Tag Archives: Joe Harmston

Squid Pro Quo

OCTOPUS SOUP!

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 5th February, 2019

 

This production is the world premiere of a brand-new farce, written by Jack Milner and Mark Stevenson.  Certainly, many of the key ingredients are here: heightened situations, people talking at cross-purposes – the protagonist even gets his trousers off in the first couple of minutes!  And yes, it is very funny but, as it turns out, this farce is more than frothy entertainment.  Like the titular dish, there are meaty bits to chew on…

Nick Hancock is tightly wound insurance consultant Seymour Norse, preparing for a video call with Gillian Bevan’s formidable CEO, Virginia Whale.  Having a character on-screen brings this conventional format up-to-date, and there is a lot of mileage in what Virginia is permitted to see and hear, thanks to the ministrations of hapless, arthritic burglar, Marvin Haynes (Paul Bradley on excellent form).  Add to the mix, Carolyn Backhouse as Gloria, Seymour’s histrionic actress wife, and The Bill’s Eric Richard as menacing underworld boss, Alan, and the stage is set for a fraught dinner party, full of misunderstandings and cracking one-liners – all while trying not to stress out Terry, the burglar’s pet octopus.  Hancock and Bradley make a fine duo, and Backhouse is a scream as the egotistical Gloria.  Eric Richard has a strong presence, on the other side of the law for once, and Gillian Bevan is both glamorous and haughty.  As the plot extends its tentacles, pulling everyone into a scam that could be worth billions, it’s every person for themselves.

It’s in the second act that the show’s message comes to the fore.  Milner and Stevenson use a dated, conventional format to speak to us of the present.  “What the world needs now is brains not bullets” is just the start of it.  Parallels are drawn between insurance CEO Virginia and organised crime boss Alan: capitalism is criminal activity, or certainly immoral and unethical, legal though it may be.  Seymour finally gets to deliver his presentation, a plea for the rehabilitation of the financial sector the world so desperately needs.

Played with energy and conviction by all concerned, this is a hugely enjoyable piece of work, and you get the feeling that things are tightening up as the run gets into its stride.  Pacing is everything in farcical situations and director Joe Harmston clearly has an eye for comic business and another for building tension.

Like Terry the octopus, this show has legs…

Nick Hancock and Paul Bradley in Octopus Soup! - credit Robert Day

NIck Hancock and Paul Bradley in one of the show’s calmer moments! (Photo: Robert Day)

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Murder Most Fine

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 3rd February, 2015

 

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company revisit this classic mystery for their current UK tour; I saw their 2008 production but I couldn’t for the life of me remember who done it. Even if I had, or if you know the story, there is much to enjoy here. This kind of old-fashioned, solid entertainment provides opportunities to see some of our finest character actors doing their thing.

A group of strangers gathers in a large house on a remote island. They have been invited there under false pretences. Early moments are like the first night in the Big Brother house as they introduce themselves to each other (and to us) before the tension begins its slow burn, and they start popping their clogs. The deaths seem to be related to an old rhyme that in this politically correct age is now about ten little ‘soldier boys’ – everything else is in keeping with the 1930s setting.   The art deco architecture of Simon Scullion’s set is remarkable.

Verity Rushworth is the ingénue, looking fab in a range of Roberto Surace’s evocative costumes. Rushworth’s lightness has a darker edge; she pitches it perfectly. Indeed as each character’s back story comes to light, we see beneath the veneer of civility. Paul Nicholas is suitably pompous as a high court judge, contrasting with Judith Rae as the housekeeper, with her down-to-earth nature and touches of humour. Frazer Hines is an unpretentious butler (making him prime suspect for a while, of course!), while Ben Nealon is the dashing Philip Lombard, all scorn and flash heroics. It is an absolute treat to see Susan Penhaligon as curmudgeonly old biddy Miss Brent – someone needs to employ her as Lady Bracknell at once; forget David Suchet! These are character types you find in Christie’s plays but this experienced and skilful cast humanise them beyond the requirements of the plot. Upper Class Twit Anthony Marston is made bearable by Paul Hassall’s portrayal. Eric Carte is rather sweet as General Mackenzie, resigned to his doom, and Mark Curry makes an impression as the somewhat neurotic Doctor Armstrong.

Director Joe Harmston handles the material with assurance; he knows exactly how to pace this type of thing, not rushing Christie’s sometimes ponderous script, and timing shocks and surprises with expertise. The result is a comfortably intriguing night at the theatre. The company takes us for a bit of a thrill ride, slowly but surely drawing us in as the plot reaches its conclusion.

