Tag Archives: Deborah McAndrew

Pottering About

ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 31st May, 2017

 

It’s 150 years since the birth of Stoke-on-Trent writer, Arnold Bennett.  To commemorate this, the New Vic has commissioned this new stage adaptation of one of his Stoke-based novels.  The theatre has always sought to offer material about its local area and its people, but will this piece with its Stokie accents and dialect speak to anyone who comes from a town other than those listed in the ‘five’?

Yes, of course it does.

Writer Deborah McAndrew skillfully distills the events of the book to a couple of hours traffic on the stage, with strong characters and economic narrative techniques so that time and place are evoked superbly.  The costumes add to the authenticity, while the set, designed by Dawn Allsopp – all-brick floor (industry built this place), with a sunken rectangle for Anna’s dining room at the centre, (the hub of Anna’s world around which all other events take place) – brings style and stylisation for this otherwise naturalistic piece.  Daniella Beattie’s lighting mullions the set with patches, evoking architecture as well as mood – and there is a special effect at the end that is startlingly powerful.

Anna Tellwright (Lucy Bromilow) has been housekeeper for her father and mother figure for her little sister almost her whole life.  Dad (Robin Simpson) is a bit of a tyrant.  He feels his grip slipping when Anna comes of age and inherits a shedload of money.  Naturally, being a man, he takes control of her finances: we can’t have women being all independent of men, can we?  Bennett, writing in 1902, long before suffrage, captures the fragility of the traditionally masculine.  Dad can only lash out, tighten the reins and almost combust as he fears his position being edged into the side-lines.  Simpson is excellent as this incendiary man.  Mr Tellwright’s explosions of rage are like fireworks going off unexpectedly.

Bromilow is no shrinking violet Cinderella.  Driven by a sense of duty, she finds it difficult to enjoy her new wealth.  Her eyes are opened to the human cost of capitalism when a man is driven to suicide because he cannot make his repayments.  She glimpses what fun money can bring, when she dares to dip her toe into the waters of independence, but she never truly gets to let her hair down; her hedonism consists of the purchase of some new clobber and a fortnight on the Isle of Man – which she ends up being spending as nursemaid to a friend with the flu.  Anna’s lot is not one of frivolity and profligate spending.  She maintains the same straitlaced starchiness throughout, whatever she’s doing.  I would like to see Bromilow’s Anna let rip, just once, and lighten up!

In contrast is never-lifted-a-finger-in-her-life, well-off young woman, Beatrice Sutton (Molly Roberts, who brings colour in her dresses and humour in her portrayal).  Also delightful is Rosie Abraham as Anna’s little sister Agnes: it is through Anna’s sacrifice that Agnes is permitted a childhood rather than a life of domestic service.

Now rich, Anna becomes inexplicably attractive to her chum from Sunday school, young gent Henry Mynors (a suitably dapper Mark Anderson) and she accepts his marriage proposal – almost impetuously.  Meanwhile, decent and hard-working Willie Price (not a porn name!) offers a chance at true love.  Benedict Shaw is perfectly placed as the upstanding Willie, handsome and down-to-earth.  Who will Anna choose?  Unable to follow her heart, it is her sense of duty not any taste for the high life that leads our heroine to make her choice – with tragic consequences.

The production is superb: strong on atmosphere, with choral singing of hymns and folk tunes covering scene transitions.  Kudos to musical director Ashley Thompson for the vocal work, accompanied by the occasional brass instrument for added local colour.

Director Conrad Nelson manages the changes of tone so that we are drawn into this society and enjoy our time there.  The interval comes and you realise that while you’ve been seduced by the sound and the visuals, not much has happened really.  The drama is mostly condensed into the second half.  Bennett’s story is at heart a melodrama but he goes against the norms of the genre: the happy ending here is that duty has been served, rather than Anna getting the man she loves and deserves.  And that’s no happy ending at all.  For the time being, female independence has been shut back into Pandora’s box…

Yet another example of excellence from all departments at the New Vic.  With Stoke-on-Trent bidding for ‘City of Culture 2021’, this theatre must surely be the keystone of the campaign.

