Tag Archives: James Earl-Davis

The Best Laid Plans…

DIAL M FOR MURDER

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 3rd May, 2017

 

I have seen several productions of Frederick Knott’s masterpiece over the years but never in-the-round, so it’s intriguing to see how a story in which doors and windows are so important is staged with neither of these features…

The short answer is: brilliantly.

Lis Evans’s design gives us the London flat of Tony and Sheila Wendice, complete with floor plan showing us where the doors and French windows are, like an architect’s plan.  The flat is an island set on a sea of street maps, to give us the Maida Vale setting, while stylish furniture evokes the 1950s period.   Rather than have his actors mime the opening and closing of the non-existent doors, director Peter Leslie Wild opts for lighting changes and sound effects – the added bonus is we see characters arriving at the flat before they ring the doorbell, increasing the dramatic irony, and also exposing the workings of Knott’s taut plot – it’s like watching an exquisitely made clock with its cogs in full view.

Nicole Bartlett is a rather cool Sheila in the Grace Kelly mode, elegant and vulnerable.  Daniel Easton is a likeable Max – her one-time boyfriend – and Paul Brendan is a workmanlike Inspector Hubbard, teasing out the complexities of the crime.  But it is William Ellis’s Tony, the mastermind of the murder plot, who captivates, weaving his web of intrigue and drawing us in – even if we know what’s coming.  Rob Heanley’s Lesgate is the heavy, coerced into doing the dirty deed, completing a flawless ensemble.

Daniella Beattie’s lighting adds to the atmosphere, although things are a little too hazy at the start, as if the peasouper in the streets has invaded the flat.  James Earl-Davis’s sound has plenty to do to give us the sense of the flat, accompanying the action with appropriate sound effects, but there is also something disconcerting in the air, keeping us on edge.

There is something incredibly satisfying in seeing Tony scheme his detailed scheme, topped only by seeing how it is foiled, brought down by a similar attention to detail.  Much of it comes from Knott’s superlative writing, of course, but this production’s skilful handling of some wordy scenes along with tense moments of action and suspense, delivers all the thrills in all the right places.

Dial-M-for-Murder-A-New-Vic-Production.-Photo-by-Mark-Douet-_31B8469

Plan for murder – Lis Evans’s set design for Dial M For Murder (Photo: Mark Douet)

 

 

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With Flying Colours

PETER PAN IN SCARLET

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 26th July, 2016

 

Theresa Heskins adapts and directs this world premiere: the first stage version of the ‘official’ sequel to J M Barrie’s classic.  The novel, by Geraldine McCaughrean, takes Barrie’s world and characters and moves them on, away from the innocent times of playing in an Edwardian nursery.  The world has changed.  It’s not so much that Wendy and John have grown up but the world has too.  The First World War has changed and tainted things forever.  It is suggested that their brother Michael (the little one with the teddy bear) was killed in action.

And so the entire piece is permeated with sadness and a sense of loss, alleviated in part by the exuberance of the cast and the infectiously jaunty score by composer and M.D. (and genius) James Atherton.  1920s jazz informs the aesthetic and members of the cast reveal themselves to be virtuosi on a range of instruments.  Jonathan Charles’s Slightly gives a star turn on the clarinet – and special mention goes to Natasha Lewis for her raunchy trombone.

The plot is action-packed.  Wendy and John recruit some of the Lost Boys for a return visit to Neverland, following a series of nightmares.  The play opens with one of these, a recap of the demise of Captain Hook – Andrew Pollard has never looked more dashing and debonair.  In order to fly back, the grown-up children hatch a fairy (New Vic favourite Michael Hugo being delightfully funny as Fireflyer) for a handy supply of dust, and don their own children’s clothes in order to be children again.  A strong theme is that clothes make man – you are what you wear, as Gok Wan would have it.  There is some truth in this idea of life as a game of dressing-up, but I’d add that it’s also how people react to the clothes we wear that shapes our behaviour. When Pan puts on an old red pirate coat, he takes on the unpleasant characteristics of his former nemesis.  Clothes make Pan.

Isaac Stanmore (formerly Dracula and Robin Hood) returns as another New Vic leading man and brings out Pan’s never-ending supply of youthful energy.  He also delivers the changes to Pan’s nature as the coat takes over, becoming a nasty-minded tyrant before our very eyes.  Perry Moore is also a returning player; this time he’s John, shedding his grown-up stuffiness for a more boyish, adventurous personality.  Rebecca Killick’s Wendy is fun and assertive without being the bossy little madam she is sometimes shown to be.  Suzanne Ahmet cuts a dash as Tootles, a doctor who has to borrow his daughter’s clothes – notions of gender identity are teased at – and Mei Mac exudes energy as Tinkerbell.  The mighty Andrew Pollard creates a creepy and compelling presence as the friendly but sinister Ravello, wraithlike and charming.

