Tag Archives: Karen Ford

Lacking Bite

CARMILLA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 8th July, 2014

 

Based on a novel that predates Dracula, David Campton’s script has all the makings of a Hammer horror: the gothic 19th century setting, the pretty young girl at risk, the dashing hero… The twist is that the monster is a striking, apparently young woman who feeds off the blood of the locals, with her sights set on the pretty young girl as a long-time companion.   Horror has always used the monster to symbolise the ‘other’ in society. Here it says that sex that is not procreative, is evil, and saps the strength of those who indulge, weakening them in body and mind until they die.

Ian Dickens has assembled a fine cast for this atmospheric tale. Christopher Hogben is the dashing, resolute Captain Field and I enjoyed James Percy’s brief turn as creepy servant Ivan, clicking the heels of his magnificent boots together. Peter Amory is a gruff Colonel Smithson, a sort of Von Trapp character in a bad mood, and Paul Lavers is effective as the ostensible man of reason, Doctor Spielsberg.  Karen Ford gives solid support as the governess and Melissa Clements’s Lucy is suitably lively and engaging – until the ‘illness’ begins to take its toll.

In the title role, Michelle Morris is good as the commanding vampire, with a strident tone and a bit of Jedi mind control power in her hand. I would have liked a bit more light and shade to her or, alternatively, a little bit more camp. The production could do with a lot more camp, in fact. It’s played just a little too straight – and it’s a difficult mood to create and sustain, but all too easy to puncture. A portrait is carried on to show the likeness between Carmilla and a woman who has been dead for centuries. It looks too much like a publicity headshot rather than an oil painting of the period. The destruction of Carmilla at the end – mostly in blackout – is laughable with (SPOILER ALERT) lights up to reveal a naked skeleton lying on a tomb.

Now, if the approach had been a little more light-hearted, including the audience in the asides for example, we would forgive any clumsiness or ineffectual special effects. When Hogben comes on, in disguise as a gypsy, the show really comes back from the dead. I think the whole show should have been done with this larger-than-life gusto – we would be more willing to go along for the ride. This is the spirit, I thought, and I loved Beppo the monke

At the time when the story first appeared, vampires were brand new as a genre of popular culture. Nowadays we are all over-familiar with the lore: the mysterious marks at the side of the neck, the preventative properties of garlic… that it is nigh on impossible to scare us.

The play is therefore riddled with dramatic irony rather than suspense. Our knowledge is vastly superior to any of the characters.

Also, I would have tackled the lighting design differently. What you don’t see is always scarier than what you do. More spots and candlelight would have raised the play’s game in the scary stakes. And I would have nixed the plodding tick-tock music that covers every scene transition.

A good-looking production in terms of costumes and set, Carmilla could have been an entertaining evening of comic-horror. As it stands at the moment, it’s rather bloodless and toothless.

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A Slow Death

LADIES IN RETIREMENT

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton,Tuesday 3rd June, 2014

 

Written in the 1940s and set in the 19th century, this play by Edward Percy and Reginald Denham tells of retired actress Leonora Fiske who shares her lonely marshland home with stony-faced housekeeper and confidante Ellen Creed (Erin Geraghty).  The pair are glamorous chalk and drab and dour cheese but they rub along together nicely enough until Ellen arranges for her two aged and emotionally immature sisters for an extended visit.  The old kooks are as tiresome to the audience as they are to Miss Fiske and so we understand why she wants rid of them and sharpish.   Familial devotion gets the better of the housekeeper’s loyalty and a murder is committed.  The second half of this over-long piece is concerned with bringing the murder to light.

It’s not without its moments.  There are some amusing lines of dialogue and some members of the audience gasped audibly a number of times.  It’s just that the play takes a long time to get where it’s going – and that’s not very far.

As faded chorine, Miss Fiske, Shirley Ann Field still cuts an elegant figure, speaking with her distinctive “lived-in” voice.  Being the start of the tour, I expect the lines will settle in and the whole thing will pick up its pace.  Erin Geraghty is suitably stern as the treacherous housekeeper, and Karen Ford and Sylvia Carson do a good job as the irritating old dears, little girls in old women’s bodies.

The show really comes to life whenever Lucy the maid (Melissa Clements) and cocky geezer Albert Feather (Christopher Hogben) are on stage.  These two bring energy to their characters and their scenes, lifting us out of the doldrums.

Gradually, the drama takes hold but director Ian Dickens needs to do something about the handling of the murder that ends the first half.  A quicker blackout would be more effective and I’m not sure about the pre-recorded, protracted scream as the curtain falls.  Also, it is laughably obvious that the cast are not actually playing the on-stage piano; if it were angled differently, this could be masked to avoid our cringes and derision.

Ian Marston’s set adds to the atmosphere and period feel but this slow-burner needs an accelerant to ignite our interest earlier on.  A big hit in its day, it may be time for Ladies in Retirement to be put out to grass. 

