Tag Archives: Harry Trow

Changing faces and facing changes


The Door, the REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 17th May, 2016


Stan’s Café continues to be one of the most creative and surprising theatre companies – in Birmingham, at least!  Each show is different and, in this respect, their latest offering is no different – if you see what I mean.

Set in Winnebago on a film set, we meet make-up artist Sue (Alexis Tuttle) and upcoming movie star Kate (Emily Holyoake) and follow their relationship by eavesdropping on their conversations.  While they talk, Sue applies make-up to Kate – instead of a mirror, Kate’s face is projected large on the back wall.  It is endlessly fascinating to watch an artist at work – the piece is co-devised by the cast alongside make-up artist Andrew Whiteoak.  Tuttle has evidently been well schooled.  A relationship develops between the two women, the kind of short-lived but intimate relationship that occurs in showbiz, when people come together but only for the duration of a project.  It is also the kind of relationship familiar from trips to the hairdresser, for example.  We tend to open up to people who approach our heads and faces with sharp objects.

Sudden changes in Simon Bond’s lighting signal changes of conversation.  The play keeps us on our toes as Sue and Kate become other people in each other’s lives: Kate takes a phone call from her mother, her agent… Sue speaks to her estranged daughter…  Gradually, a fractured picture emerges, a piecemeal portrait of each woman’s life, and so, while there is no overt plot, we do chart what their lives are like, personally and professionally, beyond the confines of the Winnebago.  The Winnebago itself is delineated by a framework, an illuminated outline that brings to mind the lightbulbs around a dressing-room mirror – a brilliant idea simply and effectively realised by designer Harry Trow.  The lights add glitz and also warmth to proceedings.

Director James Yarker keeps the performances naturalistic, almost down-played in some instances; we are credited with intelligence enough to work out which conversation we are earwigging at any given moment.  This channel-flicking or radio-tuning effect makes the piece disjointed but ultimately enables it to deliver its most poignant moment, when Sue receives an award for her contribution.

Both actors deliver, with Tuttle being the most obviously versatile, although Holyoake’s role is differently impressive, being confined to the chair as she is, having to signal her range of characters from the neck up, her face writ large behind her.  Which says something about the differences between stage and screen acting, I suppose.

The play puts in the spotlight moments that usually happen off-screen.  The faces Sue applies to Kate, the faces Kate is forced to adopt in her private life, when getting papped, for example.  Subtly, rather than overtly, it suggests we should think about the masks we wear and for what reasons.  A bit of a slow-burner, Made Up’s whole is more than the sum of its parts.  What it lacks in direct punch, it delivers in gentle and amusing discourse.

Alexis Tuttle as Sue and Emily Holyoake as Kate in Made Up_c Graeme Braidwood

Movie trailer: Alexis Tuttle and Emily Holyoake in the Winnebago (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

They Shoot Horses…


mac, Birmingham, Friday 22nd March, 2013


Untied Artists bring their straight-talking, matter-of-fact two-hander to Birmingham.  On paper it looks like it might be a bit of a tough watch and a bit polemical, but on stage it’s an engaging and provocative piece.

It tells the story of Scott, a new recruit at the abattoir (sent there by the jobcentre because he wanted to work with animals) and how he learns the trade from experienced knackerman Tom.  We follow Scott’s progress and also the growing friendship between the two men.

Their naturalistic (and funny) scenes are broken up with snippets of narration.  The actors crouch behind tiny buildings that are lit from within.  In a sentence they reveal the story of each building, and every story is related to death in some way.  As well as these, we hear pre-recorded voices, first-hand experience from people in real life –this documentary touch gives the play an authenticity, buoying the naturalistic approach.

Dominating the space is the recumbent figure of a horse – a marvellous life-sized puppet that is hoiked up on pulleys and shot in the head.  It is strung up to be drained of blood before being dismembered and skinned.  The puppet is articulated to suggest horse movements economically (it takes three to operate the one in War Horse!).  When it is taken to pieces, I flinched not just from what this represents but also at the deconstruction of such a beautiful piece of art!

It is a play about managing death.  The knackermen are ordinary blokes, not bloodthirsty monsters.  They are the professionals and know the most humane ways to despatch an ill or lame animal better than the precious owners.  Respect the animal, find the right moment, says Tom before chasing after a rat to twat it with a shovel – it’s a funny moment but highlights one of the main points: how our attitudes to death differ depending on whose or what’s life is at stake.  Tom forks out eight hundred quid in vet’s bills after his dog is run over (“He’s a member of the family”), but later is quick to shoot that very dog when it takes to worrying sheep.

It’s all leading up to the spiky topic of assisted suicide but presented in a quiet, personal way: Tom has inherited a terminal brain disease from his father and begins to falter. Rather than dwindle into indignity Tom approaches Scott, now fully trained, to help him out.  This is not sensationalised – nothing in the piece is sensationalised – or melodramatic.  It is plain-speaking, matter-of-fact and honest and all the more effective because of this.

