Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 1st November, 2016
Alan Ayckbourn’s hit comedy from 1967 still comes across as fresh and funny, mainly because the devices it uses (mistaken identities, misunderstandings) are timeless and as old as theatre itself. At the time of its premiere, the play was actually rather progressive with its matter-of-fact depiction of a young unmarried couple and their evident sexual relationship. Ginny and Greg have only been together for a month! Gasp! Of course, these days we take these things in our stride; Ayckbourn was clearly ahead of the game when it comes to the way social mores were going.
It soon becomes apparent that Ginny is more worldly-wise than Greg. Details of previous lovers emerge and she is rather too vague about the flowers and chocolates that continue to arrive. Greg’s suspicions (among other things) are aroused and he follows her to what he thinks is her parents’ house in deepest Buckinghamshire. Somehow he arrives before she does and so a web of mistakes and misunderstandings ensues, entangling the characters but giving the audience delicious treat after treat. Ayckbourn takes dramatic irony and stretches it almost beyond the bounds of plausibility but he is such a master of the form, he knows exactly how to stir and season the pot.
The cast of four is excellent, playing the finely-tuned comedy like a virtuoso quartet. Antony Eden is Greg, well-meaning, decent but a bit dim Greg, the catalyst for the chaos. Lindsey Campbell is his perky but secretive girlfriend, with Robert Powell and Ayckbourn veteran Liza Goddard as the older couple mistaken for her parents. Eden is energetic and likable while Campbell balances attractiveness with shadiness – we begin to suspect she’s not quite good enough for him. Powell’s comic timing is a joy as grumpy Philip is wound up like a clock spring while Goddard is the perfect foil for him as the sweetly oblivious Sheila who is not as dim as she might appear.
Robin Herford directs with a light touch. The characters come across as credible people in an incredible situation and the laughs keep coming. Big, hearty belly laughs – it is as though maestro Ayckbourn is playing us like fiddles and we love him for it. He keeps us in on the joke throughout and we revel in our superior knowledge as the characters flail and flounder. It all seems to stem from a terribly English inability to introduce ourselves properly. We assume, we leap to conclusions, rather than breach convention, rather than risk appearing impolite and say who we are and what we mean. And we’re all the more fun because of it!
Confusion reigns: Liza Goddard and Antony Eden
Leave a comment | tags: Alan Ayckbourn, Antony Eden, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, comedy, farce, Lindsey Campbell, Liza Goddard, Relatively Speaking, review, Robert Powell, Robin Herford | posted in Theatre Review
THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 15th October, 2015
It is commonplace these days to adapt popular films for the stage, often as musicals. Here the 1957 Ealing Comedy (which starred Peter Sellars and Margaret Rutherford) gets the jukebox musical treatment but all the songs are written by the great Irving Berlin. Standards like Blue Skies and What’ll I Do flesh out the action of this utterly charming period piece.
Struggling screenwriter Matthew Spencer (Haydn Oakley) inherits a cinema in a provincial town. The place is on its uppers, thanks to the underhand tricks of the owners of rival cinema, the Grand. Spencer and his wife Jean (Laura Pitt-Pulford) plan to tart up their picture house in order to get a better offer from the rivals, Albert and Ethel Hardcastle. But the Spencers soon find themselves emotionally attached to the old place and the Hardcastles have a fight on their hands.
It’s all good, clean fun, steeped in the sepia tones of nostalgia and brought to life by a likeable and energetic ensemble. Haydn Oakley is a rich-throated crooner but the superb Laura Pitt-Pulford steals the limelight – her solos are showstoppers and a treat for the ears. Matthew Crowe is delightful as camp solicitor-turned-drag-artiste Robin Carter and Ricky Butt is suitably booable as the snooty and conniving Ethel. Sam O’Rourke’s naïve Tom, a walking encyclopedia of cinematic trivia and the Hardcastles’ lovely daughter Marlene (Christina Bennington) bring the house down with Steppin’ Out With My Baby, in which Lee Proud’s choreography brings to mind the wonderful Gene Kelly.
Liza Goddard brings comedy and melancholy as Mrs Fazackerlee, former silent movie pianist, while Brian Capron (having abandoned teaching woodwork at Grange Hill comp) manages to be both scruffy and dashing as drunken projectionist Percy Quill. Musical Director Mark Aspinall and the rest of his sextet play sublimely the irresistible jazz arrangements and swing rhythms of the superior-quality score. David Woodhead’s set evokes the shabby grandeur of the picture house, enhanced by atmospheric lighting designed by Howard Hudson.
