — and we can only sympathise with Paula as she fails to get away. Rescue arrives in the form of her best friend Bernice, in a coolly forthright portrayal by Kristiyana Petkova.
Next we’re in a restaurant where two separate couples have issues to discuss. We eavesdrop on their conversations as the waiter goes from table to table, valiantly trying to do his job. As the waiter, Elliot Gear is a delight, reacting, interjecting, and keeping busy, all with a strained professional demeanour. A star turn.
Finally, we move to the tea tent at a dreadful village fete. Trouble with the p.a. system leads to an inadvertent broadcast that destroys a relationship. With hilarious consequences. David Mears appears again as Gosforth, the busybody organising the event, showing his versatility with another of Ayckbourn’s monsters. Lily Skinner’s Milly is tightly wound, becoming increasingly frantic as the situation deteriorates. Jane Grafton brings a strong whiff of Christine Hamilton to her portrayal of Councillor Emily Pearce, making her eventual humiliation all the more delicious. Justin Osborne is a hoot as the emotionally immature boy scout leader whose life comes crashing down, and David Gresham adds value as a stock character comedy vicar. Events descend into organised chaos, with the cast working superbly to convey the urgent desperation and the slapstick of the moment. I would prefer a bigger bang with the electrics go awry, but that’s just me.
All in all, a splendid evening of entertainment and almost non-stop laughter. Mears gets the tone just right and his talented cast (wish I had room to mention them all) deliver the goods in this showcase of their abilities. If the Bear Pit is to stage any more Ayckbourn, I would like to see them tackle one of his later, more experimental shows. Shows like Confusions are bread-and-butter to them. I want cake!
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.
Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 2nd December, 2016
A.A. Milne’s stage adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved novel is a classic in its own right, and its brought to charming life here by director Nicky Cox and a talented cast. The playful staging (umbrellas for wagon wheels, stepladders for trees) sits well in the studio space, while the energised performances of the actors makes the action irresistible.
Natalie Danks-Smith is a likeable Mole, a blinking innocent who finds there’s a world of adventure beyond her front door. Dominic Skinner’s affable, dapper Ratty represents what is decent in all of us. Badger (Shirley Allwork) is the voice of experience and authority – the characters each represent an aspect of human nature, it seems. Toad himself is an irrepressible hedonist, selfishly sweeping everyone else along with his whims and fads, embroiling them in the problems he creates. Toad is also a supreme manipulator, caring only for his own interests – he is the attractive but negative side of us, all ego and no conscience. He thinks the law of the land does not apply to him – much like certain members of the ruling class today!
As Toad, David Mears is magnificent. Repellent and attractive at once, his antics are enjoyable if reprehensible, and Mears’s performance is a masterclass in comic acting. No detail is overlooked. Every twitch of an eyelid, every roll of the eyes is calculated to perfection. Toad almost swamps the stage with his personality but Allwork’s Badger provides a well-tuned counterpoint, and an equally rounded if contrasting characterisation. It is a treat to see these two working together.
Tony Homer’s Chief Weasel is an imposing figure, dressed like a sinister doorman – he and the Wild Wooders are clearly of a lower class to the protagonists and therefore undesirables. This is class war of a kind the Tories still propagate to this day: the lower classes are scavengers, liars and criminals – the very transgressions of which they themselves are all too guilty! But, leaving Marx behind for a bit, Homer is rather scary at first before mellowing into a figure of fun, in the court scene and so on. The overthrow of the weaselly squatters puts them back in their place in the societal pecking order, revolution has been averted and the status quo is restored and celebrated, while Toad gets away with escaping from prison…
There is sterling support from Charlotte Froud as a sardonic horse, Philip Hickson as a blustering judge, David Southeard as an affronted policeman, but all players work with commitment and focus, be they providing the walls of a secret tunnel or nattering away as members of the jury. Pamela Hickson gives a delightful cameo as an exuberant washerwoman.
Songs are performed a capella – the ‘Down With Toad’ by Chief Weasel and his confederates is especially effective. It all adds up to an enjoyable evening (my political reservations aside!) excellently presented and reinforcing the Bear Pit’s reputation for the high quality of its productions.
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.