Tag Archives: Jonathan Ashley

Anyone for Menace?

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 14th June, 2016

 

This tour of Harold Pinter’s first full-length play by the excellent London Classic Theatre comes to its end in Coventry, and it’s pleasing to see a good turnout and to hear the dialogue getting so many laughs.  The play happens to be a big favourite of mine.

Once again, I marvel at Pinter’s skills at taking everyday patterns of speech and manipulating them, not only to humorous effect but also to generate an air of threat.  By and large, what is said is funny, but it is what the characters don’t say that creates the menace – apart from the sudden violent outbursts, of course.

Meg takes in lodgers at her seaside home.  Her husband Petey is a deckchair attendant.  Their only houseguest is Stanley, a former professional pianist.  When two men arrive, supposedly on Stanley’s birthday, they use the festivities to further their own ends, namely getting Stanley where they want him, ready to be taken away…  It’s chilling because of the lack of explanation.  Histories are hinted at; we try to read between the lines, but there are too many pieces missing from this jigsaw puzzle.  We are left with unsettling feelings, all explanations denied.

It’s a solid, straightforward production, and it is beautifully played by the cast of six.  Cheryl Kennedy’s Meg is dim and daft – behind her annoying treatment of Stanley is the vaguest sense of loss, of never having been loved, of being childless perhaps… Ged McKenna is excellent as Petey, shuffling around – he tries to stand up to the interlopers but he’s a defenceless old man.  Ultimately, by letting Meg’s delusions continue for a little bit longer, he shows us that he does care for her.  Gareth Bennett Ryan’s Stanley falls apart before our very eyes – from bossing around his landlady, to banging his drum, assaulting a guest, before ultimately being reduced to a gibbering shadow.  That guest, Lulu, is a perky Imogen Wilde but it is not with Stanley that she has a grievance the morning after, but the avuncular but sinister Goldberg (Jonathan Ashley on fine form).  Goldberg is overbearing and sentimental – a front for his real nature and his unspecified mission.  Declan Rodgers amuses as hot-headed sidekick McCann, sometimes psychopathic, sometimes sociable.

Goldberg and McCann’s stichomythia is handled splendidly, wearing down their victim by force of words, familiar yet incomprehensible.

Director Michael Cabot uses no gimmicks, allowing Pinter to have his head, teasing out the play’s dark corners and letting the language (and indeed the silences) speak volumes, taking the action at a steady pace.

People emerging from the auditorium confess to being a bit baffled, claiming not to ‘get it’.  What they don’t get is that’s the point.  Life isn’t fully explained or explainable.  Threats and attacks can be random and inexplicable.  Your number could be up at any minute, and those men with their van with the wheelbarrow in it, could be coming for you next, whether you deserve it or not.

To me, the play is a masterpiece – and it is very well served by this no frills, straight-down-the-line production.

Birthday-Party-Production-001-510x340

Gareth Bennett-Ryan and Cheryl Kennedy review the papers

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Doing What They Orton

ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 3rd July, 2014

 

It’s fifty years since Joe Orton’s sordid little play was first produced and half a century later as this touring production from London Classic Theatre shows, it may not be as shocking as it once was, but it’s certainly still very funny.

Simon Kenny’s set has more junk than Steptoe’s yard but all the play requires is a sofa, and an armchair. We are in the lounge room of Kath, an emotionally scarred, sexually voracious woman in her forties. She has brought a young man called Sloane into the house with a view to renting him a room. Sloane is fit – more so, with a shock of bleached blond hair. The seductress becomes the seduced as Sloane ingratiates himself into the household. Kath’s decrepit old father, Kemp, smells a rat, recognising the young man in connection with a violent murder, but Kath’s brother Ed also takes a shine to the new lodger and so a power play ensues during which Kath proves she’s not so much of a victim and Ed allows his attraction to Sloane to get in the way of common sense.

Orton gives his characters eloquence and bathos, which makes them all the more grotesque, but their inner workings, their psychology, are all credible. The playwright also expects the audience to piece things together, from contradictory fragments of the characters’ back stories.

As smothering landlady Kath, Pauline Whitaker has the best comic timing of this quartet of fine performers, while Jonathan Ashley’s Ed reacts almost melodramatically or cartoonishly to Sloane’s bare torso and “I’m an orphan” sob story. Nicholas Gasson is both disgusting and endearing as the vulnerable old duffer, and Paul Sandys’s opportunistic Sloane is a mass of pent-up energy and cynical game-playing.

Director Michael Cabot lets Orton’s play speak for itself, keeping the laugh levels high and pitching the tone larger-enough-than-life to give the world of the play its own feel, where naturalistic speech, hyperbole and epigrams pour out of the characters’ mouths – ah, what Orton might have gone on to create, had he not been murdered!

This is the last week of a long tour and the cast show no signs of flagging. Well worth the trip to Coventry, this production shows us an old classic that still works to entertain and revile. We are all ruled by lust and fear, Orton says – behold the human animal in its glory.

As transparent as her dress, Kath (Pauline Whitaker) makes her move on Sloane (Paul Sandys)

As transparent as her dress, Kath (Pauline Whitaker) makes her move on Sloane (Paul Sandys)