Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 12th July 2022
Bruce Norris’s award-winning piece is a play of two halves. Set in the same house, acts one and two are fifty years apart, with two sets of characters. We begin in 1959, and Russ and Bev are packing up to move out. There is a kind of cosy sit-com banter between them, but soon a thread of darkness is revealed. Their lives have been blighted by tragedy: their son, home from the Korean war, and unable to live with the atrocities he committed, has killed himself. Concerned parties gather: the local clergyman, the local busybody… they’ve got wind that the buyers are ‘coloured’… Whoops, there go the property values.
What starts as amusing becomes savagely funny. Director Stewart Snape gets the rises and falls, the crescendos and clashes pitch perfect, enabling his excellent cast to shine. The mighty Colin Simmonds makes the naturalism seem effortless as mild-mannered Russ, who is provoked to explosive invective, in a well-judged portrayal. He is strongly supported by Liz Plumpton’s excitable Bev, while James David Knapp is exquisitely monstrous as the racist busybody trying to put a stop to the sale, and Paul Forrest is delightfully irritating as the dog-collared Jim. Conducting herself with supreme dignity is Shemeica Rawlins as the housemaid, Francine, with Papa Anoh Yentumi making a strong impression as her husband Albert.
Fifty years later (what a long interval that was!) and the tables have turned. A young white couple wish to demolish the house, now dilapidated and covered in graffiti, in a bid to gentrify the area, despite objections voiced by people who have grown up there during the intervening decades. There are parallels to be made with white people taking over the land and property of others, I suppose, but the discourse in this second half is not as clear cut as the first. The characters are preoccupied with language, particularly when someone (James David Knapp again, as a different, equally monstrous character!) cracks an inappropriate joke. Thus, the topic shifts more to what is considered offensive and who is ‘allowed’ to be offended, before a final coda takes us back to the 50s, and the doomed son writing his suicide note, a reminder that people do much worse things to each other than make jokes, but also that such jokes are also a form of violence and oppression.
It’s an electrifying evening of theatre. The play provokes more than it answers, which is how it should be, in my view, and there is a lot of fun to be had seeing the cast play roles diametrically opposed to their first-act personas. Grace Cheadle’s ‘woke’ Lindsey couldn’t be further from the insipid Betsy from act one! There are echoes in the script, turns of phrase, lines of argument, that reoccur, suggesting that people haven’t, society hasn’t, changed. Which is a depressing thought, but it’s delivered in a hugely entertaining way by a company of actors of the highest quality.
David Haig’s play is set the weekend before D-Day – a date enshrined in history, but of course, at the time they didn’t know exactly when the Normandy invasion would take place. And that’s the crux of the plot. General Eisenhower is relying on weather forecasts to predict the best conditions for making his move and sending 350,000 men into danger. One expert is predicting fair weather, another says there’s a storm coming. But who is right? And which way will Eisenhower jump?
Martin Tedd’s Dr Stagg is a grumpy Scot, a Victor Meldrew of a man, but he knows what he’s talking about. His certainty of his own knowledge and experience contrasts with the uncertainty around his wife going into difficult labour with their second child. But Stagg is under lockdown at Southwick House and is powerless to help. Tedd is good at Stagg’s short temper but he stumbles sometimes with the specialist language, phrases that should trip off the tongue. His American counterpart, Colonel Krick is played with assurance by Robert Laird.
Alexandria Carr is marvellous as the only female character in the piece, Lieutenant Summersby – her accent matches her period hairdo, and she performs with efficiency, showing the human behind the British aloofness.
The mighty Colin Simmonds portrays Eisenhower with a blunt kind of charm, exuding power easily and bringing humour to the piece. As ever, Simmonds inhabits the character with utter credibility and nuance. It feels like a privilege to see him perform.
There is pleasing support from Griff Llewelyn-Cook as young Andrew, and from Crescent stalwarts Dave Hill and Brian Wilson in some of the smaller roles.
