Tag Archives: Jessica Swale

Oranges Are The Only Fruit

NELL GWYNN

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 15th September, 2019

 

The Crescent’s new season opens with this banger of a production from director Dewi Johnson.  The Ron Barber Studio is transformed to evoke a Restoration playhouse, with gilded columns, heraldic emblems and decorative friezes.  A purpose-built thrust stage puts us very much in the playhouse, while lending an intimacy to the offstage scenes.  Jessica Swale’s script from 2015 covers much the same ground as Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty dealing with women being allowed to take to the English stage for the first time in the reign of Charles II, but Swale’s focusses on the biography of orange-hawker-turned-actress Nell.  It’s historical, pertinent, feminist, and a bit anachronistic – but it all adds to up to a lot of fun.

Johnson captures the highly stylised, mannered performance conventions of the age, in the play-within-the-play and rehearsal sequences, and there is much laughter derived from the range of competences on offer among the troupe that Nell joins.  Mark Payne is pitch perfect as the declamatory actor Charles Hart, with a voice as big as his ego is fragile.  Sam Wilson is a scream as Edward Kynaston, reluctantly yielding the female roles he specialises in to newcomer Nell.  Andrew Cowie, resplendent in a long-haired wig, brings a touch of Bill Nighy to his beautifully realised, long-suffering theatre manager, Thomas Killigrew while Graeme Braidwood appealingly portrays the playwright John Dryden as a nervous, somewhat dishevelled figure, clueless in the art of writing women – until he encounters Nell, of course.  Alan Bull convincingly imbues rod-carrying Lord Arlington with dignity, gravitas and a side order of menace, and Luke Plimmer is immensely likable as Ned, the ineffectual prologue and supporting actor.

There is some very strong character work too from the women in the cast.  Pat Dixon’s down-to-earth Nancy is positively hilarious; Alice Macklin gives us a Rose (Nell’s hard-nosed, red-cheeked sister) with conviction and heart; and Jaz Davison brings a comedic intensity to her cameo as Queen Catherine, endowing the character with fierceness while also arousing our empathy.  Joanne Brookes makes a strong impression in her roles as the snobby and pompous Lady Castlemaine, and the visiting French noblewoman, Louise De Keroualle.

The action hinges on the love story between Charles II, a casually hedonistic Tom Fitzpatrick, and our feisty heroine.  Fitzpatrick’s Charles, haunted by what happened to his dad, is more than a good-time Charlie; there is a human side to him in his declarations of love for his mistress, and it’s great to see him descend from his pedestal.

Laura Poyner rightly, perhaps inevitably, commands the stage throughout with her magnificent portrayal of the zesty Nell.  It’s a joy to behold her wisecrack her way up the ranks, and the songs bring us forward in time to the Victorian music hall – Poyner is wicked, cheeky and knowing, playing the bawdy humour for all its worth while remaining utterly charming throughout.  While the play lacks the emotional punch it needs to bring things to a head, Poyner works wonders with the part, and she is supported by an excellent company on all sides.  Special mention goes to musical director Christopher Arnold who gets some gorgeous choral singing from the entire cast.

The set, by the director and Colin Judges, along with the sumptuous costumes (by the director and Pat Brown, Vera Dean, Malgorzata Dyjak, Shannon Egginton) impressively capture the period feel, while the ebullience of the players keeps us engaged and amused.

Hugely entertaining, saucier than a bottle of HP, and a celebration of theatre itself, Nell Gwynn sets the bar almost impossibly high.  I can’t wait to see how the Crescent follows it up!

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Nelly gives it welly: Laura Poyner as Nell Gwynn (Photo: Sorrel Price Photography)

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Austen Powers

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY

The Crescent Theatre, Wednesday 28th June, 2017

 

Jessica Swale’s adaptation of the Jane Austen novel whizzes along at quite a lick, condensing the action without cutting any of the important bits.  What couldn’t be clearer is the chauvinism of the age and the restrictions placed on women: they can’t inherit, they can’t go anywhere alone with a man – both of which are important plot points.  Mrs Dashwood and her daughters are dispossessed after her husband’s death and find themselves in reduced circumstances, swapping the family’s grand home for a little cottage near Exeter.  Suitors come calling, scandals come to light… On the surface, it’s a frothy rom-com but beneath it’s a biting social satire.  The wry wit of Jane Austen powers the exchanges and fuels the dramatic irony of the situations.

