The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 4th October, 2021
The Classic Thriller Company is back on the road with this new version of the creaky old play by John Willard from 1922, with an adapted script by Kneehigh’s Carl Grose. Grose moves the action forward to post-WW2, post-independence of India. The language has been juiced up to include words like ‘bugger’ and ‘shit’—while I suppose people used such vocabulary back in the day in the real world, it seems at odds in the cosy period piece milieu of the stage thriller.
The premise is delicious. A lonely mansion on a moor on a stormy night, a group of people gathering for the reading of a will, an escaped lunatic on the prowl…
Leading the troupe is international star Britt Ekland, playing against type as dowdy housekeeper, Mrs Pleasant. Ekland is marvellous, at times creepy, at others funny—much like the play as a whole, in fact. She is joined by a strong cast, including Marti Webb as a strait-laced matronly type who loosens up when she gives up being teetotal; Gary Webster as the brash jack-the-lad boxer Harry; Ben Nealon as Charlie, an overbearing actor sporting the highest-waisted trousers this side of Simon Cowell; Eric Carte credibly authoritative as Crosby the lawyer; Tracy Shaw as Annabelle, the heroine, combining strength and vulnerability; and Priyasasha Kumari as an appealing Indian princess. They’re a pretty tight ensemble, breathing life into what could be little more than stock characters, and I’m particularly impressed by Antony Costa as the bumbling Paul Jones. Costa warms to his role; in fact, the play takes a while to bed in, but once all the elements are in place, suspense and humour vie for dominance in this effective, old-school thriller.
Roy Marsden’s direction teases us with suspense, gives us a couple of good jump scares, contrasting the play’s lighter moments with its darker aspects and tensions. Themes emerge of the past affecting the present: the old man’s will from twenty years ago is the catalyst for the action; a trauma in Annabelle’s childhood threatens to unsettle her; the desire to restore what was plundered from a previously colonised country; and most strongly, the PTSD suffered by those who fought in the War. Only the escaped lunatic, it seems, has no back story to explain his excessive behaviour!
The substantial set (designed by takis) adds to the oppressive atmosphere, and I especially like the framed pictures of single eyes that cover the walls of Annabelle’s bedroom. Chris Davey’s lighting design adds to the tension, while Dan Sansom’s sound design can be a little intrusive, it does provide a couple of startling moments. And they need to go easy on the dry ice at curtain up!
On the whole, this is a gripping, old-fashioned evening at the theatre, proving that a play originally produced almost a century ago still has the power to thrill and entertain, and it makes a refreshing change from the back-to-back musicals on offer at the moment!
Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 30th September, 2019
This new production of Patrick Hamilton’s classic thriller impresses from the start with an imposing set designed by William Dudley. The perspective is so forced the ceiling looms large over proceedings and the sense of claustrophobia is almost palpable. The box set is augmented by judicious use of gauzes so we can see who is eavesdropping outside the room or going up and down the staircases, and there are video projections, also by Dudley, that give us a view into the uppermost room and, more importantly, the mindset of our heroine, Bella.
Written in 1939, the play has given its name to a form of systematic psychological abuse, and Hamilton gives us a textbook example here as Jack Manningham uses every trick in the book to send his wife around the twist. From the off, Bella (Charlotte Emmerson) is tightly wound and Jack plays her like a fiddle. James Wiley is perfectly villainous as the domineering, manipulative husband, while Emmerson, increasingly unhinged, quickly gains our sympathy and keeps it.
There is strong supporting character work from Mary Chater as Elizabeth, and Georgia Clarke-Day as Nancy, two maids of the household, contrasting nicely with each other; but the piece centres around a star turn from the mighty Martin Shaw as Rough, a detective with an Oirish accent. Shaw’s Rough is humorous and yet authoritative, a charmer who takes control – a Professional, if you will!
Mic Pool’s sound design adds eeriness and the all-important lighting, by Chris Davey, creates a suitably murky atmosphere for the dastardly goings-on. Director Lucy Bailey wrings suspense out of moments of silence, and the action builds to a rather lurid climax in which we see the villain’s ultimate fate.
Even if you’ve seen the play the before, this high-quality production shows there is still plenty of mileage in the material. Gripping, amusing and thrilling, Gaslight deserves a glowing review!
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 27th September, 2016
Stephen King’s story spawned a film, that has proved to be the nation’s favourite, and now this stage adaptation by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns. Without the scale of the cinematic version, O’Neill and Johns focus on a select group of inmates, showing us their humanity along with the brutality and privations of the system. I saw it when it toured last year and now it’s doing the rounds again with a new cast, I am more than happy to see it again.
Red is our narrator – Ben Onwukwe channelling Morgan Freeman in a performance that exudes warmth. He introduces us to the hotheaded Latino Rico (Adam Henderson Scott), bullies Bogs and Rooster (Jeff Alexander and Sean Croke) and old lag Brooksie (Andrew Boyer in a heartbreaking portrayal of institutionalisation). Into their midst comes Andy Dufresne, a man wrongfully convicted of the murders of his wife and her lover. Andy is reserved, decent and kind, but this façade conceals a calculating mind. Former EastEnders star Paul Nicholls gives us a Dufresne that is markedly contrasted with the larger-than-life characters around him, in a quiet, almost underplayed performance – until you see the intensity beneath the surface. Dufresne is almost a Messiah figure to the others – and we all know how Messiah’s get treated.