Director Karen Leadbetter keeps us engaged with all the jargon flying around by handling the highs and lows, the changing weather of human interactions, with an ear for when things should be loud and when quiet, and when silence is most powerful.
The simple set, in wartime greens, gives us a sense of time and place, and is enhanced by John Gray’s lighting – especially for off-stage action, like an aeroplane in trouble, for example. The room is dominated by the charts, huge maps with isobars swirling across them, and you marvel that the technology of the time was adequate for its purpose.
This is a solid production of a play that sheds light on an esoteric yet crucial part of the war effort. Haig has obviously researched his subject matter extensively and manages to tell the story without being overly didactic or preachy.
Alexandria Carr and Colin Simmonds feel the pressure (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Noel Coward’s play from 1939 deals with two decades in the lives of the Gibbons family of Clapham in the turbulent years between the Wars – except of course they didn’t know they were between Wars at the time. We see the events of their lives – weddings, affairs, arguments, celebrations, some of them affected by what’s going on in the wider world – and each scene jumps forward in time. In this respect, the play reminded me of recent TV series, Years and Years, which does much the same thing, except of course the series is futuristic and the Coward play is retrospective.
At the centre of the set is the dining table, the heart of the house and the forum for family life. Family members gather for tea, or something stronger, and it’s here that views and opinions are aired and sparks fly. Top of the bickering parade are Amy Findlay as hypochondriac Aunt Sylvia and Skye Witney as cantankerous grandmother Mrs Flint. The barbs fly freely; Coward’s dialogue for this lower-middle or upper-working class family is now rather dated, don’t you know, I should say, and no mistake, yet the cast deliver it with authenticity to match the period furnishings and the superlative costumes (by Stewart Snape).
As the Gibbons daughters, Emilia Harrild is in good form as dissatisfied, snobbish Queenie, with Annie Swift equally fine as down-to-earth Vi. Griff Llewellyn-Cook makes an impression as handsome, ill-fated son Reg, with a strong appearance from Sam Wilson as his firebrand friend Sam Leadbitter. Wanda Raven is spot on as Edie the maid, to the extent that you wish Coward had written a bigger part. Simon King plays neighbour Bob Mitchell with truth – especially in his drunken scenes! – and Hannah Lyons is sweet as Reg’s girlfriend Phyllis.
It’s a fine cast indeed but the standouts are Jenny Thurston as the upright and unyielding Ethel Gibbons, the marvellous Jack Hobbis as sailor boy-next-door Billy, and the mighty Colin Simmonds as genial patriarch Frank Gibbons.
Director Michael Barry has the cast fast-talk the dialogue, adding to the period feel of the production. The comedy has its laugh-out-loud moments, while the more dramatic scenes have the power to shock and to move. It may be a play about a bygone era, but we can recognise the feeling of living in uncertain times as this country faces unnecessary damage, not from war but from Brexit, and the world teeters on the brink of disaster thanks to climate change. Frank’s view that it’s not systems or politicians to blame for our ills but it all comes down to human nature strikes me as somewhat complacent, an attitude we can ill afford.
The play reminds us of what has been lost from family life: the gathering at the table, which was first usurped by the television and has now been superseded by the individual screens everyone peers at. Progress isn’t always a good thing.
A thoroughly enjoyable, high quality production to round off what has been an excellent season at the Crescent.
Frank and Ethel (Colin Simmonds and Jenny Thurston) Photo: Graeme Braidwood
Chekhov done right is hugely demanding of any company attempting to stage one of his plays. But if the company does get it right, the play becomes less demanding on the audience and, in fact, becomes a pleasure. Here, director Andrew Brooks gets it right, eliciting nuanced and rounded performances from his cast, in this enjoyable adaptation by Christopher Hampton.
Jacob Williams shines as neurotic young writer Konstantin Gavrilovich Triplev – (the main problem I have with Chekhov is the names. Sometimes characters use the full name, a diminutive version, or a different name altogether, so it can take a while to sort out in your mind who they’re talking about!) Williams seems effortlessly naturalistic, balancing Kostia’s jaded outlook and insecurities with passion for the theatre. Konstantin’s descent into mental illness is expertly portrayed.
