Tag Archives: John D Collins

Pickwick From A Distance


Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 4th December, 2013

An ambitious project: to bring Charles Dickens’s rambling, episodic novel (originally a serial) to the stage.  But it has been done magnificently with regard to Nicholas Nickleby, so why not give it a go?  Unfortunately, The Pickwick Papers lacks the scale and the scope of that other book and, most crucially, it lacks drama.  So, what we get with Nicola Boyce’s adaptation is a series of scenes of little consequence involving characters that veer towards caricature.

Ian Dickens (some relation?) directs a cast of faces familiar from his other productions and pretty much gives them an easy ride.  Rebecca Wheatley gives a star turn as Mrs Leo Hunter performing a poem set to music about an ‘expiring frog’ – this characterisation contrasts effectively with her other role as the shy Miss Wardle.  David Callister is enjoyable as conman Jingle, inhabiting the costume and the vernacular with ease.  Poppy Meadows is underused – very funny as Mrs Bardell.  Dean Gaffney is well within his comfort zone as affable manservant Sam Weller – a pity he doesn’t get to flex the comedic muscle we saw earlier this year in Murder in Play.  Daniel Robinson and Scott Grey are the effeminate, giggling, shrieking ninnies Mr Winkle and Mr Snodgrass – they get the best scene in terms of action when poor Winkle finds himself embroiled in a duel thanks to the misconduct of Callister’s Jingle.

On the whole, the cast is very good and looks good in the costumes.  I think part of the problem is the set.  Most of the action takes place on a rostrum but this is set so far upstage it adds further distance between the actors and the audience beyond that provided by the fourth wall.  It is very difficult for them to engage with us and us with them, being so far removed from each other – my seat was fifth row centre and I felt like I needed binoculars.  Often the stage is crowded with people with their backs to us, further shutting us out. A disembodied voice narrates passages to cover scene changes, keeping us at a distance yet again rather than addressing us directly.

Also, the running time is not borne out by the content.  The story, such as it is, is too flimsy to sustain interest for almost three hours.  I found my mind wandering, unable to focus on some of the verbiage – Pickwick, nicely played by John D Collins – is a garrulous old thing but the script is in need of editing.

What should be a delightful, diverting way to pass an evening, becomes something of an endurance test.  It’s like trying to have a five-course meal in a sweet-shop: delightful at first but ultimately unsatisfying and lacking in nutrients.


Death by Disappointment


Derby Theatre, Tuesday 29th January, 2012

Brother and sister Patrick and Julia are staying with their aunt Lettie in her home in the sleepy village of Chipping Cragburn.  Also knocking around are Lettie’s old friend Dora Bunner, young widow Phillipa, Mrs Swettenham and her son Edmund, and Eastern European housemaid Mitzi… They come across an advertisement in the local paper that someone in that very house is to be murdered that very day at 6:30pm.  Speculation runs rife: who would do such a thing?  Who’s for the chop?  As nerves begin to fray, revelations are teased out.  No one is who they seem…

This is the set-up for Agatha Christie’s play, a sort of who-will-do-it, currently on tour.  I’ve seen several productions of these things by Ian Dickens and they are generally of a high standard.  Unfortunately the same cannot be said for this slow-moving and verbose piece – you can forgive a lot of things if the mystery is intriguing and puzzling enough to keep you hooked.  This one, I’m afraid doesn’t cut it.

Katy Manning is the lynchpin as Aunt Lettie, elegantly stalking around in high heels (and almost stumbling off them at one point).  She is something of a cold fish and consequently, we don’t care.  Her childhood friend, we are led to believe, is Dora Bunner – Claire Fisher plays the spinster as a whiny, childlike, on-some-kind-of-spectrum figure; she is consistent in her characterisation, I’ll give her that, but it’s very wearing on the patience.  A bit of variety in delivery would make her more sympathetic and also she could do with looking older – at first I thought she was a younger sister or even daughter.

Gemma Bissix is underused as the snitty, bored Julia.  Dean Gaffney as her brother Patrick seems to have a self-satisfied smile plastered to his fizzog.  He’s supposed to be the urbane twit of the piece but, and this is symptomatic of the whole, lacks the verve and energy necessary to bring the play to life.

Here’s the thing: you cannot perform a piece like this entirely naturalistically.  The characters aren’t fully rounded representations of people.  They are sketches, types, and sometimes only ciphers.  You have to heighten the portrayal to draw us in.  In my view, those who pull off this feat are Julia Main as Mitzi the maid, Geraldine Newman as amateur sleuth Miss Marple, and John D Collins as Inspector Craddock.  These three seem to have a spark I couldn’t detect in the rest of the cast, although Poppy Meadows as widow-with-a-secret Phillipa has her moments.

The plot, more contrived than a Heath Robinson contraption, lumbers on for over two and a half hours.  Not enough jeopardy and not enough murders.  The cast seemed to be forever bumping into the furniture and the names of the village and some unseen foreign characters caused them difficulties.

I fear this production has murdered my enthusiasm for these Agatha Christie plays, and I’ve got another one lined up next week.


There’s Life in the Old Dog yet

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 11th July, 2012

Ron Aldridge’s comedy is set firmly in the middle class sitcom world familiar from so many TV shows. You wouldn’t be surprised to find Terry and June living next door or George and Mildred across the road. It begins with a husband and wife arguing about someone always being out late, never getting up in the mornings, hanging out with bad company – we are led to believe they have a wayward teenager on their hands. At last, the delinquent in question finds his way home, dancing his way through the front door in motorcycle leathers. He takes off his helmet and lo! It’s not a teenager after all. ‘Tis Melvyn Hayes no less – the wife’s father. This nifty twist led me to think this was going to be a play that touches on issues of caring for the elderly – the tensions that may arise when they move in with their offspring, and the alternatives that are available.

Unfortunately not.

The play is too rooted in its sitcom milieu to glance at social issues and so my expectations, once excited were confounded. That is not to say this is not an enjoyable couple of hours. It does what it does rather well.

Brooksie (Hayes) fills his daughter’s house with friends from the Over 60s club. Preparations are underway for the wedding of two of the members and so Brooksie and the more uptight Rose (Katy Manning off of Doctor Who) have to declare a moratorium on their bickering and squabbling. The irony is that these two are obviously more attracted to each other than the bride and groom to be.

Hayes throws himself into the performance. He falls over, rolls off the sofa and generally bounds around in a manner that is exhausting to behold. It is a star turn that belies his years, well befitting the theme of the play: old age is there to be enjoyed. Katy Manning provides capable support, even if her character is berating him one second and then giggling her head off at him the next. It is an inconsistency in the writing. I could also have done without the mawkish scenes where the ghost of Brooksie’s wife appears to him with life coaching advice. Such a saintly, condescending woman. I wouldn’t be surprised if he bumped her off. Hayes would be able to convey the pathos and the heartbreak with the occasional look at her photograph. That would have been enough.

There is a very funny scene where the gang play Trivial Pursuit and a sliced bread fight that seems a little incongruous but is amusing, nevertheless. John D Collins is boisterous good fun as grumpy old ranter Tom who goes through an epiphany on his stag night but the show is essentially a vehicle for Melvyn Hayes, who does bewildered and hungover to perfection.