Tag Archives: Ian Dickens

Lacking Bite

CARMILLA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 8th July, 2014

 

Based on a novel that predates Dracula, David Campton’s script has all the makings of a Hammer horror: the gothic 19th century setting, the pretty young girl at risk, the dashing hero… The twist is that the monster is a striking, apparently young woman who feeds off the blood of the locals, with her sights set on the pretty young girl as a long-time companion.   Horror has always used the monster to symbolise the ‘other’ in society. Here it says that sex that is not procreative, is evil, and saps the strength of those who indulge, weakening them in body and mind until they die.

Ian Dickens has assembled a fine cast for this atmospheric tale. Christopher Hogben is the dashing, resolute Captain Field and I enjoyed James Percy’s brief turn as creepy servant Ivan, clicking the heels of his magnificent boots together. Peter Amory is a gruff Colonel Smithson, a sort of Von Trapp character in a bad mood, and Paul Lavers is effective as the ostensible man of reason, Doctor Spielsberg.  Karen Ford gives solid support as the governess and Melissa Clements’s Lucy is suitably lively and engaging – until the ‘illness’ begins to take its toll.

In the title role, Michelle Morris is good as the commanding vampire, with a strident tone and a bit of Jedi mind control power in her hand. I would have liked a bit more light and shade to her or, alternatively, a little bit more camp. The production could do with a lot more camp, in fact. It’s played just a little too straight – and it’s a difficult mood to create and sustain, but all too easy to puncture. A portrait is carried on to show the likeness between Carmilla and a woman who has been dead for centuries. It looks too much like a publicity headshot rather than an oil painting of the period. The destruction of Carmilla at the end – mostly in blackout – is laughable with (SPOILER ALERT) lights up to reveal a naked skeleton lying on a tomb.

Now, if the approach had been a little more light-hearted, including the audience in the asides for example, we would forgive any clumsiness or ineffectual special effects. When Hogben comes on, in disguise as a gypsy, the show really comes back from the dead. I think the whole show should have been done with this larger-than-life gusto – we would be more willing to go along for the ride. This is the spirit, I thought, and I loved Beppo the monke

At the time when the story first appeared, vampires were brand new as a genre of popular culture. Nowadays we are all over-familiar with the lore: the mysterious marks at the side of the neck, the preventative properties of garlic… that it is nigh on impossible to scare us.

The play is therefore riddled with dramatic irony rather than suspense. Our knowledge is vastly superior to any of the characters.

Also, I would have tackled the lighting design differently. What you don’t see is always scarier than what you do. More spots and candlelight would have raised the play’s game in the scary stakes. And I would have nixed the plodding tick-tock music that covers every scene transition.

A good-looking production in terms of costumes and set, Carmilla could have been an entertaining evening of comic-horror. As it stands at the moment, it’s rather bloodless and toothless.

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Let’s Twist Again

DESIGN FOR MURDER

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 18th June, 2014

 

Donald F. East’s 1969 “murder thriller” is revived by director Ian Dickens as part of his summer season this year. The period setting is reproduced effectively by the detailed set and the Burt Bacharach tracks that cover the transitions – these are fun and light, in contrast with the treatment of the material. Dickens handles the dynamics of the scenes well (the play begins with a row between husband and wife) but the overall tone could do with leavening. The characters all have something repellent about them and elicit no sympathy whatsoever, discussing and indeed carrying out infidelity, blackmail and murder – their monstrousness could be offset by a lighter touch to bring out the dark humour of East’s script.

A bit heavy on the exposition in the early scenes, the plot zigzags from twist to turn, with the upper hand switching from character to character in an impressive and entertaining way, but again, the overwrought dialogue would be more palatable if the cast were to have more fun with it.

Paul Lavers is Clive, out of love with his second and much younger wife Moira (Carly Nickson), who at the outset is an annoying, whining, self-absorbed woman – you are soon hoping she will be the victim. Moira is having it off with Clive’s business partner Philip (Peter Amory) who is blackmailing Clive for control of their company.

Enter Bridget Lambert, purporting to be Clive’s first wife Jane, and the action really takes off. Lavers is good as sarcastic Clive and you warm to Nickson as Moira as her character gets in deeper and deeper with the shenanigans. Amory does a good turn as the gruff and vain Philip and there is strong support from Lambert as the conniving fourth wheel.  The play reveals itself to be almost as twisty-turny as something like Sleuth or Death Trap – the production just needs to lighten up and it would be a cracking black comedy.

