Tag Archives: Les Stringer

Boots and All

HOBSON’S CHOICE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 12th November, 2017

 

Harold Brighouse’s classic comedy first appeared in 1916 when the tide of women’s suffrage was running high.  Set in 1880, it tells of Hobson, a widower and owner of a shoe shop, seeking liberation from the three grown-up daughters who work in his shop without pay, so he can have some peace and quiet.  He sets to marrying off the younger two – the eldest, at the advanced age of 30 is beyond hope, he feels.  This eldest, Maggie, takes matters into her own hands by browbeating the timid on-site shoemaker into marrying her.  She then orchestrates matters so that her sisters are able to wed the men of their choosing, manipulating their father until he is worse off than when he started.

The script still sparkles with sarcastic barbs and acerbic observations and feels fresher than any episode of Open All Hours penned in more recent years.

As blustering, boozing patriarch Hobson, the mighty Colin Simmonds gives a majestic performance in a superb characterisation.  The timing is impeccable; the nuances and the broader moments provide a masterclass in comic acting.  He is matched by two fellow leads: Kimberley Cormack as the level-headed, assertive and somewhat Machiavellian Maggie in a formidable display – you wouldn’t want to cross her; and James David Knapp is endearing and extremely funny as the timid and shy cobbler, Willy Mossop.  You wouldn’t want to be in his shoes, so to speak.

Between them, these three bring the play to remarkable life and they are supported by a strong team of players: Notably, Amy Thompson as Vickey, Emily Jane Carey as Alice, Carl Foster as Fred Beenstock, and Damien Dickens as Albert Prosser.  There are memorable cameo appearances from Jo Thackwray as the haughty Mrs Hepworth and Brian Wilson as Hobson’s drinking buddy, Jim.

Faye Rowse’s set design evokes the period stylishly and effectively, while Angela Daniels’s costumes reveal not only the characters’ status but also the changes in their fortunes as the action unfolds.  Charlotte Robinson’s hazy lighting suggests gas- or candlelight.  Director Les Stringer hits all the comedic hotspots while maintaining the emotional truth of the situations.

Thoroughly engaging and massively entertaining, this is a splendid production of a masterpiece and is a ‘shoe-in’ for one of my favourites of the year.

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The shoe’s on the other foot. Kimberley Cormack, James David Knapp and Colin Simmonds (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 

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Guilty Pleasure

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 26th February, 2017

 

Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama is a far cry from the typical, almost cosy murder mystery affair to which she is inextricably linked.  The play uses the trappings of civilised society, i.e. a court of law, to expose the seedy underbelly of human nature.  In the safe haven of our seats in the auditorium, we enjoy the unfolding details – a violent murder, acts of betrayal – but there is a bitter aftertaste to this entertainment that reminds us our fascination with crime as drama is, at best, a guilty pleasure.

This production exudes excellence at every turn.  A top-notch cast populates the story with credible characterisations, breathing life into Christie’s wry observations and the more verbose legalese of the professional lawmen.

Geoff Poole and Katie Merriman get things off to a promising start with some amusing character work as employees of Sir Wilfred, the barrister defending the case.  Their accents give us both place and period.  We’re in London in the 1950s.

Bill Barry is excellent as Sir Wilfred.  He and Brian Wilson, as lawyer Mayhew, give off an air of focussed professionalism, inspiring confidence in the system at work.  Equally strong is the barrister for the prosecution, Myers (John O’Neill), grandstanding in the courtroom under the quiet authority of Mr Justice Wainwright (Geoff Poole again, in complete contrast to his earlier role).

When Zena Forrest enters, as German ex-pat Romaine Heilger, she makes a striking impression, not just because of her Teutonic froideur.  Angela Daniels’s costume work cuts a dash – especially with the female characters.  After all, men’s suits and the accoutrements of the court have barely changed for decades!  Forrest is superb as the haughty femme fatale, provoked on the witness stand to losing her composure and saying too much… Alex Whiteley makes a good fist of Scottish busybody, Janet McKenzie, bringing humour to proceedings with a pleasing appearance in the box.

Director Les Stringer keeps us hooked throughout.  It’s a lengthy sit (three hours, including two intervals) but Stringer manages to avoid any sense of the staid and the static in scenes that involve a lot of talk and a lot of sitting around.  He contrives a crescendo at the end of the second act between prosecutor and prisoner, that is absolutely electrifying.

