Tag Archives: Chris Ellison

Glad Night With The Pips

Malvern Theatres, Tuesday 24th September, 2012

“It wasn’t what I expected,” said one woman as the audience filed out at the end. No, me neither. I found my expectations surpassed by Jo Clifford’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel about social climbing.

It begins, not with the famous scene in the graveyard, but with the grown-up version of protagonist Pip (Paul Nivison) entering the rather grandiose set: the interior of a grand mansion, gone to rack and ruin. At its centre is a wedding cake. Pip is revisiting the place where his change of fortunes began. Implored by Estella (Grace Rowe) he summons up memories of his youth, conjuring up characters from his past. They appear through the walls, from behind picture frames and so on, their faces ghostly white, grotesque and exaggerated, distorted by the prism of memory.

And so, in Miss Havisham’s living room, the whole story is re-enacted. Adult Pip narrates a bit, but mostly stands by and watches. Young Pip (Taylor Jay-Davies in an engaging performance) suffers cruelty at the hands of his sister (a deliciously monstrous Isabelle Joss in a characterisation that would be at home in a Roald Dahl) and has his emotions toyed with by the haughty Estella. I needn’t summarise the plot, I feel, because the book is so well-known, and of course any adaptation will truncate or omit some events and characters.

This one is a delightfully gothic affair. A lot of money has been lavished on the decaying grandeur of Robin People’s magnificent set and the striking, almost circus-like costumes by Annie Gosney and Graham McLaren. Mr Wopsle sports a top hat that adds almost another yard to his height. The soldiers who recapture escaped convict Magwitch wear expressionless masks, dehumanising them. There is more than a little of the Tim Burton to the aesthetic. Nathan Guy struts and poses on the mantelpiece as Herbert Pocket, a colourful mixture of the Joker and the Penguin by way of the Mad Hatter. Everyone in Pip’s past is bedecked with cobwebs. The action and atmosphere are supported by an eerie, almost horror-movie score by Simon Slater.

The dazzling designs are more than matched by the quality of the performances. Jack Ellis certainly has the moves like Jaggers (sorry) and the marvellous Paula Wilcox is brittle and imperious as celebrate eccentric Miss Havisham, swanning around in her wedding dress. When she re-enacts the moment she heard she was jilted on her wedding day, Wilcox emits a heart-rending cry. This is melodrama but you can’t help being touched and chilled by it.

As convict Magwitch, Christopher Ellison (off of The Bill) storms it. With thankless dialogue that requires him to swap his Vs for Ws he portrays the wretched warmint wery well, imbuing the character with dignity and pathos. Ellison has never been better.

Director Graham McLaren uses the conventions of narrative and emblematic theatre to tell the classic story in a new way, making it fresh without messing about with the plot or the themes. Dickens would be heartened to find we are more civilised these days. We no longer send children (or anyone else) to the gallows. But he would share my dismay that the iniquities of society persist. The arrogance of the materially well-off (but poor in terms of humanity and compassion) is all too visible every time a government minister appears on the telly.

Acting Prime Minister

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 3rd July, 2012

When pompous Prime Minister Randolph Bolton keels over and drops dead just days before a general election, the Home Secretary and the Minister for the Arts hit upon a plan to replace him with a look-alike until their election victory is assured.

So begins Charles Ross’s comedy thriller. The far-fetched plot only works because the characters are all objectionable. There is no time for sentiment; it’s all about the cover-up and keeping their unfeasible balloon in the air. And so the backstabbing, manipulations and machinations of the senior Cabinet are revealed. By the interval, it emerges that the PM was murdered, leading to a faster-paced second half. The intrigue and the whodunit aspects keep you interested… but that’s about all that does. You don’t give a monkey’s about this bunch of unsympathetic creatures.

Much of the humour comes from references that would have been topical when the play was new but now evoke nostalgic laughter among those old enough to remember the political climate at the time. Reagan was in the White House and so much is made of having an actor in power (the PM’s double appears to be doing a better job than the real one).

Among this nest of Machiavellian vipers, Keith Drinkel snarls and growls as the uptight Home Secretary, Belinda Carroll looks the part in her power-dressing couture but seems tongue-tied, and Chris Ellison exudes brooding menace as the efficient, shaved-gorilla-in-a-suit security boss. David Callister as the PM and his double has the most to do, establishing in the PM’s brief opening scene enough of the characterisation for us to recognise when he is impersonating himself later on. As the PM’s wife, Joanne Heywood adds cool elegance to the proceedings but the most statesmanlike performance, played with bold and casual assurance comes from Tony Adams. His Foreign Secretary is a man accustomed to power, a man who feels entitled to it and is able to wield it.

And so an unlikely premise turns into an intriguing puzzle that takes sideswipes at politicians and politicking along the way. No one is wholly right or purely honourable it turns out; it’s the electorate who are deceived and cheated the most.

Tell us something we don’t know.