Tag Archives: John Whittell

Last of the Summer Vin

HEROES

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 13th May, 2018

 

Tom Stoppard’s translation of Gerald Sibleyras’s Le Vent des Peupliers fits into a niche of comedy we’re familiar with in the UK.  I think of Foggy, Compo and Clegg cooking up their latest madcap scheme, of Waiting for God, which concerned the inmates of a retirement home, and also I think of Quartet, the play about retired opera singers.  In that play, they’re working toward a final concert; in this play, the characters’ objective is escape!  They want to climb a hill, rather than just being over it!

Claire Armstrong Mills directs this gentle comedy, with its barbed remarks and the occasional raucous moment.  There is some nicely handled physical business with a garden hose, and we enjoy spending time with this trio of old soldiers in their retirement home.  John Whittell’s Henri displays a nice line in comic timing.  He’s a sort of lanky Alan Bennett figure who delivers some killer one-liners with the precision of a sniper.  Brian Wilson is the ailing Phillippe, brimming with conspiracy theories and prone to blackouts due to the shrapnel in his noggin.  Wilson’s Phillippe is affable but fragile, and we find we care about him.  Dave Hill’s curmudgeonly, cynical Gustave has a vulnerable side – we see how the Great War has affected these men: Henri’s leg, Phillipe’s blackouts, Gustave’s nerves – and now they have the infirmities of old age to contend with on top of it all.

They’re a likeable if sexist threesome and there’s something almost absurdist about the script.  A nun (Alice Abrahall) stalks silently across the stage from time to time like the Woman in Black or the Angel of Death.  And completing the cast is the stone figure of a dog, who gets to upstage the lot of them at the end.

It’s an amusing couple of hours, finely presented.  Keith Harris’s set evokes France, nuns, old age and death in one economic design. That the home is adjacent to a cemetery puts a certain perspective on the residents’ point of view.

There are a few instances when the lines aren’t quite ready to come out in the right order, but I’m sure this will sharpen up as the run continues.  The show gives us plenty to laugh at and about, while gently prodding us to ponder what keeps us going, what makes us get out of bed in the morning, and what are we going to do while we’re still able to do it.

heroes

Dave Hill, Brian Wilson and John Whittell (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

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The Truth Comes Out

THE LARAMIE PROJECT

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 7th May, 2017

 

The horrific murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 sent shockwaves across the USA and around the world.  A tipping point had been reached, it seemed and, although it took a while, law was passed to protect minorities from hate crime.

At the time, the Tectonic Theatre Project visited the town of Laramie, Wyoming several times, interviewing local people of a variety of walks of life and with a range of views on the murder.  Those interviews form the basis for this play, using verbatim the words of the Laramie people.

Almost twenty years later, this new production in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio demonstrates the piece has lost none of its power and, sadly, none of its relevance.  It’s a play about its own making.  Actors play actors from the theatre company along with the people they interview and the whole piece is structured around the murder – before, during and its aftermath, covering a year in the life of Laramie.  It’s a compelling piece of work and this production certainly does it great service.

The cast of ten populates the space with police, neighbours, family members, the clergy – over 60 roles, all aided by the costume designs of Pat Brown and Vera Dean: we see who these people are in an instant, before they speak for themselves.  I cannot assign roles to particular actors (I’m sure to get it wrong) so, as the programme does, I shall just list them: Kassie Duke, Juliet Ibberson, Simon King, Sean McCarthy, Judy O’Dowd, Liz Plumpton, Ben Pountney, Phil Rea, John Whittell, and Sam Wilson.  They all rise to the challenges of the piece, delivering varied and rounded characterisations as well as the emotional punch of key scenes.

There is an especially chilling and repulsive portrayal of hate-mongering, Bible-brandisher Fred Phelps – all the more sickening because you realise bastards like him are still around, spouting their bilious nonsense and disrupting funerals of gay people.

Rod Natkiel does a remarkable job of directing the action on his minimalist stage – each monologue and exchange is delivered differently.  There is nothing samey or static in the presentation; we have a lot to listen to but he keeps us engaged and, even though we know the outcome, gripped as the story is pieced together.  Natkiel also uses specially shot video clips – news bulletins, mainly – which add to the verity of this docudrama, as well as upping the Americana factor.  I have to say the accents are uniformly strong.

A play about hatred but there are also the more positive aspects of humanity in evidence: humour, warmth and compassion, to name but three.

As societies across the world, from the USA to Chechnya take backwards strides in their treatment of gay people, the grisly death of Matthew Shepard is back to haunt us and ask us what kind of society do we want to be.

Compelling and a shining example of the high quality of work produced at the Crescent.

laramie

 


Play For Today

FOR SERVICES RENDERED

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 20th September, 2015

 

Somerset Maugham’s 1932 play didn’t go down well when it was first produced. It was too close to home for post-war Britain, where people preferred to see theatre as an escape from the daily struggles of a broken nation. The play recognises the prevailing trend: some of the characters troupe on in tennis whites, carrying racquets, but though amusing, this is far from one of those silly, lightweight comedies.

The show begins with Sydney, a veteran, blinded during the Great War, in a startling depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder. Tom Inman gives an astonishing performance and director Rod Natkiel bombards us with everything the Ron Barber Studio has to offer in terms of lighting and sound. It’s quite an opening.

It’s a conventional three-act play set in the family room of the Ardsleys. Rather than a plotline, Maugham gives us several. It’s a bit like watching an omnibus edition of a soap opera you’ve never seen before. Each character has his or her own problem – giving the more than competent company plenty to sink their teeth into.

John Sugden is utterly convincing as patriarch Leonard, clinging to a stiff-upper-lip philosophy despite his family (and by extension, society as a whole) unravelling under his very nose. Jo Thackwray is his Mrs, Charlotte, a bit less stiff in the upper lip department, but confused by the new ‘rules’ of society. “I’m pre-War,” she says, as (SPOILER) she is confronted with news of a terrible illness. These two are strong presences in all their scenes and they are ably supported by younger members of the cast – in particular Liz Plumpton, who is rather good as Eva, losing her marbles in scenes of table-flipping and chess-piece losing. Oli Davis, as troubled former sailor Collie, walks a tightrope between repressed emotion and emotional outburst in perhaps the tensest performance of the lot, while Andrea Stephenson’s stoical but brittle Ethel also makes an impression. Ethel is married, regrettably, to boorish drunkard and struggling farmer Howard (John O’Neill in a turn that is part-comic, part-monstrous), and Eleanor O’Brien makes her mark as the trouser-wearing young woman Lois, embarking on scandalous behaviour.  John Whittell brings assurance and authority to his role as Doctor Prentice.  Ivor Williams is good value as ageing philanderer and Paul Daniels look-a-like, Wilfred, while Pat Dixon threatens to steal every scene she’s in as his overbearing wife, Gwen.

The cast handles the sometimes outdated dialogue with an easy naturalism, hitting the punchlines and the dramatic punches equally successfully. Period is economically evoked by a few items of furniture and objets, and credit must go to Pat Brown and Vera Dean for their work with wardrobe, giving each character a range of outfits to suit both era and personality.

Of course, the play was not written as a period piece but has become one. Then it was commenting on contemporary issues – matters that are still very much with us today. The lot of ex-servicemen struggling to make a living, notions of assisted suicide, class distinctions, and the terrible waste of every war, and the jingoism that goes along with it. In the most impassioned speech of the piece, Sydney says people were “dupes of the incompetent fools who run the nations”. Bad news, Sydney: they’re still in charge.

It’s an excellent production, an easy watch, its issues accessible and its drama enjoyable, with some striking moments along the way.

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