Great stuff.

and then


Badinage and Bandages

THE MUMMY
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 25th March, 2014

Director Joe Harmston has put together a company of actors, many of whom are familiar from his productions of Agatha Christie plays, and brings out a different side to them in this delightfully silly show, loosely based on an old Bram Stoker story, The Jewel Of The Seven Stars. From the start, you know you’re in for a treat as Jason Durr narrates the back story, accompanied by some hilariously low-tech projections and shadow play. Jack Milner’s script reminds me of the golden age of radio comedy with its wordplay and double talk, complemented by much on-stage comic business of Harmston’s devising. The laughs keep coming.

It’s not perfect: the quick fire gags are hit-and-miss and the pacing flags a little in the first act. The audience participation that greets us when we’ve come back from the bar for the second act is needed earlier on – especially since the curtain up was delayed by quarter of an hour due to a technical hitch; we needed warming-up by then. The second act tears along relentlessly and consistently daft.

On the whole, it’s a laugh-out-loud romp, played to the hilt by a very funny ensemble. Denis Lill is spkendidly crazed as the Egyptologist on a mission – as well as a couple of other roles – Jason Durr, the heroic lawyer with his eye on Lill’s daughter (there is a dancing scene that ensures I will never regard Durr in the same light) and David Partridge is very funny as bonkers explorer Corbeck. Andrew Bone makes the most of his role as Inspector Doolan.

There is much fun to be had with doubling of roles and dummies but for me the revelation of the night is the beautiful Susie Amy, vamping it up and camping it up as the Professor’s daughter and the reincarnated Egyptian princess. I hope she does more comedy in the future. Dean Rehman’s immortal high priest Sosra is a deliciously evil (and hilarious) creation – I shan’t forget the eye-pulling scene in a hurry.

It’s a great-looking show too. Sean Cavanagh’s set design is almost like a toy theatre; scenes are wheeled on and off on trucks by stagehands dressed as workmen, keeping things moving and allowing for some very funny exits and entrances. Ben Cracknell’s lighting casts a nostalgic glow over the proceedings, the soft haze of an old film.

The Mummy is an old-fashioned slice of British silliness, clever and stupid at the same time, a celebration of artifice and theatricality while sending up its own form.

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Grounds for Murder

BLACK COFFEE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 3rd February, 2014

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company is back on the road.  This year’s offering is an excellent production of Christie’s first play, featuring Robert Powell at the top of the bill as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

From curtain up it is clear this is a quality show.  Simon Scullion’s art deco set is grand, stylish and elegant, and is matched by the formal evening wear of the characters.  This is very much a period piece, as evinced by a plethora of lines about ‘foreigners’ and how they can’t be trusted.  “They’re clever!” someone says as though it’s a bad thing.  It’s like a UKIP broadcast and just as funny.

Director Joe Harmston is a dab hand at this kind of thing; he knows how to pitch it just right for a present-day audience, having his cast play the cardboard characters as naturalistically as possible – We’re not meant to care about them; we’re meant to suspect each and every one of them as we try to solve the puzzle before the detective reveals who done it.

Robert Powell is a marvellous Poirot, acting with a quiet authority, assurance and wry humour – the play is funnier than you might expect.

The plot centres around the sudden death of a rich inventor and no one is above suspicion.  Company stalwart Ben Nealon gives a solid turn as the dead man’s disgruntled son.   Another regular, Liza Goddard witters and sparkles as batty Aunt Caroline – imagine Christine Hamilton in Downton Abbey.   Felicity Houlbrooke brings energy as bright young thing Barbara, cutting a rug with the dashing Mark Jackson as Raynor, the dead man’s personal secretary.  We almost veer into Allo Allo territory with Gary Mavers’s Italian doctor – but then foreigners are supposed to be dodgy – and I particularly enjoyed Robin McCallum as Captain Hastings, Poirot’s nice but dim sidekick.

It’s hardly ground-breaking theatrically speaking but with its fine blend of humour and intrigue and a cast that’s full of beans, Black Coffee perks up a dismal winter evening.

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Scene of the Crime

GO BACK FOR MURDER

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 25th November, 2013

On paper the premise for Agatha Christie’s 1960 play seems rather intriguing.  Young woman comes to England from Canada to uncover the truth behind her parents’ deaths.  Did her birth mother really poison her father?  She meets, takes tea and interviews people who were material witnesses in the murder trial.  One after the other… The first act is, in reality, a string of two-handed scenes in which the witnesses (now also suspects) spill their guts all-too-readily.  The dialogue is like giving testimony in court rather than conversation.  They all remark on how much the Canadian girl looks like her murderer mother.

