WHAT THE BUTLER SAW
Curve, Leicester, Monday 13th March, 2017
Not more dreary confessions from Paul Burrell but Joe Orton’s final play, staged in his home town fifty years after he was murdered by his mentally ill boyfriend.
The play – a farce – has mental illness at its core. Set in the consulting room of Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound), the action begins with sexual harassment during a job interview and goes rapidly (and deliciously) downhill from there. The staples of farce are all present, from the set with its abundance of exits, to misunderstandings, disguise, physical comedy, and characters motivated by their foibles, all wrapped up in an absurd situation. What lifts Orton’s writing far above the usual Whitehall fare (all the rage at the time of the first production) is the quality of the writing. Deliberately provocative, the dialogue sparkles with Wildean epigrams. The seemingly frothy exchanges belie the dark underbelly of the world of the play – and, by extension, our society. And it retains the power to prick our sensibilities today, in this overly sensitive age when being offended is a time-consuming occupation.
Rufus Hound is in manic form as the lecherous psychiatrist – it’s almost as though he’s auditioning for a 1970s sitcom. Catherine Russell’s Mrs Prentice matches him for moments of hysteria but her own lechery is more coolly portrayed. Jasper Britton dominates as the pompous and tyrannical Dr Rance, imposing his psychoanalysis on what he perceives to be the case – he’d fit in perfectly in this post-truth world where those in authority have no regard for facts.
Ravi Aujla’s unfortunate police sergeant adds to the chaos while our sympathy is aroused by Dakota Blue Richards’s hapless Geraldine, an innocent embroiled in a nightmare. The ever-excellent Jack Holden makes a fetching page boy as Nicholas Beckett – I can’t decide if he’s more appealing stripped to his underpants or dolled up in wig and leopard-print frock….
Director Nikolai Foster keeps the action frenetic and the dialogue quick fire. The pace doesn’t let up for an instant – that would be death to a farce. Michael Taylor’s curved, clinical set, brightly lit by Ben Cracknell, provides a stark backdrop for these colourful characters, and the result is a relentlessly funny, morally questionable evening’s entertainment. That some of our laughter is uneasy shows how well Orton had his finger on the pulse, and the sheer, overt contrivance of the denouement blatantly mocks the excesses of the form.
A dark masterpiece, flawlessly presented – and I can’t help wondering what else Orton might have given us had he lived even a little bit longer.
Jack Holden and Rufus Hound face a hairy situation (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Leave a comment | tags: Ben Cracknell, Catherine Russell, Curve Leicester, Dakota Blue Richards, farce, Jack Holden, Joe Orton, Michael Taylor, Nikolai Foster, Ravi Aujla, Rufus Hound, What The Butler Saw | posted in Theatre Review
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM: A Play For The Nation
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 16th June, 2016
As part of the commemorations of Shakespeare’s 400th death-iversary, The RSC has undertaken the unenviable and colossal task of staging a production of his popular comedy and touring it around the country – but that’s only the half of it. At each stop, the so-called ‘rude mechanicals’ are being played by hand-picked troupes of amateur performers. A big chance for them and a big gamble for the RSC. Add to this, dozens of children from local primary schools… Luckily, no one handles child performers like the RSC – you only have to think of Matilda to know this is going to work brilliantly.
If this afternoon’s performance is anything to go by, the gamble has paid off in spades. It is an absolute pleasure to see ‘The Nonentities’ from Kidderminster taking the stage among world class professionals, and holding their own. But I’ll come back to them in a bit…
Among the pros – a delightful ensemble that, under Erica Whyman’s direction, make familiar lines sound fresh and funny – we get a female Puck (Lucy Ellinson) a kind of cross-dressing music hall figure, like Vesta Tilley. Ellinson is both knowing and clownish in this setting: we’re in a disused theatre, it looks like, during wartime. Tom Piper’s design gives us bare floorboards and footlights. The forest has not a speck of green but rather the red of the Curtain. Chu Omambala’s Oberon, the fairy king, is stylish in his white suit, bringing a jazzy element to proceedings, in contrast with Ayesha Dharker’s exotic Titania, in blood red sari. Omambala and Dharker are deadly serious – these are not fairies of whimsy, however petty their squabble may seem.
