Tag Archives: Jo Davies

A Merry Widow


Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th April, 2018


Written around 1700, Mary Pix’s The Beau Defeated is retitled and repackaged by the RSC in this lively revival, directed by Jo Davies.  The exquisite Sophie Stanton leads as the eponymous widow, a proud shallow social climber with questionable taste – but we can’t help liking her.  She is Hyacinth Bouquet crossed with Edina Monsoon – basically a stock type we recognise from comedies throughout the ages.  Mary Pix populates her play with a host of larger-than-life characters, from Emily Johnstone’s plain-speaking, fast-talking maid Betty to Leo Wringer’s raffish ruffian of a country squire, the elder Clerimont.  Tam Williams is marvellously funny as the foppish Sir John (and he plays a mean trombone!); Sandy Foster’s face-pulling Mrs Trickswell culminates in an hilarious bit of physical comedy when she challenges Mrs Rich to a swordfight; Solomon Israel’s younger Clerimont enjoys wallowing in his misfortunes like a self-indulgent teenager; but almost stealing the show is Sadie Shimmin’s mop-haired, rough and ready landlady Mrs Fidget, plotting with wily manservant Jack (a likeable Will Brown) and knocking back glass after glass of sack.

There is a wealth of things to enjoy in this production, chiefly the superb playing of the cast, but sometimes there’s a reason why plays aren’t staged for centuries.  This one is not without its charms and it rattles and rambles along through subplot after subplot, interrupted by the interpolation of some amusing original songs by Grant Olding., but it offers little we haven’t seen before.  The afore-mentioned swordfight between female characters aside, the play is typical of its kind – Pix was one of a clutch of ‘female wits’ of her time.

Jo Davies keeps a busy stage with servants and even a brace of real live dogs coming and going.  At times, the blocking pulls focus from the main action or just simply masks it from view – and I wasn’t in what you’d call a cheap seat.  It is the gusto of the performers that keeps us interested.  Colin Richmond’s design is gorgeous: paintings of the era form huge backcloths, across which captions are scrawled in hot pink graffiti, and the costumes, as if Poldark was having a going-out-of-business sale, are divine.

Frivolous fun peppered with the occasional knowing epigram, Mrs Rich amuses despite its convolutions and unevenness, with Sophie Stanton storming it while bringing nuance and even subtlety to this figure of ridicule.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich

That’s rich: Sophie Stanton (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Perfect Porter


Theatre Royal, Nottingham, Saturday 21st November, 2015


Every once in a blue moon, I have the pleasure of experiencing a slice of theatrical perfection. Opera North’s production of the Cole Porter masterpiece gets everything right. I’m wracking my brain to find a flaw – I got nothing.

Leading man Quirijn De Lang is Fred Graham, producer and star. With his matinee idol looks and sardonic humour, De Lang is a joy to behold and be-hear. Where is the Life That Late I Led? is superbly delivered in De Lang’s rich baritone.   He is matched by his female oppo, soprano Jeni Bern as Fred’s ex-wife Lilli. Bern plays with gusto, belting out I Hate Men and providing one of the show’s many, many highlights with So In Love – Porter’s marvellous pre-Adele Adele song.   The couple’s wrangles are mirrored on-stage in a play-within-the-play, a staging of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. It’s all done with brio, and a camp sensibility: Colin Richmond’s colourful costumes and set are equally effective for the off-stage and on-stage antics.

The superlative Ashley Day is Bill Calhoun, handsome and louche. Day displays a talent for visual comedy – the number with the other suitors (Callum Train and Emmanuel Kojo) is a lot of fun, and no one has shapelier legs – which Day employs for a dazzling tap dance routine in the second act. Bill’s love interest Lois is played by the remarkably talented Tiffany Graves – if anyone should be playing the lead in Funny Girl, it is this exceptional performer. Witness her Always True To You In My Fashion and agree with me.

Joseph Shovelton and John Savourin seem effortlessly funny as two gunmen, come to collect a gambling debt. Their Brush Up Your Shakespeare brings the house down.

It’s a show that revels in its theatricality. Lighting designer Ben Cracknell employs a lot of follow spots to highlight this – and to punctuate the musical numbers. The chorus is in great voice and Will Tuckett’s choreography captures period and exudes energy on what can be a very busy stage. And it’s a real treat to hear Porter’s luscious score played by a full orchestra, under the baton of a very bouncy Davie Charles Abell.

It’s romantic and funny, silly and charming, and ultimately uplifting. Opera North has played a blinder and it’s a great pity the show ends its run tonight. It deserves a much wider audience.

Director Jo Davies now faces the difficult task of following this piece of perfection with her next project. I wish her luck!


Ashley Day, Quirijn De Lang, Jeni Bern and Tiffany Graves (Photo: Alastair Muir)


Life in the Roar


Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 16th April, 2014


Shakespeare’s contemporaries Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton teamed up to write this comedy of deception, here brought to the stage by director Jo Davies who uproots the action to the late 19th century. This makes for a good-looking production designed by Naomi Watson with men in tails and curios in glass cabinets. And it makes sense – the cross-dressing, ‘roaring’ girl of the title brings to mind novelist George Sand and male impersonator Vesta Tilley – although on first appearance Lisa Dillon’s Moll Cutpurse reminds me of a Brosette. Why the music and songs (by Simon Baker and Gary Yershon) are so anachronistic, including electric guitars, is beyond me. If it’s meant to be an alienation device, it worked by yanking me out of the atmosphere of the play, but it didn’t work in terms of reminding me this is artifice and I should be intellectualising about the morality of the situation… All I thought was how the music doesn’t fit. I would have chosen snatches of music hall songs to cover transitions, but what do I know?

There is much to enjoy in the performances of the players. David Rintoul is superbly indignant as the scheming Sir Alexander, contrasted by the exuberant and fresh-faced scheming of son Sebastian (Joe Bannister). Christopher Middleton is suitably pompous as Neatfoot the butler, a walking thesaurus, and I particularly enjoyed Mr and Mrs Openwork (Tony Jayawardena and Harvey Virdi) as a pair of scheming tailors. Everyone is involved in scheming at some point, making for very shallow drama and characters for whom you don’t give a fig. Some scenes are very funny (double entendres in a tobacconist’s) but some of the action is fudged by the inconsistent quality of the staging. I’ve said it before, in venues like the Swan, you have to keep the cast moving so that everyone gets a chance to see their backs; don’t leave them downstage looking upstage, masking the action for a large section of the audience.

Lisa Dillon doesn’t so much roar as swagger. Her Moll is a posturing principal boy with painted-on stubble. You can imagine her as Peter Pan very easily. She shows a nice line in comic timing but you get the feeling the role isn’t much of a stretch for her.   She makes an apology in an epilogue for the thinness of the plot and the quality of the production – the playwrights’ last joke. But then the company regroup for an ill-advised bout of street-dancing that is just embarrassing.

I wanted to like The Roaring Girl more than I did. I guess I’ve been spoiled by recent exposure to the superior work of Spanish contemporary Lope de Vega.

Lisa Dillon

Lisa Dillon