In the second act, the cast are let off the leash as, in flashback, the events of that fateful day are played out, and they get to interact with each other at last, and we get to see a country-house murder after all.

Sophie Ward, all 60s hip in bobbed hair and a dress like a Mondrian painting plays her own mother (so that’s why they kept mentioning the resemblance!) contrasting the accents of mother and daughter very well.  Gary Mavers is the victim, the artist and temperamental prick Amyas Crale – there is no pity engendered for him; the suspense comes from waiting for him to die.  In this respect, Christie is playing to our darker side.  And we love it.

In the first act, Lysette Anthony gives an overly mannered performance as Lady Elsa Greer but in the flashback she is more palatable as the artist’s model-cum-mistress.  Stuffed shirts Robert Duncan and Antony Edridge have little to stretch them but they occupy the stage as potential culprits and atmosphere-bringers more than competently.  The marvellous Liza Goddard is underused as Miss Williams the governess, and Georgia Neville makes for a rather grownup little girl.  Tying it all together in the quasi-detective/narrator role is Ben Nealon as the dashing young solicitor.

Director Joe Harmston keeps the stage uncluttered – there is enough to create an impression of era and place – and keeps the company on the right side of caricature.  The play is all about the puzzle, although what drives it is the notion that no two people remember an event in exactly the same way.

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A Tale of Atrocities

THE HANDYMAN
Malvern Theatres, Wednesday 24th October, 2012

Horrible, self-obsessed couple Julian and Cressida Field sit in their Sussex garden. He is barking business deals into his mobile; she is agonising over an essay for her degree in gender studies. They are also mourning the loss of family pet, Rosie the Cat. Their gardener and general factotum, Roman (or Romka, for short) is also grief-stricken and busies himself with fashioning a marker for the moggy’s grave.

Ronald Harwood’s play gets off to an amusing start. We are drawn to Romka, a man who speaks in a funny accent and looks like he’s stuffed with Werther’s Originals. Suddenly the lives of the Fields are thrown into turmoil with the arrival of detectives from the War Crimes squad of Scotland Yard. Lovely, cuddly Romka is suspected of the murder of 817 Jews in the Ukraine. Who would have thought?

Julian (Adrian Lukis) blows his top, an Englishman averse to having his castle invaded. Cressida (Caroline Langrishe) can’t believe a word of it. They hire a solicitor (Carolyn Backhouse) who though not Jewish herself, is married to one – surely that must work in the old man’s favour!

Romka (Timothy West in a measured, dignified performance) denies everything – he was only the cook, after all. As the play unfolds, Harwood keeps us guessing. It’s perhaps a case of mistaken identity. He was there but took no active part in the massacres… The detectives aren’t really characters but devices who through questioning enable information to come to light. We see testimony given on video by Steven Berkoff in a chilling turn as a cheerful monster and, very powerfully, by Vanessa Redgrave as a surviving eyewitness.

What the play leads up to is an examination of what the holocaust means today. Cressida is dismissive. “It’s ancient history,” she snaps. “Poor old men shouldn’t be hounded”. Further to that, the play warns against the danger of those who seek to deny these most terrible events ever took place. In a shocking outburst, we are shown the true meaning of “the personal is political” – the theme of Cressida’s university essay, and there are parallels drawn between the cat buried in the garden and the hundreds in a mass grave in some Ukrainian wood. The play is a reminder that the holocaust will always be relevant – those who consign it to the past or dismiss it as ‘the Jewish fantasy’ are destined to repeat it.

Director Joe Harmston handles the changing tones very well. The humour and the horrors each get their turn. Of the lot of them, only Romka comes across as a rounded character with warmth and humanity – the point being that it was humans that perpetrated the atrocities not some external ‘evil’ or influence that made them different from the rest of us. West’s performance is for the most part understated, and all the more compelling for it. Lukis and Langrishe are effective as the blowhard couple. Backhouse is attractive as the efficient solicitor who is pushed too far; and James Simmons and Anthony Houghton lend solid support as the investigating officers.

It’s a powerful piece, an important piece, stylishly presented and an intelligent and provocative contribution to the discussion. You emerge thinking more about the issues than the drama – in that sense at least, the drama does its job very well.