Tag Archives: James Dacre

Execution is Everything


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 20th October, 2016


Mike Poulton’s masterful adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic cracks along at a fair pace, distilling the novel into a couple of hours’ traffic on the stage.  It’s a powerful piece of storytelling.  Domestic scenes are interspersed with vignettes of violence as the mob takes over Paris and wreaks vengeance on the aristocracy.  The French Revolution is the backdrop and the antagonist in this story of love and sacrifice.

Jacob Ifan is Charles Darnay who, despite having renounced his inherited title, finds himself in shtuck with the French tribunal.  Ifan is handsome and reserved – except when he is talking politics and then the character’s passion comes to the fore.  By contrast, Joseph Timms’s Sydney Carton is a livelier presence, a spirited nihilist whose swagger only serves to advertise his lack of self-esteem.  Timms is charismatic, commanding our attention.  Carton boxes clever to save Darnay’s neck on more than one occasion.  (Carton…boxes…? Suit yourself!)

Both men are in love with Lucie Manette (an elegantly emotional Shanaya Rafaat) – and external events conspire to bring the triangle to a devastating denouement.

There is sterling support from Patrick Romer as Dr Manette, Michael Garner as faithful Mr Lorry, and Jonathan Dryden Taylor amuses as servant/bodyguard Jerry, while Harry Attwell makes an impression as Stryver The ensemble is afforded many chances for some character cameos: Sue Wallace’s Pamela Keating and Rebecca Birch’s Jenny Herring stick in the mind – Dickens certainly knew how to give voice to the lower orders. Villain of the piece, Madame Defarge (Noa Bodner) personifies the kind of thinking that urges Brexit voting idiots to denounce all opposition as traitors.  The red of her skirt is a rare splash of colour in Ruth Hall’s muted costume palette, suggesting the bloodshed of those terrible times.

Mike Britton’s set evokes the Ancien Régime in decline, and Paul Keogan’s lighting intensifies the drama, contrasting dimness with moments of sharpness.  James Dacre directs, using contrasts for clarity and building a sense of a world in turmoil encroaching on individual lives.  The treatment of the poor – as typified here by Christopher Hunter’s cruel marquis – is facing resurgence in Britain today as the ruling classes demonise those less fortunate.  The shadow of the guillotine looms large in this story – perhaps we are overdue our own revolution.  Nobility, says the play, is nothing to do with title, wealth or privilege but is rather something within us – well, some of us.

To cap it all, Rachel Portman’s original score is striking, stirring, melancholic and tragic.

It all adds up to an excellent evening, an absorbing, gripping and moving production of which the Royal & Derngate in Northampton and the Touring Consortium Theatre Company should be very proud.

Great stuff and – if I might use the term – well executed!


A tale of two, sitting: Joseph Timms, Rebecca Birch and Jacob Ifan

We’re All Going On A Soma Holiday


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 5th November, 2015


Aldous Huxley’s visionary 1930s novel is doing the rounds in this new adaptation by Dawn King, and it’s refreshing to see serious science fiction being tackled live on stage. It turns out Huxley’s ideas have lost none of their sting or pertinence. In fact the brave new world he depicts seems frighteningly close, given the technological advances and ideological backwards moves that have happened since his day.

We begin in the London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, where its Director (James Howard) addresses us as newly arrived trainees. It’s a nifty means of exposition, detailing how this society operates and Howard is smarmily splendid in his PR spiel. The alphas and betas in society get the cream, while further down the social scale, the epsilons would be lucky even to glimpse the carton.   This caste system is achieved mainly by genetic engineering (natural reproduction has been eliminated) in vitro and then social conditioning brainwashes the resulting children into a narrow way of life that promises them Order, Stability, and Happiness – this latter comes in the form of a freely available drug called Soma. Take four and you can have a holiday, just zonk out for a specified period, truly getting away from it all.

Bernard, though, is a bit of a misfit. Not quite alpha enough, he isn’t accepted and is excluded from the general promiscuity all around him. Until he takes popular Lenina (Olivia Morgan) to visit the Savage Reservation where people live like beasts, drinking, reproducing, and practising religion. Imagine! They bring back John, who turns out to have links back home. John finds it hard to accept his new way of life and becomes something of a celebrity, a novelty act, stirring ‘inappropriate’ feelings within the impressionable Lenina.

As Bernard, Gruffudd Glyn is a sympathetic figure in this alien way of life. Olivia Morgan convinces as the thoroughly conditioned Lenina (and I’m not talking about her hair), while William Postlethwaite’s savage John is a commanding presence – he gets all the best lines, quoting Shakespeare at every opportunity. Ironic that a literary figure we regard as a pinnacle of human endeavour is banned and derided for his ‘tricky emotional content’. In charge of it all is an icy Sophie Ward as Margaret Mond, chilling in her detachment but not entirely inhuman, contrasting with derelict Linda (Abigail McKern making an excellent drunkard and invalid).

