Tag Archives: Joe Bannister

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

THE WITCH OF EDMONTON

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 13th November, 2014

It’s a sad fact of society that when you hold up someone as a scapegoat for your problems, evil deeds will follow – persecution being the least of them.  Playwrights Rowley, Dekker and Ford were saying as much four centuries ago.  How dismaying to see the message is still relevant today.

Old Mother Sawyer is a lonely old woman whose life is made intolerable by the villagers of Edmonton ( a bunch of UKIP voters in waiting – although these days the focus has turned from little old ladies to immigrants).  Bothered and bewildered, she wishes she could bewitch her tormentors.  Unlike The Crucible there’s a twist here.  Something wicked this way comes: the devil hears the old woman’s curses and makes her an offer she can’t refuse.  She becomes a witch for real with the devil at her side as her familiar, Tom the black dog.  Eileen Atkins in perfectly credible as the curmudgeonly old boot, arousing our sympathy from the start.  Her cantankerous demeanour puts the devil in his place (temporarily, of course).  Atkins is superb and so is Jay Simpson as the devil dog.

Cleverly, the script keeps the audience a step ahead of the characters.  We always know more than they do and this dramatic irony heightens both the comic and the tense moments.

There is greater evil abroad than making Farmer Banks (Christopher Middleton) kiss his cow’s backside.  Ian Bonar’s con artist Frank Thorney Junior is a bigamist and adulterer, swindling his inheritance from his father, abetted by David Rintoul’s Sir Arthur.  (When it all goes belly-up, it turns out there is one law for the rich and another for the poor… Imagine that!  Oh.  Yes…)  Bonar is excellent – his early scenes with the first of his wives takes us in.  We believe he is a star-cross’d swain.  Later we see the depths to which he will sink.

The entire company is in good form. Shvorne Marks makes a strong impression and tugs at the heartstrings as wronged wife Winnifride. Ian Redford’s Carter and Geoffrey Freshwater’s Thorney Senior break your heart with grieving.  Dafydd Llyr Thomas is a hoot as the bumptious Cuddy Banks – the only character able to cast the devil from the place.  Joe Bannister and Joseph Ashley cut dashing figures as two suitors wrongly accused – it all gets a bit CSI:Edmonton for a while,  An underused Liz Crowther gets a moment in the spotlight for a wild-eyed mad scene and handsome RSC newcomer Oliver Dench shines, displaying a talent for comic playing in a couple of minor roles.

Sensibly, director Gregory Doran keeps the play in its own period and lets its delights and messages speak for themselves.  Niki Turner’s design is as effective as it is simple: a dense backdrop of tall reeds through which Tim Mitchell’s lighting creates creepily atmospheric moments, complemented by Paul Englishby’s music.  Special mention must go to violinist Zhivko Georgiev for his ‘diabolical’ fiddling.

There is much to enjoy here: a bunch of rude mechanicals perform a morris dance and have to dance to the devil’s tune; shocking violence and duplicity; humorous exchanges and poignant scenes of grief and forgiveness…  It’s a betwitching evening of theatre with Eileen Atkins casting a spell that lingers long after Old Ma Sawyer is led away to her fate.

Magic!  Eileen Atkins (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Magic! Eileen Atkins (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

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Life in the Roar

THE ROARING GIRL

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