As Tom, Jake Oldershaw is humorous and warm, an ordinary bloke.  You can’t help liking him just as Jack Trow’s Scott gets to know and like him.  Both give seemingly effortless performances.  Arzhang Pezhman‘s script is informative without being didactic, with true-to-life dialogue that matches the factual input from the recorded voices.   Steve Johnson’s direction balances the naturalistic with the stylised.  It never feels like we are lurching from one to the other. The switching off of the lights in the little houses is a neat idea, really brought home when Tom, on the eve of his final day, plunges us into blackout.

For me though it’s the horse and the way it’s handled that will be my most abiding memory of the show.  Even the space it leaves is evocative.  Crafted by Harry Trow, it is the bridge between the naturalistic and stylised elements of the production and the symbol that epitomises the main theme.

If we can manage the death of other living things as humanely as we do for some animals, why not with people too?  In Tom’s case we feel it’s the right thing but because the play finishes before the event, it opens up the debate.

A thoroughly engaging and more entertaining hour than you might expect, For Their Own Good deserves to be seen by much larger audiences, for their own good.




Humorous Humours


Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 12th March, 2013


Doctor Robert Burton’s massive doorstep of a book, first published in 1621, might not seem likely fodder for a stage adaptation.  It’s a lengthy discourse, a treatise and a self-help manual on the subject of Melancholy, but Melancholy For Dummies it most certainly is not.

The excellent Stan’s Cafe gives us more of a theatrical lecture than a piece of drama, touching on the main points of the book, explaining and illustrating the key points in an engaging and interesting show that, though plotless and devoid of dramatic tension, keeps us paying attention by dint of its subject matter and the means of its presentation.

The set consists mainly of a line of wooden easels supporting large pads of paper: Jacobean flip charts! There is a beautiful backdrop, like a woodprint, heralding the first act (or ‘partition’) and there are books stacked just about everywhere.  A desk, a bureau, an armchair… littered with papers and objects.  There is even a skull, a memento mori that adds to the 17th century still-life feel.  Closer inspection reveals some items are out of keeping with the period – this is entirely deliberate, it seems to me, as you realise that more and more of the information delivered is still entirely pertinent to us today.  Some things have changed: we no longer hold to the theory of humours, for example, but the descriptions of human behaviour are still spot on.  The costumes (by Kay Wilton) continue this idea.  Democritus Junior wears the full-length black robe of the cleric or scholar, complete with black cap and white ruff.  The other two men sport doublets over long-sleeved shirts with loose, knee-length hose and stockings.  The female, dressed as male, sports similar attire but there are touches of the modern tracksuit.  It is a subtle touch.  We are anchored in the 21st century and can only take on the Jacobean mindset in an incomplete way.

The cast, each representing one of the four humours and the four elements, split the lecture between them.  This keeps the piece moving.  They illustrate their points with brief vignettes in a rather deadpan comic style.  We get the point; we enjoy the point.  They turn the pages of the flipcharts to show us chapter and sub-chapter headings, and more humorously, snatch up pieces of paper that translate Latin phrases into our vernacular.  Given the small scale of some of these pages and the print upon them, we haven’t a hope of catching them all – it becomes about the gesture, the snatching up of these visual footnotes and paper subtitles.  The quartet operates like a choreographed machine to keep the flipcharts on the right pages – This was the very first public performance and so some changes are smoother than others, but there appear to be contingencies for moments when they interrupt each other or are on the wrong page or fluff their rather wordy and complex lines.  It all adds to the enjoyment.  They grab props from the cluttered desks – it always amuses me to see a packet of crisps being eaten on stage (a personal peccadillo) and we only glimpse some beautiful anatomical illustrations in note books, meticulously created by designer Harry Trow.

The ensemble are of a piece; I can’t single anyone out so I’ll just list them all and praise them for their comic timing, their versatility and their watch-ability – we are in their company for a long, long time.  Gerard Bell is the wise Democritus Junior, Craig Stephens and Graeme Rose are equally funny in their various representations of melancholy and its physical effects – Rose plays a mean lute, accompanying the cast in part-singing and a round.  Rochi Rampal plays male and female – donning a glamorous wig and batting her eyelashes one moment, throwing up snakes and pissing on the carpet the next.

The running time is over three hours.  It doesn’t feel like it although I was a bit too warm in the first half and by the time of the ‘third partition’ my legs were threatening me with DVT.  Even so, three hours is arguably not enough.  The piece is dense with detail and information; you haven’t time to absorb and reflect because they move quickly on to the next point.   Director James Yarker keeps things ticking along so the stage doesn’t become static or tedious.

It is remarkable how much matches present-day thinking on the treatment of depression.  Arguments about diet and the correct amounts of alcohol persist, although I will discount the treatment to ‘procure sleep’ (applying the fat of a dormouse to the soles of the feet)!  On the whole, the piece adds to our awareness of mental health.  It concludes with two instructions, rules to live by if you can: Be Not Solitary and Be Not Idle.

Wise words indeed.


Craig Stephens

Craig Stephens