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Cheer up, duck. Lucy Bromilow, Mark Anderson and Benedict Shaw (Photo: Steve Bould)

 

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Winning by a Nose

CYRANO

New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 7th February, 2017

 

The New Vic has teamed up with Northern Broadsides for this new version of the classic romance by Edmond Rostand.  Writer Deborah McAndrew cleverly keeps the play as a verse drama – it’s not just rhyming couplets and doggerel; it’s a technical achievement in itself, let alone its faithfulness to the original while having an altogether fresh feel.  It’s her best work yet.

Director Conrad Nelson blends naturalism with more heightened moments – the changes in pace and tone of each act are handled to perfection.  We laugh, we love, we cry – in all the right places.  Nelson has also composed the score, performed by the ensemble of actor-musicians, that adds to the period feel and the emotional impact of each act.  Led for the most part by Michael Hugo’s Ligniere, the music casts its spell as much as the story and the characters.  Hugo is such an appealing presence as the minstrel – I also enjoy his ham actor Monfleury, heckled off the stage by the eponymous Cyrano.

Christian Edwards in the title role is outstanding – and I don’t just mean his massive conk.  He is everything you could wish for in a Cyrano de Bergerac.  Swaggering, witty, charming, brave and selfless.  Edwards plays it with panache, literally and figuratively.  He is supported by a team of excellent players: Sharon Singh is an elegant Roxane, headstrong and independent – worthy of Cyrano’s devotion.  Adam Barlow is the handsome but dim Christian, the third point of the love triangle – he contrasts nicely with Cyrano’s erudition and we can’t help but see how sweet he is.  Andy Cryer’s De Guiche changes our opinion – we see there’s more to him than the figure lampooned by Ligniere.  Paul Barnhill’s poetic pastry-purveyor Ragueneau, Perry Moore’s prancing ponce Valvert, Jessica Dyas’s sardonic Mrs Ragueneau, Francesca Mills’s busybody Sister Martha, all help to populate the story with a wide range of characters, different facets of humanity – Rostand has respect for all walks of life and yet he makes Cyrano seem more human than all of us.  Especially touching is Andrew Whitehead’s Le Bret, his heart breaking to see Cyrano’s decline.

Lis Evans’s design is stylish – the stage floor is beautiful – and the New Vic’s costume department has pulled out all the stops for the 17th century setting.  Daniella Beattie’s lighting emulates the soft glow of the chandeliers with the occasional shaft of brightness – like Cyrano’s wit, enlivening the gloom.

Cyrano’s panache tickles the funny bone before plunging into your heart.  I know it’s only February but already I think I might have seen the show of the year.

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“You don’t have to put on the red light…” Cyrano (Christian Edwards) and Roxane (Sharon Singh)  Photo: Steve Bould


Clogged With Emotion

AN AUGUST BANK HOLIDAY LARK

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 7th February, 2014

 

No one can be unaware that it’s a hundred years since World War I broke out.  We must prepare for a barrage of works that commemorate the start of hostilities.  This early salvo comes from the formidable Northern Broadsides, in the form of a brand new piece by Deborah McAndrew.  Rather than show us the horrors of the trenches, McAndrew keeps the action wholly within a small community of millworkers.

It’s Wakes Week, a welcome relief from the rigours of t’mill and the locals revert to a more pastoral kind of activity as they put flowers around their hats and practice their clog dancing.  There’s a bit of a star-crossed love story as show-off Frank (Darren Kuppan) courts Mary (Emily Butterfield) behind her blustering father’s back.  McAndrew gives us cheeky humour too as dopey Herbert (Mark Thomas) asks an older man to have a look at ‘it’ for him – before revealing it’s a banner he has painted for the festival.  The script is peppered with detail, giving us a glimpse into a way of life that has all but disappeared, a way of life that the Great War did much to help eradicate.