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Chilling on a Summer Night

A MURDER HAS BEEN ARRANGED

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 16th July, 2013

 

The Ian Dickens Summer Season draws to a close with this fourth offering, an effective chiller from 1930 by Emlyn Williams.   It plays out like a murder mystery, typical of that genre, but there is a supernatural element to proceedings that turn it into a ghost story towards the end.

The plot concerns an unusual party that takes place on stage of an empty theatre, rented for the occasion of Lord Jasper’s 50th birthday.  According to the terms of a will, if he can survive until 11 pm, he stands to inherit a couple of million quid.  Lord Jasper is something of an expert in all things occult and the theatre is reputed to have its own ghostly apparitions – hence his choice of location.  Also in the running is Jasper’s only surviving relative, a mystery man who will inherit if the old boy doesn’t make it to midnight…

It’s a creaky old plot but once it’s up and running you go along for the ride, thanks to the performances by a strong ensemble of players.  Paul Lavers is dashing and flamboyant as genial eccentric Sir Jasper with Nicola Weeks very good as his young bride.  It seems to me Weeks is more suited to these period roles than some of the more contemporary comedies I’ve seen her in.  The bride’s mother is the marvellous Anita Harris, looking glamorous and elegant, balancing superciliousness and desperation, as she tries to protect her daughter’s interests.  Also in the mix is handsome young hero Jimmy North (the likeable Mark Martin) who worms his way into the party – as a character, he fizzles out in that he is not part of bringing the murderer to light, but that’s all part of how Emlyn Williams plays with the genre.  I was impressed by Karen Ford as Mrs Wragg, a character part of strung-together colloquialisms, managing to keep on the right side of gor-blimey; she adds a touch of levity to proceedings and also helps to build the spooky atmosphere.  Poppy Meadows adds to the tension as jumpy Miss Groze, although we discover the reason for her nervousness is nothing to do with the theatre ghost…

Of course, the mysterious relative shows up.  Oliver Mellor dominates his scenes as Maurice Mullins, whose camp, extrovert exterior masks a Machiavellian heart, playing him with energy but keeping the melodramatic elements of the role toned down somewhat.  Any pretence at a whodunit is swept away and the play shifts gear.  Supernatural elements are brought to bear to expose the killer – like Banquo’s ghost at the dinner table.  Directors Ian Dickens and David North crank the tension slowly and play the dramatic irony to the utmost but the first appearance of the ‘Woman’ (Melissa Thomas) could do with being a touch more unworldly.  Good use is made of silence (when the audience is not coughing itself inside out, that is!) and Steve Chambers’s sound design adds to the sense of foreboding very effectively.

It’s an old-fashioned piece, a little longwinded in places, but it’s handled well and bears up in this day and age when we are more accustomed to flashier special effects and faster-moving stories.

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Over and Out

THE FINAL TEST
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 17th July, 2012

Chris Paling’s new comedy plants us firmly in Ayckbourn territory with the action split between the kitchen and garden of a suburban semi. It begins with Peter (Colin Baker) apparently dozing on a garden chair. He is listening to a radio broadcast of his beloved cricket and is clearly in his element. It takes him quite some time to become aware that his wife (Karen Ford) has packed up all the furniture and sold the house out from behind him. She has drawn stumps and is about to leave him to begin her new life with a lover she found on the internet, skinny-dipping at Bexhill-on-Sea.

This is the run-up to the main action of the play; when the housebuyers move in, they are dismayed to find Peter hasn’t left. He’s still in the garden, listening to the seemingly interminable cricket. The man (Peter Amory off of Emmerdale) takes a shine to his surprise squatter. The two men bond over the cricket and share sneaky cups of tea when the wife’s out. The wife herself (Nicola Weeks), a shrew in anybody’s book, is keen to get rid. She summons a policeman (Michael Garland) who, rather than evicting the unwelcome guest, ends up demonstrating ballroom dancing. It’s the silliest moment, the most contrived circumstance, in this otherwise grounded comedy.

Colin Baker’s delivery manages to make the bewildered and infuriating Peter both affable and tiresome. You can understand his wife’s frustration. He is adept at veering off at tangents, hijacking conversations with whimsical extrapolation, like a commentator who waxes lyrical about the birds and the clouds rather than focussing on the pitch. He spends most of the play in his wicker chair but at times reveals glimpses of the heart of the man. It turns out he’s not as selfish and inconsiderate as he at first appears. You can’t help liking him and his assertiveness at the very end, knocking his scheming wife for six, brings a satisfactory close of play.

Peter Amory adopts a gruffer accent than usual, in sharp contrast to his wife’s snooty airs and graces – she makes Penelope Keith’s Margot seem like a fishwife. They play out their marital strife, brought to a head by the interloper in the garden; he is the catalyst that helps them resolve their issues after ten years of discord. I wondered how they’d lasted that long.

It’s all rather watchable, amusing rather than having you in creases but, as with a cricket match, there are slow periods where you’re willing the action to perk up a bit. As a play about marriage it offers nothing new: communication is key, apparently. There is darkness and pain in these characters’ lives but you can’t help feeling that Ayckbourn would have handled these better and with greater theatrical flair.