As his mother, Irina So-and-so and Such-and-such, Karen Leadbetter gives us the ego of the famous actress, her insensitivity and selfishness – all at Konstantin’s expense – in a measured performance that never goes over the top. John O’Neill is more down-to-earth as her lover, celebrated writer Trigorin; he really comes into his own when Trigorin describes the writer’s lot.
The object of Konstantin’s affections, the tragic Nina is played by Hannah Birkin, who is marvellous in the part. She even performs the pretentious twaddle of Konstantin’s play with conviction. This is a story of unrequited love – most of the characters are afflicted by it, setting off a chain reaction of events.
Dave Hill is endearing as ailing Uncle Pyotr, while the mighty Colin Simmonds perfectly inhabits his role as the family doctor. Amy Thompson is the picture of misery as the lovelorn Masha, and Papa Anoh Yentumi gives an assured performance as pipe-smoking Shamrayev.
The costumes by Pat Brown clearly depict the class structure of 1895 Russia, and the beautiful set by Keith Harris and Megan Kirwin, with its tree trunks and elegant furnishings, basks in the atmospheric lighting of Kristan Webb’s design. This is a classy production of a classic play, which brings out most of the humour inherent in the text with credible characterisations that keep on the right side of melodrama.
Eminently watchable and entertaining, this is one Chekhov you really ought to check out.
Dave Hill and Jacob Williams (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
The Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio is home again to yet another outstanding production. Director Stewart Snape’s take on the Peter Shaffer classic is instantly engaging, thoroughly engrossing and blisteringly devastating.
The mighty Colin Simmonds completely inhabits the role of disillusioned psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, charged with his most disturbing case ever: the case of an (un)stable boy who, for some reason or other, took it upon himself to blind six horses in one night. Simmonds’s Dysart feels as well-worn as his jacket, jaded in his erudition, and also very funny. Shaffer’s play has a rich seam of humour running through the soul-searching and philosophising and Snape gets the tone spot on. Dysart’s professional relationship with kindly magistrate Hesther comes across, thanks to the chemistry between Simmonds and Jo Hill, but of course, it is the scenes between Dysart and his patient that grip and thrill the most.
Sam Wilson and Colin Simmonds (Photos: Graeme Braidwood)
Sam Wilson is an excellent Alan Strang: pent-up and brooding at times, aggressively blaring out his thoughts at others. Wilson switches from teenage Alan to young boy Alan with ease in his re-enactments of key moments from his troubling life. An understanding develops between doctor and patient, and the mystery unfolds…
Sturdy support comes from Andrew Lowrie as Alan’s repressive father – nowadays we might call him ‘gammon’ – and Zena Forrest as Alan’s mother, credibly desperate (beneath a somewhat ill-advised wig!) as she seeks to understand but mainly exonerate herself from the shocking act of violence perpetrated by her child. Jess Shannon is matter-of-fact as Alan’s attempted love interest, Jill – a pleasing contrast to all the wordy soul-searching of the others; Angela Daniels makes a formidably efficient Nurse; while Josh Scott has his moment as the bewildered stable owner.
Phil Leonard makes a strong impression as the Young Horseman, and also as Nugget, one of the ill-fated horses. As is customary in this show, the horses are represented by actors in stylised masks, using movement (head tossing, foot stamping) to evoke horsiness. John Bailey’s creations for this production are elegant constructions of wire that the actors don like ritualistic masks. The tramping of their hooves, and assorted other noises, add to the tension.
The story is played out on a set of wooden floorboards and railings, suggestive of the stable, and also of a performance space: it is where Alan’s memories are staged, and also his place of worship. The face of a horse is stained into the wood, reaching up the back wall and along the floor, almost like a presence itself. Colin Judges’s design is beautifully efficient, superbly suited to Shaffer’s theatrically sophisticated script, where narration and reconstruction are entwined with more naturalistic scenes. John Gray’s splendid lighting, warm straw and cold blue, adds to the atmosphere.