Daniel Stewart impresses as the vicious screw Hadley but the villain of the piece is the god-bothering governor, Warden Stammas – a commanding Jack Ellis, oozing evil.
Director David Esbjornson handles moments of tension well, leavening them with humour, while Chris Davey’s lighting aids and abets Gary McCann’s all-purpose set to create different spaces within the prison. There is violence and brutality, depicted and implied and the escape, when it happens, is presented symbolically – a beautiful moment. As with last time, I can’t help noting how sparsely populated this prison is. Pre-recorded voices go some way to give the impression of hordes of inmates off-stage – perhaps something could be done with local volunteers at each venue to flesh out scenes in the exercise yard, for example… I don’t know.
That aside, the play provides a compelling evening, even if you’ve read the book or seen the film countless times. And the ending packs a punch right to the feels, as King reminds us that hope is a good thing and sometimes it pays off.
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 28th September, 2015
Stephen King’s novella gave rise to one of the most popular films of all time. For this new touring production, Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns return to the film’s source material and adapt it for the stage. Film fans will notice differences – inevitable, given the differing natures of the art forms. That said, O’Neill and Johns do a bang up job with this story of prison life.
Red (Patrick Robinson) is our part-time narrator in this sparsely populated penitentiary (over-crowding is no problem in Shawshank!) introducing us to a lively bunch of characters, not all of them pleasant. There is Leigh Jones’s Rooster who laughs like a maniacal drain every chance he gets. Rooster is teamed with Bogs (Kevin Mathurin) to form a pair who stop at nothing to assert their dominance among the men. We met Brooksie (Ian Barritt) an old lag completely institutionalised by his lengthy sentence, and Lady Chatterley fan Rico (Declan Perring). Then newcomer Andy Dufresne arrives, wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover. Dufresne stands out – Ian Kelsey gives him a stillness and steadiness, making him a quietly compelling figure among the other, larger-than-life inmates.
Adaptor Owen O’Neill himself plays the slimy Warden Stammas, backed up by brutal guard Hadley (Joe Reisig). It’s an excellent ensemble, with Robinson and Kelsey as very strong leads. Also making an impression is George Evans as young convict Tommy Williams.
The story is episodic in nature, building up a picture of prison life and charting Andy Dufresne’s growing stature among the inmates, the guards (for whom he files tax returns) and the Warden (for whom he cooks the accounts). Unless the characters mention it, we don’t really get a sense of the passage of time but nevertheless the story builds to an emotional climax that still brings moistness to the eye.
Director David Esbjornson mixes naturalistic staging with symbolic – Andy’s escape (oops, spoiler) is beautifully represented and, supported by Chris Davey’s lighting, which marks out cells in sharp rectangles, and Dan Samson’s sound, which hints at hordes of prisoners somewhere off-stage, hits all the right notes.
Shawshank Prison is well worth a visit.
Andy Dufresne (Ian Kelsey) makes his move. (Photo: Mark Yeoman)
Frederick Knott’s taut 1950s thriller is given an excellent revival in Lucy Bailey’s production, currently playing at the REP. It is very much a period piece and Bailey does well to preserve the 1950s feel while giving her production a fresh contemporary-retro atmosphere. This is due in no small part to Mike Britton’s glamorous red set with its stylish 50s furniture and translucent walls and curtains. There are two revolves: on one stands the furniture; from the other, a curtain hangs. Both revolve slowly, almost imperceptibly, at various times during the action – it’s like seeing the inner workings of a machine, the cogs of Knott’s plot at work, as the villain sets his wicked plan in motion and the playwright winds up the tension.
Daniel Betts is suitably urbane and smarmy as the villainous, betrayed husband Tony Wendice, who enlists old school acquaintance and bit of a wrong ‘un, Captain Lesgate (a very good Robert Perkins) to bump off his cheating wife. The plan hinges upon a telephone call at the crucial moment – hence the title – and when the violence takes place, it is all the more shocking for its stylisation. Fight direction by Philip d’Orleans is complemented by unsettling contributions from lighting designer Chris Davey and sound design by Mic Pool.
Even though I have seen this play staged before, the new lease of life given to it by this production, meant I was still enthralled and thrilled. Bailey doesn’t let the stylish presentation get in the way of Knott’s superbly crafted script.
Kelly Hotten is appealing as intended victim Mrs Wendice, looking every inch the 50s starlet under Chris Davey’s cinematic lighting. Philip Cairns is her lover Max, making it easy to see why Mrs Wendice prefers him to her husband. Christopher Timothy tops off this tight ensemble as determined Inspector Hubbard who worries away at every detail of the case like a dog with a bone, until the truth is brought to light.
Wordy passages of exposition are counterbalanced with wordless moments of action – Knott knew exactly what he was doing and this production clearly demonstrates why this play is a masterpiece of the genre.
Kelly Hutton is asked about her PPI (Photo: Manuel Harlan)