The set by Colin Judges (his real name) is stunning for the courtroom scenes, displaying craftsmanship to be sure, but it also says something.  The court speaks of power and permanence, and the establishment at work.  The set adds to the authenticity of the piece as much as the language and ritualised conduct of the court.  But even the establishment can get it wrong sometimes, Christie reminds us.

Christie provides more twists than Chubby Checker for a thrilling denouement.  The tables aren’t just turned, they spin!

Mark Payne dazzles, if that’s the right word, as nervy defendant Leonard Vole, as twitchy as his rodent namesake.  Personable and decent, he elicits our sympathy from the start, in what develops into a towering and emotional performance with real star quality.

A thoroughly enjoyable, old-school visit to the theatre, but old-fashioned does not mean lacking in power to entertain.  On the contrary, when it is played and presented this well, you know you’re in safe hands for a good night out.

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Some achieve greatness

TWELFTH NIGHT

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 22nd November, 2015

 

There is much to admire and enjoy in Colin Judges’s modern-day production with a distinct Mediterranean vibe. The set denotes grandeur and climate: a sturdy gated backdrop of stone walls abuts onto a patio of decorative flagstones on which the drama will be played out. A band of musicians in casual beach-bar wear warms us up with some sweet and melodious music by Sheila Amman, which is both of the moment and has hints of Tudor tunes. The costumes (by Stewart Snape) are colourful and in keeping with the setting.  Adam Lovelock’s sound design is especially effective at depicting different locations and Pete Laver’s lighting sets both mood and time and day beautifully. There is an artistic integrity to the production that works very well, including why men in this day and age are walking around tooled up with swords!

Sadly, Jordan Chilvers’s does not convince as the lovesick Orsino, needing to highlight his mood swings a touch more. Similarly, Rachel Cooper’s thoughtful but rather passive Viola could do with a bit more swagger when in Cesario guise, in order to knock Olivia out of her proposed seven years of mourning and headlong into distraction and infatuation.

As soon as Sir Toby Belch (Crescent stalwart Les Stringer) comes on, the energy levels rocket and the show recovers from its languid start to become a highly enjoyable event. Stringer brings detail and nuance to Sir Toby, as well as delivering the broader aspects of this hedonistic old sot. As Sir Toby’s sidekick and drinking buddy, Paul Brotherton almost steals the show with his consistently hilarious characterisation. His Sir Andrew Aguecheek is camper than Christmas but is served up with a good deal of inner truth and tenderness. It’s a fabulous and endearing creation.

Elli Holden makes for a coolly calculating Olivia, who wears her status as lady of the house as easily as her veil. Sophie Gray is good fun as a cheekily calculating and spirited Maria, while Hugh Blackwood’s monumental Malvolio is an absolute hoot. Lugubrious and measured at first, his manic episodes later on are all the more of a contrast – and yet he manages to make us love him, well before the end when his abuse is brought to light. A joy.

I have a particular fondness for Feste the fool, here appealingly played by Mark Payne, lively and witty and warm, with a pleasant singing voice to boot. Director Colin Judge hits most of the high spots, wringing out the comedy of set pieces like the late-night boozed-up sing-song, and the letter scene. Most of the cast deliver Shakespeare’s blank verse and prose with clarity and understanding, bringing out not only the humour but the melancholy of this ancient rom-com.

If you’re in Birmingham next week, give the Christmas markets a swerve and treat yourself to a night out at the Crescent. This Twelfth Night is a bittersweet confection well worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.

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Mark Payne as Feste


On The Nose

CYRANO DE BERGERAC

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 5th July, 2015

 

Edmond Rostand’s grand play is here presented in the Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio in this scaled-down adaptation by Glyn Maxwell. Even so, it’s an ambitious project: the Crescent is never shy of a challenge. A chorus of nuns form the chorus of minor characters in support of the protagonists. Some of them cope better than others with the heightened language and some have real stage presence: Angela Daniels, for example, as a lusty servant and as a Captain in the army! Les Stringer brings dignity as Le Bret and Alan Bull’s Ragueneau the cake-shop proprietor adds a touching quality: the experience of these two enriches the mostly young company.

