Tag Archives: Leigh Symonds

Ups and Downs


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th October, 2017


Alan Ayckbourn expertly directs this revival of his 1979 farce, playing in a double-bill with his latest work, A Brief History of Women.  Set in rambling manor house The Pines, Taking Steps has most of the ingredients of classic farce but the traditional element of doors is swapped for two flights of stairs.  The action takes place on three floors of the hours, with characters running, sneaking and hurrying up and down stairs in bids to avoid each other or seek each other out.  And yet, all three floors are set in the same square of stage, with furniture from three rooms sharing the same space.  The stairs are flat, running alongside two sides of the square.  This allows us to see characters in different rooms at the same time, if you see what I mean.  It works like a charm and the added silliness of actors galumphing along flat sets of stairs augments the overall ridiculousness of the plot – which I won’t attempt to summarise here.

Louise Shuttleworth is great value as Elizabeth, a thwarted (and self-deluded) dancer, attempting to leave her husband.  Laurence Pears is also great as her brother Mark, who has problems of his own, not least of which is people falling asleep when he is talking to them.  The heightened accents, a tad more RP than we use today, add to the period feel – the complications would not work in today’s world of smartphones and technology.  Laura Matthews’s Kitty is quickly established as the timid, overwrought former fiancée of Mark, while Anthony Eden’s hilariously inarticulate solicitor Watson is an absolute delight.  Leigh Symonds’s builder Leslie Bainbridge is all-too recognisable from the ‘real world’ but it is Russell Dixon’s overbearing Roland, Elizabeth’s husband, who dominates the piece and its events.  Dixon is marvellous and his Roland has many colours, all of them increasingly blurring as he knocks back the scotch.

The writing is sublime – Ayckbourn’s dialogue can’t be bettered in my view – and there is plenty of physical business as the action winds itself in knots.

Still funny after all these years and performed by a top-notch ensemble, the play reveals human inadequacies in a vastly enjoyable way, and it’s an undiluted pleasure to escape into this highly manipulated world and get away from the unfolding, deteriorating farce that is our current government and the Brexit ‘negotiations’.  Anything that brings hearty laughter in these troubled times is to be welcomed and embraced like an old and much-loved friend.


Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth argue in the bedroom while Antony Eden waits downstairs. (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)


Circle of Life


New Vic Theatre, Thursday 9th October, 2014

Alan Ayckbourn’s latest is another display of his genius. Rather than one play, this is a collection of five shorts. The running order is chosen at random by audience members in the bar about half an hour before show time. Therefore, every night is different: the order in which you see the plays affects your understanding and appreciation of what goes on. Characters may appear in more than one. Names are mentioned that will resonate in other pieces. It’s a circular jigsaw puzzle of entertainment.

Each play has a different flavour: there is hilarious mistaken identity in The Politician, when an aspiring actress is mistaken for a call girl; heartbreak in The Star; tenderness in The Judge, spookiness in The Novelist; and thrills and tension in The Agent. All of them are rich with Ayckbourn’s observational humour, and each of them has its own twist or surprise.

The ensemble cast is top notch. Nigel Hastings impresses as camp, CSI-obsessed neighbour Ashley in The Agent, and as the odious Politician, channelling Boris Johnson (and yet only managing to be about 10% as abhorrent as the real thing). Russell Dixon’s Tom brings the authority and vulnerability that come with old age. Alexandra Mathie brings restraint and madness to Blanche in her two appearances. Brooke Kinsella gives call girl Lindy sweetness and understated pathos. Krystle Hylton lights up the stage as ball-of-energy teenage wannabe Roz, determined to be The Star but only if she can dispense with such time-wasting things as training and experience. Her reappearance in The Politician shows another side to the brash youngster, as nerves overcome her prior to her ‘audition’. Leigh Symonds comes the heavy as Lance: there is some quite brutal violence in The Agent, the most thrilling of the pieces, and a powerful performance from Sophie Roberts as Gale. Richard Stacey is amiable but ineffectual vicar Russ – his devastation at the hands of an old school girlfriend is very touching and is the most downbeat ending of the five – some evenings the show must end with this piece, leaving the audience with a very different feeling…

As a whole, it’s about human experience in all its colours: love, loss, memory, regret, mistakes, violence, passion, ambition, hypocrisy, lust, fear… Somehow Ayckbourn covers the lot.  Life is a dance in the round.  The characters reveal different aspects of themselves depending on the circles in which they move.

Each piece is a treat from Ayckbourn’s chocolate box. Each centre is not what you expect from the labelling. The whole evening, rather than giving you a bellyache, leaves you with a sense of satisfaction. And a sense of wonder at the kind of mind that can put all this together, while respecting the audience’s intelligence to make the connections and spot the ramifications: what is a throwaway line in one, can have life-changing consequences in another…

Bloody marvellous. I want to go round again.


A Shaw Thing


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 14th June, 2013


In a break from her in-house style, the New Vic’s resident director, Theresa Heskins helms this subversive piece from George Bernard Shaw.  It is an entertaining and thought-provoking demonstration of her versatility.

It begins as an amusing comedy of manners – a young Englishman abroad with his friend, encounters a young woman and after much stammering in a Hugh Grant vein, asks her father for her hand in marriage.  And then the trouble starts.  It comes to light that Daddy is Sartorius, a self-made man, whose fortune comes from ill-gotten gains.  In short, he is a slum landlord, screwing every farthing he can out of his desperate tenants.  Nowadays he’d be trousering huge amounts of housing benefit, while publicly railing against the high cost of welfare. The source of Sartorius’s wealth gives rise to qualms in the young man.  He (Trench) has been living comfortably enough on his annual income and informs his fiancée that two can live as cheaply as one… And then the source of Trench’s income is revealed…

By the time we reach the third of three acts we have been drawn into this world, largely by dint of charming, spirited and nuanced performances by the excellent company of actors. The true colours of the characters are on show, and they are not very attractive.  Blanche (the excellent Rebecca Brewer) declares how she hates the poor in an outburst that is as heartfelt as it is distasteful.  As Lickcheese (great name!) the rent collector with a conscience, the lively Leigh Symonds gives us a contrasting accent to all the posh voices but he, like Trench after him, quells his qualms when his own pocket is affected.  Mark Donald is both endearing and infuriating as Trench, learning the true nature of the world and casting his ideals aside. He portrays the character’s awakening very effectively; you want him to make a stand against the injustice he has stumbled upon but, of course, he can and will not. He is Nick Clegg, finding himself in bed with vipers and then cosying up with them. Andonis James Anthony is superb as snobbish arbiter of good taste, Cokane, a kind of referee to the proceedings as the argument unfolds, but ruling the roost is William Ilkley’s Sartorius.  The characterisation oozes power and self-assurance.  A look or a gesture speaks volumes.  This is his world and you’re in no danger of forgetting it.

Beautifully designed by Michael Holt, the production boasts an ingenious set that is impressionistic in its depiction of locations ranging from a Germanic hostelry to rooms in Sartorius’s house, and subtle in its symbolic reminder that these people are living on top of the poor.  The costumes are sumptuous, complementing the performances to evoke the late Victorian period.  Some social mores have moved on since then but, sad to relate, some attitudes prevail.

This is the uncomfortable truth of the play:  Conscience and empathy are swept aside by selfish concerns.  It’s not just about protecting one’s interests; it’s about exploiting one’s position for personal gain.  Today, 120 years after the play’s premiere, it is sickening to realise that both sides of the House of Commons are still riddled with people like Sartorius and Trench.

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