This play about passion builds to a searing climax: the stylised re-enactment of the crime itself, a Bacchic moment, horrific in a symbolic way, leading Dysart to understanding at last, and brings to a close another superlative offering from the Crescent.
Harold Brighouse’s classic comedy first appeared in 1916 when the tide of women’s suffrage was running high. Set in 1880, it tells of Hobson, a widower and owner of a shoe shop, seeking liberation from the three grown-up daughters who work in his shop without pay, so he can have some peace and quiet. He sets to marrying off the younger two – the eldest, at the advanced age of 30 is beyond hope, he feels. This eldest, Maggie, takes matters into her own hands by browbeating the timid on-site shoemaker into marrying her. She then orchestrates matters so that her sisters are able to wed the men of their choosing, manipulating their father until he is worse off than when he started.
The script still sparkles with sarcastic barbs and acerbic observations and feels fresher than any episode of Open All Hours penned in more recent years.
As blustering, boozing patriarch Hobson, the mighty Colin Simmonds gives a majestic performance in a superb characterisation. The timing is impeccable; the nuances and the broader moments provide a masterclass in comic acting. He is matched by two fellow leads: Kimberley Cormack as the level-headed, assertive and somewhat Machiavellian Maggie in a formidable display – you wouldn’t want to cross her; and James David Knapp is endearing and extremely funny as the timid and shy cobbler, Willy Mossop. You wouldn’t want to be in his shoes, so to speak.
Between them, these three bring the play to remarkable life and they are supported by a strong team of players: Notably, Amy Thompson as Vickey, Emily Jane Carey as Alice, Carl Foster as Fred Beenstock, and Damien Dickens as Albert Prosser. There are memorable cameo appearances from Jo Thackwray as the haughty Mrs Hepworth and Brian Wilson as Hobson’s drinking buddy, Jim.
Faye Rowse’s set design evokes the period stylishly and effectively, while Angela Daniels’s costumes reveal not only the characters’ status but also the changes in their fortunes as the action unfolds. Charlotte Robinson’s hazy lighting suggests gas- or candlelight. Director Les Stringer hits all the comedic hotspots while maintaining the emotional truth of the situations.
Thoroughly engaging and massively entertaining, this is a splendid production of a masterpiece and is a ‘shoe-in’ for one of my favourites of the year.
The shoe’s on the other foot. Kimberley Cormack, James David Knapp and Colin Simmonds (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 6th September, 2015
We are accustomed to seeing films adapted into stage shows these days, usually as musicals. Here, adaptor Terry Johnson turns the iconic film of the swinging 60s into a thoroughly enjoyable comedy of sexual mores.
Fresh out of college, Benjamin Braddock lacks direction in life. An encounter with the wife of his father’s friend leads to sexual liaisons in a hotel room. Mrs Robinson, however experienced, is not enough for young Ben, who craves conversation as well as rumpy-pumpy, and so he latches onto his lover’s daughter instead. Before long, the situation unravels and Ben decides to leave it all behind, but will Elaine go with him, and is marriage the happy-ever- after it’s cracked up to be?
Shaun Hartman is excellent as the stumbling, fumbling Ben, and he is well-matched by Sarah Ridgley as Elaine. Tiffany Cawthorne is flawless as the casually predatory Mrs Robinson, oozing self-assurance as well as boredom. Brendan Stanley is her husband, really coming into his own when the truth becomes known to him in the second act. We can sympathise with his hurt and sense of betrayal but also laugh at his psychotic hot-headedness. Wanda Raven is hilarious as Ben’s excitable mother, and there is strong support from Helen Rose Carter in a number of roles, including a be-tassled stripper in a sleazy club. The mighty Colin Simmonds delivers a masterclass in comic timing as Ben’s bewildered father – his remarkable performance is worth the admission price alone, but he is surrounded by a company of highly effective actors who are too good to be upstaged. Director Keith Harris pitches every scene just right for maximum comic effect, allowing the dramatic moments to develop, and the simple but versatile set hints at the period rather than swamping us with detail. Similarly, Angela Daniels’s costumes are evocative, allowing the timeless qualities of the story to come to the fore.
