Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 4th November, 2015
The Original Theatre Company is back on the road, following up their excellent Three Men in a Boat and the superlative Birdsong with this new production of Terence Rattigan’s 1942 play. As ever, production values are high and while this one isn’t as funny as the former or as emotionally powerful as the latter, it flies high on its own merits.
Set in a Lincolnshire hotel it charts the comings and goings of several couples, the male partners of which are in the RAF and are called out on a mission. Waiting for news of their fate adds to the tension in their relationships. It’s a bit ‘terribly, terribly, darling’ being very much of its time but what makes it extra interesting is that neither the characters nor the playwright know when or how the war will be over. We, the audience, know the outcome (spoiler: we won) – the play must have felt very current when it was first produced. And it’s a bit of a morale booster: personal sacrifice for the greater good, kind of thing.
Hayley Grindle’s set combines period stylings with the genius idea of taking away the walls of the hotel. There is a window, upstage and central, surrounded by a vast expanse of sky – the sky is of the utmost importance to the characters, being airmen and airmen’s wives.
Out of the blue comes matinee idol Peter Kyle (Leon Ockenden being suitably charming and debonair) and it turns out he’s as old flame one of the wives, actress Patricia (Olivia Hallinan bringing 1940s glamour); he’s flaring up again and she is forced to choose between her passion for Peter and her duty to heroic husband Teddy (Alastair Whatley in superb form). It’s a choice between a man who plays heroes and one who actually is one. And yet it is Teddy who is in awe of Peter – but then we often set movie stars on pedestals and undervalue our servicemen. Whatley is awfully good, especially when Teddy’s stiff upper lip gives way after a traumatic flight back to base.
But then the entire cast is high calibre. Affable and endearing Philip Franks is affable and endearing as avuncular Squadron Leader Swanson. Simon Darwen and Shvorne Marks are the Millers from London – both capture the essence of period Cockney without descending into caricature, and there is some excellent character work from Stephanie Jacob as irascible hotel manager Mrs Oakes. Adam Best amuses as Polish Officer Skriczevinsky, nagged by his wife to improve his English – there are touching moments when it looks like he won’t be coming back, powerfully handled by Siobhan O’Kelly reacting to a letter read by Leon Ockenden. I also enjoyed James Cooney as chirpy barman Percy who always seems to know more than the airmen.
We never see a plane but we hear them all right courtesy of Dominic Bilkey’s sound design bringing them close: there is a sense of menace to think that might be a German bomber overhead (especially since I’m sitting in Coventry!). Director Justin Audibert gets the tone spot on, evoking period and place while still keeping the characters relatable rather than pastiching them beyond our ability to sympathise.
The whole thing smacks of British understatement and emotion kept reined in by humour and making the best of it. Rattigan’s writing is still accessible – the play has hardly dated despite its specificity – and this production satisfies on all levels. Another winner from The Original Theatre Company, dripping in quality and entertainment value and carried off with flair..
Alistair Whatley and Olivia Hallinan (Photo: Jack Ladenburg)
Leave a comment | tags: Adam Best, Alistair Whatley, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Dominic Bilkey, Flare Path, Hayley Grindle, James Cooney, Justin Audibert, Leon Ockenden, Olivia Hallivan, Philip Franks, review, Shvorne Marks, Simon Darwen, Siobhan O'Kelly, Stephanie Jacob, Terence Rattigan | posted in Theatre Review
THE PRIVATE EAR, THE PUBLIC EYE
Malvern Theatres, Wednesday 25th September, 2013
Peter Shaffer, best known as the writer of Amadeus and Equus, penned this brace of one-act plays at the outset of the Swinging 60s. The inestimable Original Theatre Company follow their barnstorming production of Birdsong with this radical change of pace, and what we get is a couple of hours of well-presented comedy-drama that bear up rather well after 50 years.
The Private Ear
Ted (Rupert Hill) dances into best mate Bob’s bedsit to do his friend a favour: Bob has a girl coming around for a meal and Ted has been enlisted as chef – well, someone’s got to open the cans of soup and marrowfat peas. Ted is a man of the age, with his polo neck sweater and his sharp suit. He is all patter and obviously does very well with ‘the birds’ and their ‘bristols’. Rupert Hill gets Ted’s energy just right and when he confesses to being a Tory, we are not surprised. What’s dismaying is how current his deplorable views are (strongly anti-union, for example) and what is very telling is how he tempers his views in order to impress Doreen (the ‘bird’) – to win her vote, you could say. By contrast, Bob is skinny and socially awkward. We first see him in his vest and pants and dressing-gown as he frets about his impending date. Steven Blakeley keeps Bob on the right side of tolerability, letting his passion for classical music override his gawkiness. His scenes with Siobhan O’Kelly’s Doreen are delightful and it is here amid moments of physical comedy, Shaffer surprises us with Bob’s heartfelt exposition on the human condition, that we weren’t made to look at entries in ledgers all day, were not built for the repetitive nature of our jobs.
