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!
The Bear Pit, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 2nd November, 2018
I don’t enjoy tribute bands. I don’t see the point of them – especially when the original act is still alive and kicking. Similarly, I am puzzled when episodes from situation comedies are brought to the stage; they never work as well on the boards as they do in the medium for which they were intended. And when you haven’t got the original cast for whom the roles were tailored, I question the whole enterprise. You can’t hope to match the brilliance of the original so why try to emulate it? Why not just bung the DVD on?
But here we are: three episodes of the fourth and final Blackadder series by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis. Half a box set. The characters are fully formed – there is no scope for development in a sit-com – so with each half-hour piece, we hit the ground running with little in the way of exposition. The sit of the com is self-contained and self-perpetuating.
Paul Tomlinson’s Captain Blackadder has the sneering, sardonic tones down pat as he dishes out sarcasm, hyperbole and absurdist similes, but he is disadvantaged by not having a funny face. Rowan Atkinson’s facial expressions go a long way in selling the often-verbose lines; Tomlinson, sorry to say, is too good-looking!
Nathan Brown’s youthful Baldrick channels Tony Robinson rather well and his comic timing is excellent. Roger Ganner’s bleating General Melchett is perfectly monstrous in his pigheadedness (bringing to mind the stubbornness of a Brexiteer, wilfully disregarding disaster), he’s an excellent foil for Richard Ball’s nervous wet lettuce Darling. There are amusing turns from Justin Osborne, enjoying himself as the dastardly Baron von Richtofen, and from director David Mears who goes ‘over the top’ as the bombastic, bullying braggart Lord Flasheart. How much are they imitating the original cast? How much is advisable? Audiences expect the familiar intonations and appearances, I suppose – which is why tribute acts have little to do with creativity and originality. Tonight, the cast member who seems to make the part his own is Thomas Hodge as posh thicko Lieutenant George.
Mears does well to translate the action to the stage (although sit-coms are somewhat stagey in themselves) making efficient use of a changeable set, built by Martin Tottle and Chris Jackson. The final images, when the series came to a definite and irrevocable end, made for one of the most powerful scenes of television ever, and Mears makes a good fist of emulating them. It’s a wrenching change of tone, a sobering moment and a reminder that those who died in this stupid and futile war were more than statistics from a century ago; they were real people, with hopes and dreams, a sense of humour, fears and friendships… And this is the point of this production and what makes it, in the end, a fine and fitting tribute.
Thomas Hodge, Paul Tomlinson and Nathan Brown (Photo: Sam Allard)
The Bear Pit, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 15th May, 2017
Ever ambitious, the Bear Pit brings to its intimate space Richard Bean’s hit comedy, a knockabout farce based on a much earlier work by Goldoni. Subtle, it ain’t.
David Mears plays Francis Henshall, the conniving if dim protagonist driven by basic appetites (hunger and desire), striving to keep two employees happy – and apart. As ever with Mears, it’s a masterclass in comedy. Characterisation, timing and physicality are all done to perfection, although from time to time, especially in the more intense moments, it’s as though he is channelling James Corden, the originator of the role at the National Theatre. Given Corden’s phenomenal success in the part, this is no bad thing!
Others in the excellent ensemble also dazzle. Roger Ganner’s upper class Stanley is a wiz with comic exclamations and comes complete with comedy back hair. Jack Sargent’s histrionic, wannabe actor, Alan, is an absolute treat, while Flo Hatton’s Pauline makes a delightfully thick ingenue. Natalie Danks-Smith’s Rachel, in disguise as her murdered ‘identical’ twin is also a lot of fun.
For me though, the show is stolen by a towering performance from Ruth Linnett as Dolly, having to tilt her beehive do sharply every time she comes on or goes off – a running gag that never gets old. Linnett is a match for Mears in the comedy stakes, able to throw away asides to the audience with quickfire precision.
There is strong and enjoyable support from the likes of Mike McClusky as Charlie Clench, Rob Woolton as Lloyd, and Graham Tyrer in dual roles of Harry the brief and Alfie the geriatric waiter.
The laughs come thick and fast – from Bean’s hilarious script, the cast’s larger-than-life, energetic playing, and the attentive eye of director Nicky Cox who doesn’t let a detail pass her by, keeping the action focused and the pace consistent in order to maximise our laughter.
An onstage skiffle trio plays through the leisurely scene transitions – the economic almost Spartan set proves to be versatile in its suggestion of the action’s locations, allowing the actors to come to the fore. It’s a pity there isn’t more space for the running around, which would crank up Francis’s frenetic activity, but this is a taut production of Bean’s genius with plenty of sauce, relentlessly funny and expertly executed.
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, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 15th October, 2016
Jim Cartwright’s two-hander provides the perfect opportunity for a pair of actors to showcase their skills and versatility. Set in a pub, somewhere Northern, it introduces us to the landlord and his wife and then a host of their customers, all played by the same duo, giving us different glimpses of relationships between couples (heterosexual, working class ones, that is – the play was written in 1989, pre-diversity concerns!)
It is clear from the start that the publican and his Mrs are going through marital strife, to put it mildly. Behind their customer service smiles and bonhomie there is bile and invective which they vent on each other at every opportunity. But as the play goes on, the reason for this animosity becomes apparent, culminating in a heartfelt outpouring of anger and grief.
Playing all the male roles is David T Mears – his ‘Moth’ with a roving eye but a dependency on his girlfriend’s purse is as hilarious as his bullying, control freak of a husband is frightening later on. Lucy Parrott plays the female parts – her big-man ogling woman and also her brutalised, cowed wife are standouts for me, but really, all the characterisations from this pair are well-observed and depicted. Mears also directs and knows when to make things broad and when to hone in on more naturalistic details.
Cartwright’s script is funny and there is a heightened, poetic quality to his writing, giving soul to his characters’ monologues. At the heart of the piece is the couple behind the bar, their bitterness and resentment. It all comes out in the wash for the intense final scene. We come away having seen behind public facades into private lives – Cartwright reminds us that we don’t know what personal hell someone might be going through beneath the surface.
This production upholds the Bear Pit’s reputation for high quality work. Expertly handled and performed, this engaging piece is well worth 75 minutes of anyone’s time.