Are we shocked today by Benjamin’s carrying-on? Not in the least but it’s interesting that included on the poster among the warnings of nudity and sexual activity is the advisement that herbal cigarettes will be smoked. This is how times have changed. (PS. Herbal cigarettes always stink the place out).
This production offers many delights: a funny script delivered with skill and panache. My one quibble is that some of the scene changes take a little long, adding to the running time, but because it’s early in the run, I’m sure the hard-working stage hands will pick up the pace. Some scenes end suddenly, revealing the script’s cinematic origins – transitions need to be snappy to match.
Once again, the Crescent delivers the goods to an extremely high standard. The Graduate plays until September 12th and is well worth a couple of hours of your time.
John Arden’s play from the late 1950s is not an easy one. This ambitious production in the Ron Barber Studio makes more than a good fist of bringing it to life. From the get-go it is obvious that production values are of a high standard. Faye Rowse’s impressive set, making use of packing crates and chequerboard tiles, serves as all the locations of the action: pub, graveyard, town square etc, atmospherically lit by James Booth’s design. Jen Coley’s costumes are spot on, leaving all the colour to the bright red of the soldiers’ tunics.
Director Colin Simmonds (himself a fine actor) elicits solid performances from most of his cast and moments of excellence from some of them. Nick Tuck is chirpy Private Sparky, one of the few likable characters in the piece, nicely contrasted with the other members of the trio, Gwill Milton and Vinnie Clarke. These three and their sergeant turn up in a Northern town and are immediately taken to be recruiting officers. The real purpose of their visit eventually becomes apparent. Musgrave (a powerful Mark Thompson) stages his own coup de theatre, taking drastic action in a bid to realise his own agenda: to bring an end to all war. It’s a noble aim but the end doesn’t justify the means. The play is startlingly relevant given this weekend’s news from the Ukraine but even without that, Musgrave’s argument still stands for British/American troops in places like Afghanistan. The two-eyes-for-an-eye approach to quashing ‘insurgents’ will only be curtailed if we stand against those who never get hurt in these conflicts, the ruling elite, represented here by establishment figures the Mayor and the Parson. It’s electrifyingly staged and worth the slow, uphill build-up.
Les Stringer’s Parson looks like Derek Jacobi and sounds like Richard Griffiths, in a neat character study that brings to the fore the detestable hypocrisy of the man. Similarly effective is Edward Milton’s Mayor, a buffoonish figure keen to execute some kind of social cleansing of his town by shipping the undesirables off to the army, but to my mind, the strongest of the local characters comes in the form of pub landlady Mrs Hitchcock, superbly played by Diane Pritchard. Barmaid Annie is also strongly depicted, with more than a hint of Ophelia’s madness, by Hannah Kelly.
The show is peppered with folk music motifs – there is some evocative playing; Tim Gardner’s discordant violin is a prime example. The characters are prone to singing snatches of folk songs at any given moment, which sometimes breaks the naturalism of the performance, reminding us that we are there to think about what the play is about as well as what it makes us feel.
Yet again, the Crescent provides a challenging and provocative production of a difficult play, well worth an evening of anyone’s time.
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 6th October, 2013
Somerset Maugham’s 1926 comedy is brought to sparkling life in Jaz Davison’s lively production. It tells the story of Constance, the titular wife, whose husband has been having a long-standing affair with one of her best friends. Everyone around Constance strives to hide the ugly truth from her but, it turns out, she has known all along. Constance is nobody’s fool. Red faces all around. But it is what happens next that takes this comedy of manners into Ibsen territory. More assured than Ibsen’s Nora, Maugham’s Constance not only turns the tables on her unfaithful spouse but carves out a niche for herself, claiming that the economic independence she has earned for herself is the key to opening up the rest of her life. She is no more bound to her husband by financial need than she is to convention and, some might say, propriety.