The Public Eye
Before our very eyes, both Blakeley and the set are transformed before the second play can get under way. At this moment our appreciation of Hayley Grindle’s design is doubled. It’s an ingenious transition that reminds us of the artifice of what is going on. Blakeley becomes private detective Julian Cristoforou, a sort of Inspector Clouseau figure in appearance. He has been hired by Charles Sidley (Jasper Britton) to follow Mrs Sidley (Siobhan O’Kelly) whom he suspects of having an affair. Cristoforou appears at Sidley’s office to give his report. What unfolds is slightly absurd and bordering on the farcical. While Blakeley and O’Kelly are equally good, this piece is dominated by Jasper Britton’s well-observed Sidley, with his double takes and blustering – the comic timing is perfect. Director Alastair Whatley keeps energy levels high so that Shaffer’s pieces, which alone might seem little more than extended comic sketches, presented together give us a look back at the views and social mores of a different time, attitudes that are alien and familiar in equal measure. There are subtle links between the two pieces, helping to unify the evening. All four actors give well-honed characterisations but for me it is Britton’s Sidley that stands out, as a man forced to change his ways in order to save his marriage. The double bill is worth seeing for the quality of its performances and presentation but also for hints at the greatness this playwright was to go on and create.
Leave a comment | tags: Alastair Whatley, Hayley Grindle, Jasper Britton, Malvern Theatres, Peter Shaffer, Rupert Hill, Siobhan O'Kelly, Steven Blakeley, The Original Theatre Company, The Private Ear, The Public Eye, theatre review | posted in Theatre Review
COOKING WITH ELVIS
Derby Theatre, Tuesday 30th April, 2013
Derby Theatre puts itself on the theatrical map with this production of Lea Hall’s raucous black comedy, the theatre’s first home-produced show. The venue has a history of excellence in its produced work (I remember some superb Sondheims, astonishing Ayckbourns, and a gem of a Treasure Island) but with the recent chequered past now firmly behind it, the place will go from strength to strength if the quality of this production is anything to go by.
The action takes place in a suburban house, gloriously depicted in Hayley Grindle’s two-storey set: a living room and kitchen with stairs leading up to a landing and a teenager’s bedroom. The teenager is Jill, our narrator and scene-announcer for the evening. Played with verve by Laura Elsworthy, Jill is a 14 year-old with an interest in cookery that borders on obsession. She despairs of her English teacher mother, who glams herself up and brings home strange men to satisfy her sexual needs. Polly Lister is ‘Mam’, a plain-speaking bully, masking her guilt and vulnerability with mouthing-off and heavy drinking. The strange man she brings home at the start of the play is Stuart (Adam Barlow) who works in a cake factory. Within seconds she has ordered him to strip to his underpants – this is no subtle comedy of manners, but an in-your-face sex comedy with graphic scenes and colourful language. It is absolutely hilarious.
Why does Mam bring these creatures home? The answer is painfully present in the shape of her paralysed husband. Brain-damaged in a car accident, Dad can do nothing for himself, and has to be brought on and (nudge, wink) brought off. It’s a sobering portrayal from Jack Lord but then – and this lifts the piece out of the macabre – Dad has a nifty line in Elvis Presley impersonation. He springs from his chair to link and underscore scenes with songs of The King in a range of impressive outfits. Jack Lord is nothing short of sublime.
Mark Babych pitches the tone just right and directs his excellent quartet to keep energy levels high and the characterisations just short of caricature. This kind of farcical, rather outré plot requires a broad style of playing, but also we have to accept and go along with these characters for the ride or else it would just descend into prurience and bad taste. Adam Barlow’s Stuart is sweet – for a drip – and he becomes both predator and prey as he worms his way under the table (well, on top of it!); Polly Lister is fierce and brittle, but the evening belongs to Laura Elsworthy as the young girl who goes through a rite of passage in less than ideal circumstances, guiding us from scene to scene and setting the tone for the entire piece.
The play is a kind of mash-up of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane and Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle in terms of content and delivery, and yet has a charm of its own. Beyond the foul language and the sex on the dining table, there is real heart to the piece, and a mother and daughter who both experience a healing. Life’s not about the tragedies, Jill concludes, it’s about the tiny moments that keep us going in the dark, the smiles.
By the curtain call, you will be grinning and clapping along to Jack Lord’s closing number. You may even be on your feet and joining in the party. It is shows of this calibre that keep us going in the dark.
Polly Lister gets to grips with Adam Barlow
1 Comment | tags: Adam Barlow, Cooking With Elvis, Derby Theatre, Elvis Presley, Hayley Grindle, Jack Lord, Laura Elsworthy, Lee Hall, Mark Babych, Polly Lister, review | posted in Theatre Review