Andrew Elkington is the dashing but goofy and gauche Christian de Neuvillette, unable to articulate his love for Roxane, until the eponymous Cyrano steps in to write epistles of love on the younger, better-looking man’s behalf. Cyrano loves Roxane too and so the letters are infused with his heartfelt but unspoken passion. As the big-nosed Cyrano, the excellent James David Knapp drives the piece with vigour and verve but he needs to be matched, in the comic moments, with equal energy. Director Alan K Marshall needs to make the comic business as sharp and quick-fire as Cyrano’s wit. The early scenes plod along at a steady pace, and the humour is ponderously dealt with – to its detriment.

When things take a more dramatic turn, the production comes into its own. An elegant Roxane, Hannah Kelly brings sensitivity as well as humour to the role, while Andrew Elkington’s Christian discovers fire in his belly in a satisfying performance. I warm to Nicholas Shelton’s De Guiche – he gets better as the play goes on. By the end, this stripped-down piece has the power to move. The dramatic climax is handled very well indeed.

Pat Brown and Vera Dean have gone all out for the costumes. In the absence of any set they evoke the period. Indeed, rails of costumes form the entrances and exits of the scenes, while dozens of frocks are suspended from the ceiling. This abundance of period clothing makes it all the more baffling why Cyrano himself is dressed like a modern-day supply teacher throughout. Like his nose, his costume sets him apart from the rest – not necessarily in a good way.

There is atmospheric lighting courtesy of Chris Briggs. Everyone is working so hard, you will them to succeed – and they make a good fist of it.

On the whole, this is an enjoyable production. It just needs to tighten up on the comic business to match the high quality of the emotional moments.

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Army Dreamers

SERJEANT MUSGRAVE’S DANCE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 2nd March, 2014

John Arden’s play from the late 1950s is not an easy one.  This ambitious production in the Ron Barber Studio makes more than a good fist of bringing it to life.  From the get-go it is obvious that production values are of a high standard.   Faye Rowse’s impressive set, making use of packing crates and chequerboard tiles, serves as all the locations of the action: pub, graveyard, town square etc, atmospherically lit by James Booth’s design.  Jen Coley’s costumes are spot on, leaving all the colour to the bright red of the soldiers’ tunics.

Director Colin Simmonds (himself a fine actor) elicits solid performances from most of his cast and moments of excellence from some of them.  Nick Tuck is chirpy Private Sparky, one of the few likable characters in the piece, nicely contrasted with the other members of the trio, Gwill Milton and Vinnie Clarke.  These three and their sergeant turn up in a Northern town and are immediately taken to be recruiting officers.  The real purpose of their visit eventually becomes apparent.  Musgrave (a powerful Mark Thompson) stages his own coup de theatre, taking drastic action in a bid to realise his own agenda: to bring an end to all war.  It’s a noble aim but the end doesn’t justify the means.  The play is startlingly relevant given this weekend’s news from the Ukraine but even without that, Musgrave’s argument still stands for British/American troops in places like Afghanistan.  The two-eyes-for-an-eye approach to quashing ‘insurgents’ will only be curtailed if we stand against those who never get hurt in these conflicts, the ruling elite, represented here by establishment figures the Mayor and the Parson.  It’s electrifyingly staged and worth the slow, uphill build-up.

Les Stringer’s Parson looks like Derek Jacobi and sounds like Richard Griffiths, in a neat character study that brings to the fore the detestable hypocrisy of the man.  Similarly effective is Edward Milton’s Mayor, a buffoonish figure keen to execute some kind of social cleansing of his town by shipping the undesirables off to the army, but to my mind, the strongest of the local characters comes in the form of pub landlady Mrs Hitchcock, superbly played by Diane Pritchard.  Barmaid Annie is also strongly depicted, with more than a hint of Ophelia’s madness, by Hannah Kelly.

The show is peppered with folk music motifs – there is some evocative playing; Tim Gardner’s discordant violin is a prime example.  The characters are prone to singing snatches of folk songs at any given moment, which sometimes breaks the naturalism of the performance, reminding us that we are there to think about what the play is about as well as what it makes us feel.

Yet again, the Crescent provides a challenging and provocative production of a difficult play, well worth an evening of anyone’s time.

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