Director James Dacre keeps the action clear, using cross-cutting and freeze-frames to zap us from scene to scene and back again. Naomi Dawson’s design is deceptively simple, making effective use of TV screens and projections to give us glimpses of the world beyond the windows, aided by the precision of Colin Grenfell’s lighting and George Dennis’s sound. There is evocative, original music by These New Puritans.

It’s an absorbing, thought-provoking and scary piece. The society on stage is divided by genetic interference. Here we see social engineering at work, pricing the poor out of London, while certain politicians promote division based on cultural and racial differences. In Huxley’s day it was the rise of Nazi Germany. We are more in peril of surrendering our freedoms to corporate overlords. Suddenly the advent of the Coca-Cola lorry does not seem so cosy. All right, it’s not exactly delivering Soma but the way people profess love for this symbol of rampant capitalism should be a warning sign…

All the feels: Olivia Morgan and William Postlethwaite (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

All the feels: Olivia Morgan and William Postlethwaite (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Highly Strung


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 22nd February, 2013

Amanda Whittington’s new play concerns the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK.  It is perhaps this status as the last woman to pay the death penalty that adds to Ellis’s notoriety and allure.  Even in the dark days of the 1950s, her sentence was considered an injustice but all the protests and campaigns proved to be in vain.

The play focuses on the last few years of Ellis’s shortened life, her work in a ‘gentlemen’s club’ and her relationship with David Blakely – although in Whittington’s version of events, we do not see the man himself.  He is a shadow, an off-stage presence, haunting Ellis as the detective inspector unravelling her story takes us back in time from the interrogation room to the club.  He, the detective, works as a narrator, linking scenes with information, and painting scenery with poetic details.  This works very well for the most part – we are caught up in a maelstrom, as Ellis was caught up, and there are moments when the action becomes surreal and nightmarish.

Jonathan Fensom’s design sets us in the world of the club.  Thick red carpet covers the stage with a central wooden parquet area – a dance floor.  Small tables with shaded lamps and chairs are moved around to denote different locations.  There is a trolley laden with drink.  A record player emitting scratchy Billie Holiday songs at various intervals.  Above all of this is suspended a huge square canopy of ruched fabric, and a glitterball.  The red dominates, a rich crimson, the colour of blood perhaps, the colour of passion.

A pall of smoke floats across the auditorium.  This is the smoke-filled world of the club back when people were allowed to suck on cigarettes indoors.  But the smoke keeps coming.  It adds a hazy look to every scene, a sort of mists-of-time atmosphere, but I question its omnipresence.  It became something of a distraction in the end and anything that induces an audience to cough more than they might usually, cannot be a good thing.  I would pull the plug on the smoke machine early on, and only give it a blast in the more dreamlike sequences.

Whittington’s dialogue is sharp and snappy.  The characters fire off quips like machine-gun fire and here I have a bit of an issue with the director’s pacing of scenes.  When Ellis is at her most neurotic, there is very little difference to the moments when she’s engaging in banter with her workmates.  Greater contrast between these scenes would make for a more effective whole.  Faye Castelow plays Ellis as a tightly wound spring, a chattering, fragile thing but the speed of delivery of group dialogue makes everyone seem highly strung.  It gets a bit wearing after a while.

Ellis is not a sympathetic creature.  We know all along she’s for the drop – the play is instantly laden with an air of doom.  But I didn’t feel any tugging at my heartstrings or any particular appeal to my sense of moral outrage at this poor woman’s fate.  I found myself thinking of Rihanna and Chris Brown and the lack of understanding about why someone stays in an abusive and violent relationship.

The cast is excellent.  They reproduce the London accents of the day, helping to evoke the sense of period.  The costumes are all in keeping and the music, distorted blasts of Billie Holiday (another doomed woman who went through the mill of love) unify the action and add emotive punch.  I enjoyed Maya Wasowicz as confident and chirpy Vickie Martin, and Katie West as dowdy charwoman Doris living on the edge of all this ‘glamour’.  Hilary Tones’s Sylvia Shaw, nightclub manageress, is worldly-wise and sanguine.  There is a hint of grubbiness beneath the elegance.  Jack Gale’s efficient inspector is the only male voice, a counterpoint to the constant barrage of badinage.

I found the sum of the parts rather wearing.  There are some excellent moments – scenes from the trial are a swirling eddy of questions and statements, and the hanging is simply but superbly evoked by the slamming of the record-player lid, followed by a blackout.  After that, the other characters drift on and off in an unfocussed moment, as fuzzy as the smoke that’s still pouring in.

This was the first night, and though the cast was operating like clockwork, I think director James Dacre needs to slow and stretch some of the scenes, as well as killing the smoke, in order to allow the piece to breathe.

thrill of love poster