 

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A Slow Death

LADIES IN RETIREMENT

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton,Tuesday 3rd June, 2014

 

Written in the 1940s and set in the 19th century, this play by Edward Percy and Reginald Denham tells of retired actress Leonora Fiske who shares her lonely marshland home with stony-faced housekeeper and confidante Ellen Creed (Erin Geraghty).  The pair are glamorous chalk and drab and dour cheese but they rub along together nicely enough until Ellen arranges for her two aged and emotionally immature sisters for an extended visit.  The old kooks are as tiresome to the audience as they are to Miss Fiske and so we understand why she wants rid of them and sharpish.   Familial devotion gets the better of the housekeeper’s loyalty and a murder is committed.  The second half of this over-long piece is concerned with bringing the murder to light.

It’s not without its moments.  There are some amusing lines of dialogue and some members of the audience gasped audibly a number of times.  It’s just that the play takes a long time to get where it’s going – and that’s not very far.

As faded chorine, Miss Fiske, Shirley Ann Field still cuts an elegant figure, speaking with her distinctive “lived-in” voice.  Being the start of the tour, I expect the lines will settle in and the whole thing will pick up its pace.  Erin Geraghty is suitably stern as the treacherous housekeeper, and Karen Ford and Sylvia Carson do a good job as the irritating old dears, little girls in old women’s bodies.

The show really comes to life whenever Lucy the maid (Melissa Clements) and cocky geezer Albert Feather (Christopher Hogben) are on stage.  These two bring energy to their characters and their scenes, lifting us out of the doldrums.

Gradually, the drama takes hold but director Ian Dickens needs to do something about the handling of the murder that ends the first half.  A quicker blackout would be more effective and I’m not sure about the pre-recorded, protracted scream as the curtain falls.  Also, it is laughably obvious that the cast are not actually playing the on-stage piano; if it were angled differently, this could be masked to avoid our cringes and derision.

Ian Marston’s set adds to the atmosphere and period feel but this slow-burner needs an accelerant to ignite our interest earlier on.  A big hit in its day, it may be time for Ladies in Retirement to be put out to grass. 

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Pickwick From A Distance

THE PICKWICK PAPERS

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 4th December, 2013

An ambitious project: to bring Charles Dickens’s rambling, episodic novel (originally a serial) to the stage.  But it has been done magnificently with regard to Nicholas Nickleby, so why not give it a go?  Unfortunately, The Pickwick Papers lacks the scale and the scope of that other book and, most crucially, it lacks drama.  So, what we get with Nicola Boyce’s adaptation is a series of scenes of little consequence involving characters that veer towards caricature.

Ian Dickens (some relation?) directs a cast of faces familiar from his other productions and pretty much gives them an easy ride.  Rebecca Wheatley gives a star turn as Mrs Leo Hunter performing a poem set to music about an ‘expiring frog’ – this characterisation contrasts effectively with her other role as the shy Miss Wardle.  David Callister is enjoyable as conman Jingle, inhabiting the costume and the vernacular with ease.  Poppy Meadows is underused – very funny as Mrs Bardell.  Dean Gaffney is well within his comfort zone as affable manservant Sam Weller – a pity he doesn’t get to flex the comedic muscle we saw earlier this year in Murder in Play.  Daniel Robinson and Scott Grey are the effeminate, giggling, shrieking ninnies Mr Winkle and Mr Snodgrass – they get the best scene in terms of action when poor Winkle finds himself embroiled in a duel thanks to the misconduct of Callister’s Jingle.

On the whole, the cast is very good and looks good in the costumes.  I think part of the problem is the set.  Most of the action takes place on a rostrum but this is set so far upstage it adds further distance between the actors and the audience beyond that provided by the fourth wall.  It is very difficult for them to engage with us and us with them, being so far removed from each other – my seat was fifth row centre and I felt like I needed binoculars.  Often the stage is crowded with people with their backs to us, further shutting us out. A disembodied voice narrates passages to cover scene changes, keeping us at a distance yet again rather than addressing us directly.