Karen Kelly makes a warm-hearted matriarch as Mrs Dashwood – her announcement of her husband’s death is strongly handled.  Naomi Jacobs is suitably restrained and fretful as the serious Elinor; Elinor is the ‘Sense’ of the title, ruled by her head; Marianne the ‘Sensibility’, ruled by her heart and her impulses.  Both are played well but I would like more contrast  between them.  Stephanie Cole’s Marianne who could do with being giddier or at least smiling more, especially from the off.  When reading poetry, she should really go for it.  Charlotte Upton, in a convincing portrayal as little sister Margaret, seems to embody both aspects of heart and head, in her childlike thirst for knowledge and honest reactions to events.

Thomas Leonard looks the part as the dapper Edward Ferrars, but could do with being a little bit more cut-glass in his delivery of Austen’s erudite dialogue.  Jacob Williams makes a pleasant Mr Willoughby, while James Lewis amuses as the sarcastic Mr Palmer.  Jordan Bird offers strong support as faithful servant Thomas but Adam Ragg’s Colonel Brandon is a particularly fine characterisation: the stiff-upper lip, the British reserve, the gentlemanly qualities.  Decency oozes out of him.

The evening belongs to Laura Poyner, superb in both her roles.  Provincial Mrs Jennings’s vulgarity and lust for life is in stark opposition to her snobbish Mrs Dashwood – her Fanny is a joy to behold.  The stage comes alive whenever Poyner is on and most of the cast is able to match her energy and commitment.

James David Knapp’s direction keeps the action clear in this stylish and slick production that should do well on its tour of other venues.  His original music is bittersweet and evocative.  Above all, the play serves as a showcase for the excellent costume team at the Crescent, with flawless and impressive work from Vera Dean, Pat Brown and Olivia Barnes.  Keith Harris’s simple yet elegant set: three period doorways among a landscape of books proves a versatile backdrop.

An enjoyable comedy of manners that brings a classic book to life in an accessible and entertaining way.

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Mrs Dashwood and her daughters. Stephanie Cole, Naomi Jacobs, Karen Kelly, and Charlotte Upton. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Stockinged Feat

BLUE STOCKINGS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th March, 2017

 

Originally produced at the Globe in 2013, Jessica Swale’s drama charts an academic year in the life of a group of female students at Cambridge’s Girton college.  It’s 1896 and the ladies are there on sufferance, rather than suffrage – their studies will get them nowhere and they are struggling to be awarded the right to graduate.  The fight mirrors the wider campaign for the Vote, and, if the male characters of this piece are anything to go by, they are not a good advertisement for the gender.  The sexism is overt, laid on with a trowel, neatly dividing the cast into heroines and villains.  Where the line is blurred is when female characters such as Miss Welsh decries her Suffragette sisters, and lecturer Mr Banks sides with the ladies.

Colette Nooney is striking as Miss Welsh, imperious and determined, while Jacob Williams’s Banks is a perfect piece of characterisation, from the look to the smallest mannerisms.  They look the part because yet again Stewart Snape’s costumes are spot on.

The Crescent’s Youth Theatre has amassed a strong ensemble, led by Jessica Shannon as Tess, in a remarkably nuanced performance that endears the character to us from the off.  She is supported by Neve Ricketts’s well-travelled Carolyn, Jessica Williams’s forthright Celia, and Charlotte Upton’s Maeve – who has a powerful moment when fetched home by her yokel brother Billy (Tate Wellings).  Holly Mourbey is effective as Miss Blake and there is humour from Laila Abbuq as Minnie the maid.  Jessica Potter makes an impression as strict chaperone Miss Bott.

Of the men, a right bunch of pompous prigs, Julian Southall stands out as Edwards – especially when drunk – and Laurenc Kurbiba makes a suave, caddish Ralph.  Villain of the piece is Charlie McCullum-Cartwright as Lloyd – one can easily imagine the Bullingdon Club adopting him as a mascot.  Jack Purcell-Burrows shines as the decent, gentlemanly Will, but on the whole, we wince, cringe and flinch at the abhorrent attitudes on display.  A dying breed?  I would like to think so.

James David Knapp directs with an assured hand, providing crescendos of high drama among the rituals and routines of college life.  The humour is well-timed and, for the most part, the cast handle the heightened language and stuffy accents with aplomb.  Keith Harris’s attractive set of Gothic arches divided by bookshelves serves to represent both the interior and exterior of the college, while Chris Briggs’s lighting adds to the sense of location and the atmosphere.

A challenging play well-presented, this production of Blue Stockings has legs.

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