The whole cast must be absolutely knackered, with all the running around, physicality and, of course, the flying – here portrayed by climbing up lengths of silk and bringing to mind the New Vic’s production of Peter Pan a few years ago, which was the most beautiful and moving version of the story I have ever seen.  There are moments of beauty here too, with the silks, the sails, the lighting (designed by Daniella Beattie) – and I am struck by how bloody good the sound design is; James Earls-Davis works wonders in this arena setting to give us a cinematic soundtrack that is finely focussed, helping us to follow the action, which at times can be very busy and frenetic.  Theresa Heskins employs some of her trademark tricks – maps are ‘thrown’ across the stage, fights are carried out across a distance, softening the violence in one way, making it all the clearer in another – and her well of theatrical invention seems never to run dry.  The result is a charming if melancholic experience, rich with ideas and played to perfection.  The show only suffers from a lack of audience familiarity with the material.  We wonder where it’s going rather than wonder at it.  But then, Peter Pan was new once too.

pan in scarlet

Suits you, sir. Ravello (Andrew Pollard) helps Pan (Isaac Stanmore) into his scarlet coat, while Fireflyer (Michael Hugo) looks on, aghast. (Photo: Geraint Lewis)

 


Sounds Horrible

DRACULA

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th March, 2015

 

Director Theresa Heskins has adapted the Bram Stoker novel fairly faithfully for this brand new production – most of the main characters are here and all the key scenes but what lifts this version above and beyond the main pre-existing others is…well, everything.

The stage is darker than I’ve ever seen it. Not only does this lend a creepy atmosphere but it focusses our hearing. Sound is brought to the fore in the form of sound effects, performed live by the cast – we’ve all seen footage of radio drama being recorded or sound effects being added to a film soundtrack. At first, as the effects support the mime of the actors, you look up to their workbenches to see how the sounds are produced, but after a while, you let that go as the action draws you in. Sound designers James Earl-Davis and Alex Day are certainly inventive and undeniably ‘effect’-ive. Also, the eerie music and atonal soundscapes of brilliant composer James Atherton create an unsettling mood, as evocative as they are unnerving.

An excellent Isaac Stanmore is a lively Jonathan Harker, arriving at Castle Dracula, and our narrator. Light and dark create doorways – as with radio drama, the scenery is left to our imagination. Daniella Beattie’s lighting is precise and sharp, using chiaroscuro like an Old Master to illuminate or keep in shadow. With horror, it’s not so much what is shown as what remains hidden. And what we don’t see, we hear. That sound may really be a fork plunging into half a cabbage or whatever, but to our engaged imaginations, it is something much, much worse.

From his first entrance, Jack Klaff’s Dracula casts a long shadow – just as the character does over the rest of the proceedings. He stalks around the stage at a steady pace, intoning his lines without melodrama. That famous line about the “children of the night” is absolutely chilling here – Heskins has successfully avoided all notions of the camp and the kitsch. The well-worn story comes across as something entirely fresh. Klaff, with his snow-white hair and his exotic vocal tones embodies menace. His three brides (Hazel Lam, Sophie Morris, and Rebecca Rennison) bring Gothic eroticism in their seduction of Jonathan Harker, shinning up lengths of rope and silk and contorting themselves in mid-air. It’s rather spectacular but the work of ‘aerial director’ Vicki Amedume really packs a visual punch in the second act, when Dracula, now younger and revitalised and Jonathan Charles, hovers over Mina’s bed, slowly swooping down to her in hypnotic silence. Absolutely stunning.

Charles also moves with inhuman grace – his Dracula is not like us at all, and more animalistic than Klaff’s elder statesman.

Jasmine Blackborow is Lucy, full of girlish verve until the Count sinks his fangs into her. Her transformation into an undead wraith is superbly realised and so is her execution with a stake to the heart. Here sound and visuals combine in a moment of sheer horror. And yet there is nary a flash of fang or a drop of blood – Heskins keeps those details in our minds, and there’s nowhere scarier than one’s one mind.

New Vic stalwart Ali Watt’s Dr Seward has an emotive outburst, while John O’Mahony’s Professor Van Helsing maintains a sort of calm urgency. Sarah Schoenbeck’s Mina, ostensibly the damsel in distress, has an inner strength and an appeal that goes beyond her character’s function in the plot. Indeed, the whole ensemble is top notch – even the unseen Renfield, played (vocally) to the hilt by Conrad Nelson. Scenes are interspersed with recorded snatches of the lunatic’s case, as a counterpoint to the main action, a scientific examination to contrast with the supernatural events as they unfold. Unfortunately there is no pay-off for Renfield – the extracts don’t really go anywhere.