The other ruling couple, Theseus (Sam Redford) and Hippolyta (Laura Harding) stride around like genial aristocracy. It is the younger members of the cast that bring life to the scenes in Athens. Mercy Ojelade is a fiery Hermia, her passion born of pain and injustice, while Laura Riseborough’s Helena also expresses the pain of unrequited love in a highly sympathetic characterisation. Chris Nayak’s Demetrius is a pompous prig, so it’s enjoyable to see him go to the other extreme in the name of love, but it’s Jack Holden’s delightful school prefect of a Lysander that gets the most laughs and touches the heart. It is the freshest interpretation of this character I have seen. Scenes in which the young men vie for Helena, to Hermia’s dismay and fury, are superbly done, using physicality as well as Shakespeare’s barrage of insults to great comic effect.
But back to those mechanicals. Chris Clarke is spot on as overbearing bully Bottom – and you can’t help liking his ridiculous declamations. Sue Downing’s Peter Quince is assertive enough to stage-manage Bottom’s ego, and Andrew Bingham’s shy Snug makes for an adorably shy and cowardly lion. Of course, the West Midlands accent gives them a head start when it comes to comic value, but here it is the playing that gets the laughs and endears them to us. Alex Powell’s Flute blossoms as a performer so we he comes to give his Thisbe (or Thiz-bay, as they would have it) we see how far he has come. The performance that is the culmination of their efforts is absolutely joyous. It is surely Shakespeare’s funniest scene and here it is expertly executed. The affection we feel for the mechanicals succeeding in their task is echoed by the admiration we have for this company who rise to the challenge, hold their own, and pull it off with aplomb.
An unadulterated delight.
Chris Nayak and Jack Holden restrain Mercy Ojelade – just about (Photo: Topher McGrillis)
1 Comment | tags: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Alex Powell, Andrew Bingham, Ayesha Dharker, Chris Clarke, Chris Nayak, Chu Omambala, Erica Whyman, Jack Holden, Laura Harding, Laura Riseborough, Lucy Ellinson, Mercy Ojelade, review, RSC, Sam Redford, Sue Downing, The Nonentities, Tom Piper, William Shakespeare | posted in Theatre Review
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 2nd February, 2015
Tom Morton-Smith’s blinding new play at the RSC is a potted biography of the Daddy of the Bomb, J Robert Oppenheimer, covering the years leading up to and during the Second World War, and the deployment of the first two WMDs in Japan.
In a charismatic central performance as the titular character also known as ‘Oppy’, John Heffernan displays the man’s arrogance and dry humour and above all his drive to succeed in the execution of his terrible task. Oppy remains convinced throughout that his discovery saved countless lives, while the weight of all the lives lost finally crushes him.
Morton-Smith’s script doesn’t dwell on the horror – we get flashes, single images that sear our imagination far more effectively than lists of large numbers; indeed, one of the characters observes one death is a tragedy while 300,000 is a statistic.
There is physics. Plenty of physics. The characters rattle off the argot and drop to the floor, chalking and scribbling like children in a playground: theoretical science was in its infancy back then. Their equations and formulae soon, with the amount of foot traffic on the stage, become as smudged and nebulous as my understanding. But it’s OK, you don’t need to be Professor Brian Cox to follow the action, which is more of a history lesson than a lecture in theoretical physics.
Director Angus Jackson keeps things moving at quite a lick, so that when moments of stillness come or blazing rows erupt, they are all the sharper. One moment jars: when we get sight of the first bomb, being hoist above the stage, everyone starts to dance in a sort of primal worship beneath what looks like a deep sea diver’s disco ball. However when we see Little Boy, a malevolent presence like a giant, bulbous wasp, that’s a different matter.