The dancing is a joyful spectacle, choreographed by Conrad Nelson. There is the building of a ‘rushcart’ that is akin to an Amish barn-raising.  The male actors give off energy that is infectious, while the female actors play the music.  As a dramatic device it gives focus to the story, while the recruiting and the fighting all takes place off-stage.  McAndrew uses recurring motifs – lines of dialogue, symbols – to wrap her storytelling in a neat package with maximum emotional impact.

The cast is a fine one.  Ben Burman’s William is good-natured if a bit dim compared to poetic brother Edward (Jack Quarton) – both establish themselves in our hearts before they ‘take the shilling’.  Elizabeth Eves is strong as hard-working matriarch Alice Armitage and Lauryn Redding is notable as Susie Hughes, a local girl embittered by the impact of the war on her love-life.

Director Barrie Rutter is also mardy patriarch and windbag John Farrar, given to bluster and sarcasm.  He is also party to one of the play’s most moving scenes, punctured by the turn of events.  Emily Butterfield is also superb when bad news strikes her like a lightning bolt – Of course, in a story about young men going off to war, you know it’s inevitable that sooner or later someone is going to (sorry) pop their clogs.  Here it is handled beautifully and there is a final punch in the gut, theatrically speaking, to remind us that we ought to be remembering those who were lost, willingly and wholeheartedly.

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A Matter of Death and Life

THE GRAND GESTURE

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 29th October, 2013

 

Northern Broadside bring their loose adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide to the New Vic – the action has been translated to a vague representation of the North West of England – but do not let my use of words like ‘loose’ and ‘vague’ put you off.  Everything about this production is spot on.

The plot concerns Simeon Duff, depressed from long-term unemployment, his male pride dented because his wife is the breadwinner.  Whatever he tries (a scene in which he attempts to teach himself to play the tuba is particularly funny) comes to naught, flinging him from the mania of hope to the despair of failure.  He decides to kill himself and it is at this point that he becomes worth something to people – people who try to appropriate his suicide as a ‘grand gesture’ to further their own causes.  He is touted as a martyr for the revolution, or a martyr for the church – among other things.  His unscrupulous landlord is cashing in, offering sponsorship deals of the big event.

Angela Bain almost steals the show as Duff’s mother-in-law, with her constant appeals to the saints for assistance, her malapropisms and her physical comedy.  All the performances are heightened in a larger-than-life world.  Robert Pickavance as intellectual Victor Stark is particularly mannered (and hilarious) and other notable mentions go to Alan McMahon as the priest with a propensity for drink and off-colour poetry, and to Howard Chadwick as wheeler-dealer landlord Al Bush. Samantha Robinson brings emotional intensity as Duff’s wife  but above all the play offers leading man Michael Hugo a chance to showcase his considerable talents.  Duff is a tricky role in that we laugh at him but we are not laughing at his plight, but rather the absurdity of his situation.  Hugo pitches it perfectly, the rubber-faced reactions, the physicality of the character in all his moods – the performance is heightened but the man’s anguish seems genuine, within the context of the play.  By the end, he has become an Everyman, and his speech on the nature of Life is particularly hard-hitting and affirming.

Conrad Nelson directs with an eye for detail and timing to make the comedy as sharp as it is broad.  Deborah McAndrew’s wonderful script (so good I bought the book) is laden with double entendres and gags, but there are also plenty of literary references (to Blake and Burns, for example) that give the farcical elements some depth.  I also detected a hint of Alan Bleasdale here and there. Another strong point is the social commentary.  The play touches on the mental health of the long-term unemployed and how they are not seen as people but as statistics, mascots for whatever cause you might embrace.

With its wit, energised performances and the added bonus of some lovely singing, The Grand Gesture all makes for a grand night’s entertainment.

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Embracing the cause: Robert Pickavance and Michael Hugo