Tables and beds, formed of black blocks, rise and sink into the stage floor, the trap doors yawning like graves… There are many things about this production, both in form and in content, that will stay with me for a long time. Heskins has triumphed yet again in this departure from her usual style and has created a piece that is truly memorable, creepy and above all, beautiful.

Jack Klaff

Jack Klaff


Girl Powers

BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, February, 2015

This spellbinding production translates John Van Duren’s 1950s play to the 1970s, making it a period piece of sorts.  There is something otherworldly about Michael Holt’s set.  Its stylishness is offset beautifully by Danielle Beattie’s atmospheric lighting and James Earl-Davis’s eerie sound design of chimes and bells and what sounds like someone running their finger around the rim of a wine glass.

We are in Gillian’s London flat; Gillian is an independent, confident and wilful gal about town but it’s not just Women’s Lib that empowers her.  She is a witch, able to manipulate situations to her advantage.  When Anthony, the handsome bloke in the flat above, catches her eye and she learns he is engaged to an old school rival of hers, Gillian casts a spell on the hapless young man and he is unable to resist her.

As Gillian, Emma Pallant has a commanding stage presence – there is something hypnotic and seductive about her, something feline – like a panther in its lair.

In contrast we have her warlock brother Nicky, who sounds like Adam Faith in Budgie but dresses like Huggy Bear.  Adam Barlow literally lights up the stage in a measured and nuanced comic performance.  There is an undercurrent of menace offset by his flamboyant clobber and his disco strut.

Janice McKenzie is a delight as Queenie, in glorious Dracula’s Auntie costumes.  Director Gwenda Hughes doesn’t overplay the laughs, instilling a level of credibility in the fantastical aspects of the plot.

Geoffrey Breton does an appealing turn as the enchanted Anthony and there’s some lovely character work from Mark Chatterton as self-professed expert in magic, the muggle Sidney Redlitch.  And special mention must be made of ‘Casper’ who appears as Pyewacket, Gillian’s feline familiar.  Unlike the Blue Peter cats or McCavity, he doesn’t seek to flee the scene at the first opportunity.

A thoroughly enjoyable production of an intelligent and funny play.  There are no short cuts to falling in love, that magical state that renders us all too human.

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Dim and Dimmer

GASLIGHT

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 20th September, 2013

 

Patrick Hamilton’s taut thriller is set in the Victorian home of Mr and Mrs Manningham, shown here in a detailed set by designer Michael Holt – a collection of furniture, potted plants and props that evoke the period perfectly.  Hamilton uses some of the features of Victorian melodrama in his tale but director Sarah Punshon does not overplay them.  We have a villain, who sports a black top hat and cloak – he even has facial hair, a sure sign of villainy according to the convention, but Brendan Hughes’s Manningham stops short of twirling his moustache.  The victim is his neurotic wife Bella, an excellent Alix Dunmore who pitches the poor woman’s fragility just right; we never get the sense that she has a choice, that she should stand up to her bullying monster of a husband, such is the credibility she brings to the role.

There is music too, as you’d expect in a melodrama, but James Earl-Davis’s sound design keeps it subtle.  Atonal notes play on an almost subliminal level, cranking the tension.  The effect is very chilling.

There is strong support from Joanna Bacon and Hannah Lee as the housemaids, one fretful, the other chirpy, again bringing truth to character parts.  The whole tone of the piece is utterly believable, thanks to the performance style and also in no small part to the venue itself.  In-the-round means that the audience is not only the fourth wall of the Manninghams’ living room but the first, second and third walls as well.  This permits an intimacy and a naturalistic approach even to the more sensational aspects of the plot and dialogue.

John Cording’s Ex-Detective Rough almost steals the show, generating warmth and a quiet urgency as he makes his moves to solve an old case.  The scenes between him and Alix Dunmore are superbly done, as he entrances her (and us) with exposition of the crime and convinces her to go along with his plan to bring a murderer to justice.

Brendan Hughes is also pitch-perfect, bringing nuance to what could easily be a two-dimensional role.  We almost fall for his manipulations at the start and we see the power he has over his vulnerable wife.  That the melodramatic aspects are subdued makes him a more chilling baddie and his machinations more plausible psychologically.  I was interested to read in the programme that Manningham’s method of mental abuse has been given the name ‘gaslighting’ after this play.

An absorbing production of a thriller that actually thrills, Gaslight stands the test of time, serving as a reminder of the genius of this too-often overlooked playwright.

gaslight


Sentinel Review: Stones in his Pockets

STONES IN HIS POCKETS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 5th July, 2013

Here’s a link to my review on The Sentinel website.

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