Also, the running time is not borne out by the content.  The story, such as it is, is too flimsy to sustain interest for almost three hours.  I found my mind wandering, unable to focus on some of the verbiage – Pickwick, nicely played by John D Collins – is a garrulous old thing but the script is in need of editing.

What should be a delightful, diverting way to pass an evening, becomes something of an endurance test.  It’s like trying to have a five-course meal in a sweet-shop: delightful at first but ultimately unsatisfying and lacking in nutrients.

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Chilling on a Summer Night

A MURDER HAS BEEN ARRANGED

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 16th July, 2013

 

The Ian Dickens Summer Season draws to a close with this fourth offering, an effective chiller from 1930 by Emlyn Williams.   It plays out like a murder mystery, typical of that genre, but there is a supernatural element to proceedings that turn it into a ghost story towards the end.

The plot concerns an unusual party that takes place on stage of an empty theatre, rented for the occasion of Lord Jasper’s 50th birthday.  According to the terms of a will, if he can survive until 11 pm, he stands to inherit a couple of million quid.  Lord Jasper is something of an expert in all things occult and the theatre is reputed to have its own ghostly apparitions – hence his choice of location.  Also in the running is Jasper’s only surviving relative, a mystery man who will inherit if the old boy doesn’t make it to midnight…

It’s a creaky old plot but once it’s up and running you go along for the ride, thanks to the performances by a strong ensemble of players.  Paul Lavers is dashing and flamboyant as genial eccentric Sir Jasper with Nicola Weeks very good as his young bride.  It seems to me Weeks is more suited to these period roles than some of the more contemporary comedies I’ve seen her in.  The bride’s mother is the marvellous Anita Harris, looking glamorous and elegant, balancing superciliousness and desperation, as she tries to protect her daughter’s interests.  Also in the mix is handsome young hero Jimmy North (the likeable Mark Martin) who worms his way into the party – as a character, he fizzles out in that he is not part of bringing the murderer to light, but that’s all part of how Emlyn Williams plays with the genre.  I was impressed by Karen Ford as Mrs Wragg, a character part of strung-together colloquialisms, managing to keep on the right side of gor-blimey; she adds a touch of levity to proceedings and also helps to build the spooky atmosphere.  Poppy Meadows adds to the tension as jumpy Miss Groze, although we discover the reason for her nervousness is nothing to do with the theatre ghost…

Of course, the mysterious relative shows up.  Oliver Mellor dominates his scenes as Maurice Mullins, whose camp, extrovert exterior masks a Machiavellian heart, playing him with energy but keeping the melodramatic elements of the role toned down somewhat.  Any pretence at a whodunit is swept away and the play shifts gear.  Supernatural elements are brought to bear to expose the killer – like Banquo’s ghost at the dinner table.  Directors Ian Dickens and David North crank the tension slowly and play the dramatic irony to the utmost but the first appearance of the ‘Woman’ (Melissa Thomas) could do with being a touch more unworldly.  Good use is made of silence (when the audience is not coughing itself inside out, that is!) and Steve Chambers’s sound design adds to the sense of foreboding very effectively.

It’s an old-fashioned piece, a little longwinded in places, but it’s handled well and bears up in this day and age when we are more accustomed to flashier special effects and faster-moving stories.

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Old Trouble

THE TROUBLE WITH OLD LOVERS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 9th July, 2013

 

Tom (Peter Amory) is shopping at home for garden furniture when wife Alice (Nicola Bryant) comes home from a wedding she attended without him.   She has unwittingly invited a couple over for dinner the following evening and, to make matters worse, the couple are both former lovers of Tom and Alice… And to make matters even worse, the couple announce they are bringing along a fifth wheel, a woman they met at the wedding.

Cue some middle class panic.  Wouldn’t you know it: the woman turns out to be Tom’s mistress from three years ago?!