The electrifying John Heffernan is supported by an excellent ensemble, conjuring the feel of place and period apparently effortlessly. Catherine Steadman is striking as Oppy’s idealistic mistress Jean – her fate symbolises and foretells the end of the socialist movement in the USA. Ben Allen is powerful as the embittered Hungarian professor Edward Teller, and the marvellous Jack Holden shines as young boffin Robert Wilson, clinging desperately and naively to his ideals. Sandy Foster brings somewhat Maureen-Lipmanesque humour to her role as Charlotte Serber but really, each and every cast member deserves a mention, had I the time and space for it.
From physics and history we move toward philosophy. The implications of the Bomb have affected us all for 70 years. There’s no going back in the bottle for this particular genie and it is fascinating to consider the effects on the man who took out the cork. Oppy wins everlasting fame at the most terrible cost.
After one final impassioned outburst, Heffernan delivers the famous quotation with tempered resignation. “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” – and it is devastating.
John Heffernan (Photo: Keith Pattison)
1 Comment | tags: Angus Jackson, Ben Allen, Catherine Steadman, Jack Holden, John Heffernan, Oppenheimer, review, RSC, Stratford upon Avon, The Swan Theatre | posted in Theatre Review
THE SHOEMAKER’S HOLIDAY
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 23rd December, 2014
Thomas Dekker’s 1599 comedy makes for an entertaining alternative to traditional festive fare. A prologue, staged with wit and brio, states that the play is ‘naught but mirth’ and right from the off, you know you’re in for a good time.
However, there is more to the piece than funny caricature and satirical humour. There are also poignant, touching moments and high drama. Poor Jane (Hedydd Dylan) seems to be a role comprised almost entirely of tears and heartbreak. Husband Ralph is sent off to war and is later presumed dead. He (Daniel Boyd) returns, crippled and disfigured, in time to prevent Jane’s marriage to slimeball Hammon (Jamie Wilkes).
At the heart of the show is a sparkling performance from David Troughton, exuding goodwill and bonhomie as shoemaker and social climber Simon Eyre, accompanied by his grotesque wife Margery – an hilarious turn from Vivien Parry, evoking the best of Julie Walters.
Joel MacCormack is the spirited and likeable cheeky chappie, Firk, bringing energy to his scenes. Josh O’Connor’s young Lacy is also good fun, disguised as a Dutchman, in a credible comic performance, light years away from the mock-the-foreigner excesses of Allo Allo. I loved the quiet strength of Michael Hodgson’s Hodge – the decency of the working man wrapped up in some neat touches of physical comedy.
There is a wealth of bawdy humour – even a flatulent character revelling in the name of Cicely Bumtrinket – but even in their vulgarity, we are drawn to the characters’ humanity. The play celebrates the lower orders rather than holding them up for ridicule and censure
Sandy Foster’s Sybil is a force to be reckoned with – indeed this could be said of the entire company. The stage is alive with energy. Young boy William Watson looks perfectly at home with his elders – I doubt anyone gets better performances from child actors than the RSC.
Director Phillip Breen handles the subplots with the dexterity of a master chef keeping several pots on the boil at once and I think the clarity of the production and its language owes a great deal to designer Max Jones. Somehow the period costumes (all of them fabulous) convey the world of the play and assist our understanding in a way you don’t get when productions are translated to anachronistic times and other places.
Jack Holden’s King is more than a deus ex machina who shows up to bring resolution. Holden makes a striking impression in a fully realised characterisation that is both funny and elegant, and he barely has to flex a regal muscle to remind us who is in charge in a chilling display of power.
Enjoy your days off and celebrate while you can, the play says. There are forces out there that govern the way the lives of ordinary people turn out in order to further their own interests.
Success at ‘last’ – David Troughton (Photo: Pete Le May)
Leave a comment | tags: comedy, Daniel Boyd, David Troughton, Hedydd Dylan, Jack Holden, Jamie Wilkes, Joel MacCormack, Josh O'Connor, Max Jones, Michael Hodgson, Phillip Breen, review, RSC, Sandy Foster, Stratford upon Avon, The Shoemaker's Holiday, The Swan, Thomas Dekker, Vivien Parry, William Watson | posted in Theatre Review