It’s a great-looking production, played in-the-round in the theatre’s Ron Barber Studio with a detailed but unfussy set designed by James Rowland, and a parade of 1920s fashions from costume designer Stewart Snape. The women are especially well-dressed with fur stoles draped over their shoulders like roadkill – reminders that the play has become a period piece, and that some aspects of society have changed considerably since it first opened.
As Constance, Liz Plumpton cuts an elegant figure. At first she is a little too imperious and not playful enough but she warms up and becomes delightful, her delivery matching the wit of her dialogue. The characters fire off Widean epigrams like champagne corks – some of the cast handle this mannered way of speaking with great ease. Particularly impressive is Jo Hill as Barbara, and Danielle Spittle’s Martha improves as the action unfolds. Plumpton is ably supported by Roger Saunders as old suitor Bernard and Kate Campbell as treacherous Marie-Louise, but it is her moments with husband John that really stand out. Colin Simmonds’s performance is a delight from start to finish as the smarmy philanderer in a beautifully detailed and executed characterisation. And very, very funny.
Jaz Davison’s direction has some stylish touches (like the use of butler James Smith for the transitions) but a little lighter handling of the earlier moments would get the performance fizzing along from the get-go. It’s a soufflé on which the oven door has been opened too soon, but the cast rally and aerate the confection as soon as they settle in. From that point on The Constant Wife becomes consistently funny.
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 7th June, 2012
The Ron Barber Studio at Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre is an excellent, little – sorry, intimate space with an interesting and varied programme of shows. This production of David Mamet’s 1975 three-hander maintains the high standard. It is an absorbing and powerful evening in the company of a trio of low-life petty criminals as they plan a burglary in the back room of a cluttered and dismal junk shop.
The shop is run by Donny (Gerry Lucas), who bankrolls and ‘masterminds’ the job – in as far as his limited abilities allow. He is a bit of a soft touch, especially when it comes to the younger of his acquaintances, Bobby (Michael Radford) and tends to lose patience with the more neurotic Teach (Colin Simmonds). Mamet’s language is earthy and deceptively naturalistic. Add to that, the humour, the underlying sense of menace and the low-level crime, and you have something akin to an American Pinter – this has been noted by others before me. I rather think Mamet is the link between Pinter and Tarantino. Without Mamet, Reservoir Dogs, for example, would be a very different film.
The cast is impeccable. Sleazeball Teach is very funny and yet repugnant and unsettling. Colin Simmonds is note perfect – when Teach finally blows his top and trashes the shop, it is an exhilarating release of the tension that has built up throughout the evening. And what a set it is! Cluttered with details, messy and lived in – this is a credible and workable environment. Colin Judges and his construction team have recreated a corner of 1975. In that studio space, the audience is almost sitting around the card table with the characters. When Teach pushes the shelves over and sends crockery flying, you feel like you will get clobbered. Mark Thompson’s direction keeps the pace up – the set may be cluttered but the action has room to grow, the characters have space to reveal themselves.
Michael Radford’s Bobby is sensitive, barely able to articulate his thoughts. You wonder what would become of him with a different pair of role models. Donny is the indulgent father figure, peeling off banknotes and offering dietary advice. Here I must make special mention of the Chicagoan accents. Vocal coach Jaz Davison has equipped the cast with authentic intonations. I couldn’t fault them.
Gerry Lucas’s performance is the lynch pin of the production and the key to understanding the play. Crime and business are held up as two sides of the same coin – not the rare coin that gives the play its title and the plot its impetus, but a bent, two-headed one. The men approach the burglary as a business venture. At best, they are amoral. This is their version of the American Dream – the right of every man to turn a profit. They are self-serving capitalists and, the play shows us, that road leads to ruin. Donny’s ill-advised loans to Bobby, the inability to handle setbacks (a fourth, unseen accomplice is hospitalised), the use of force and the destruction of the shop (marketplace) all point towards disaster. Suddenly, Mamet’s thirty-odd year old play is bang up-to-date and relevant to fiscal policy and the current financial crisis.