In the hands of a master of exposing middle class absurdity and pricking middle class aspirations and preoccupations like Alan Ayckbourn, this play could have got off to a cracking start, but unfortunately Angela Huth’s script begins slowly and doesn’t get out of first gear for far too long.  We are given two lengthy and verbose scenes before the dinner guests even arrive.  The dinner party happens off-stage, while we’re having an interval, and over coffee, the play changes tack as the truth comes out.  Tom’s former mistress, Mary (Shona Lindsay) pours scorn on them all, a glamorous spectre at the feast, shit-stirring in a rather condescending manner.  Oddly, Tom and Alice seem to take it on the chin and it falls to insufferable buffoon (what did Alice used to see in him?) Edward (Simon Linnell) to speak out and assert his point of view.  Finally, Alice speaks her mind before sending Mistress Mary on her way – Nicola Bryant caps off a very likeable performance with this dignified rebuttal of Mary’s claims.  In fact, Bryant gets all the funniest lines and there are not enough of them.  Shona Lindsay cuts an elegant figure as a woman in red and I felt sorry for Joanna Waters’s Laura, the dowdiest of the female characters who doesn’t get to glam up for dinner.  Linnell’s characterisation seems to come from a much earlier era and somewhat out of place with the others, and Peter Amory makes a bluff old barrister, complacent and verging on curmudgeonly but it is difficult to see the passionate figure Mary claims he is.

The trouble with The Trouble With Old Lovers, old love, is the pace.  It needs to get going far sooner – director Ian Dickens could cut whole swathes of the first two scenes; it would be more effective if we were unaware of Tom’s recent affair so Mary’s arrival would be more of a shock for us as well as for him.  There needs to be more contrast in tone.  The comedy needs to be emphasised so that the change to drama is more defined.  If the first act is sub-Ayckbourn, the second is sub-Ibsen.  Everything is suddenly dripping with significance and heavy-handed symbolism (literally heavy-handed: Tom breaks Alice’s spectacles).  At the end, Alice is the only one I care about – if the first act had been better structured, I might have taken to some of the others as well.

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Off the Boil

STEAMING

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 2nd July 2013

 Nell Dunn’s play is doing the rounds in Ian Dickens’s revival and while the all-female cast quite happily and valiantly bare all, this story of a Turkish room in an East End public baths is showing its age.  In the thirty years that have passed since its original production, we have become more accustomed to hearing women speak frankly about their lives and sex and so on (e.g. The Vagina Monologues) that nowadays Steaming seems a bit tepid.

Every week a diverse group of women gather at the baths for respite from the hassles and stresses of their lives.  The steam room is their refuge and the treatment a metaphor for cleansing themselves of the toxic influence of men.  They pose the eternal question, “ Why are all men shits?” and, interestingly, acknowledge that women have to take some of the blame for the way they bring up their sons… It’s feminism but not a polemical piece – it is largely presented as a comedy where the personal is political.  Largely.  The script is uneven and patchy, clunkily changing gear like a learner driver.

The sessions are run by Violet (Kim Taylforth) who acts as a sort of den mother for her clients.  Jane (Michelle Morris) introduces her recently single posh friend Nancy (Katherine Heath) to the place and the people – instant recipe for culture clashes.  Nancy sets to ‘correcting’ the pronunciation of barmaid Josie (Rachel Stanley), who beneath her brash and coarse exterior is victim to an abusive (inexplicably German) boyfriend.  Old Mrs Meadows (Patricia Franklin) brings her mentally ill daughter Dawn (Rebecca Wheatley) every week as a break from their grim existence in a dilapidated house – the inference is that their lives have fallen into neglect and decay since she became widowed.  The cast are more than competent.  Franklin and Wheatley form a comic duo along the lines of George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, although some of the laughs, at the expense of mental illness, don’t sit comfortably today.  The mouthpiece of the play and the character whose ‘journey’ is the most defined is Josie – she gets all the choice lines and the more explicit speeches; the others don’t really match her in terms of spirit but that’s a problem with the writing rather than the performances.  The problem is we don’t really bond with these characters.  We learn about their situations through lengthy exposition – we are at a remove from them all along the line.

The baths are threatened with closure.  They are to be replaced by a library.  How times have changed!  These days, they would be closed and the library along with them.  And, in the second half, the play reveals its continuing relevance at last.  The women campaign to save their precious resource, by challenging the myths perpetrated to justify the cuts.  They fight back with facts and figures to blow the council’s argument out of the water.  Josie speaks out for ordinary people, the old and the vulnerable: public services are a necessity.  Thirty years on she should be leading the Labour party and fighting the self-serving coalition’s cuts, and we should be behind her.

Not as sentimental as the more recent Calendar Girls, Steaming is well-presented and performed but three decades on, appears to have gone off the boil.

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