Director Thom Southerland captures the innocence of the era, delivering a feel-good piece that’s all warm and cosy like slipping into a warm bath. It’s sweet, funny and charming, an unadulterated delight. And there’s nothing wrong with that for a great night out at the theatre. You may also read more into it, if you’re that way inclined. The piece reeks of ‘British values’ in the best possible sense: fair play and rooting for the underdog, decency, loyalty and pulling together in the face of underhand tactics and dirty tricks. The villains of the piece are those who seek to make profits by whatever means they deem necessary – and that’s something worth keeping in mind in these days under a government inebriated by the will to privatise everything they can get their mitts on.
Leave a comment | tags: Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Brian Capron, Christina Bennington, David Woodhead, Haydn Oakley, Howard Hudson, Irving Berlin, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Lee Proud, Liza Goddard, Mark Aspinall, Matthew Crowe, review, Ricky Butt, Sam O'Rourke, The Smallest Show on Earth, Thom Southerland | posted in Theatre Review
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 3rd February, 2014
The Agatha Christie Theatre Company is back on the road. This year’s offering is an excellent production of Christie’s first play, featuring Robert Powell at the top of the bill as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.
From curtain up it is clear this is a quality show. Simon Scullion’s art deco set is grand, stylish and elegant, and is matched by the formal evening wear of the characters. This is very much a period piece, as evinced by a plethora of lines about ‘foreigners’ and how they can’t be trusted. “They’re clever!” someone says as though it’s a bad thing. It’s like a UKIP broadcast and just as funny.
Director Joe Harmston is a dab hand at this kind of thing; he knows how to pitch it just right for a present-day audience, having his cast play the cardboard characters as naturalistically as possible – We’re not meant to care about them; we’re meant to suspect each and every one of them as we try to solve the puzzle before the detective reveals who done it.
Robert Powell is a marvellous Poirot, acting with a quiet authority, assurance and wry humour – the play is funnier than you might expect.
The plot centres around the sudden death of a rich inventor and no one is above suspicion. Company stalwart Ben Nealon gives a solid turn as the dead man’s disgruntled son. Another regular, Liza Goddard witters and sparkles as batty Aunt Caroline – imagine Christine Hamilton in Downton Abbey. Felicity Houlbrooke brings energy as bright young thing Barbara, cutting a rug with the dashing Mark Jackson as Raynor, the dead man’s personal secretary. We almost veer into Allo Allo territory with Gary Mavers’s Italian doctor – but then foreigners are supposed to be dodgy – and I particularly enjoyed Robin McCallum as Captain Hastings, Poirot’s nice but dim sidekick.
It’s hardly ground-breaking theatrically speaking but with its fine blend of humour and intrigue and a cast that’s full of beans, Black Coffee perks up a dismal winter evening.
Leave a comment | tags: Agatha Christie, Ben Nealon, Black coffee, Felicity Houlbrooke, Gary Mavers, Grand Theatre Wolverhampton, Hercule Poirot, Joe Harmston, Liza Goddard, Mark Jackson, review, Robert Powell, Robin McCallum, Simon Scullion, theatre review | posted in Theatre Review
GO BACK FOR MURDER
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 25th November, 2013
On paper the premise for Agatha Christie’s 1960 play seems rather intriguing. Young woman comes to England from Canada to uncover the truth behind her parents’ deaths. Did her birth mother really poison her father? She meets, takes tea and interviews people who were material witnesses in the murder trial. One after the other… The first act is, in reality, a string of two-handed scenes in which the witnesses (now also suspects) spill their guts all-too-readily. The dialogue is like giving testimony in court rather than conversation. They all remark on how much the Canadian girl looks like her murderer mother.
In the second act, the cast are let off the leash as, in flashback, the events of that fateful day are played out, and they get to interact with each other at last, and we get to see a country-house murder after all.
Sophie Ward, all 60s hip in bobbed hair and a dress like a Mondrian painting plays her own mother (so that’s why they kept mentioning the resemblance!) contrasting the accents of mother and daughter very well. Gary Mavers is the victim, the artist and temperamental prick Amyas Crale – there is no pity engendered for him; the suspense comes from waiting for him to die. In this respect, Christie is playing to our darker side. And we love it.
In the first act, Lysette Anthony gives an overly mannered performance as Lady Elsa Greer but in the flashback she is more palatable as the artist’s model-cum-mistress. Stuffed shirts Robert Duncan and Antony Edridge have little to stretch them but they occupy the stage as potential culprits and atmosphere-bringers more than competently. The marvellous Liza Goddard is underused as Miss Williams the governess, and Georgia Neville makes for a rather grownup little girl. Tying it all together in the quasi-detective/narrator role is Ben Nealon as the dashing young solicitor.
Director Joe Harmston keeps the stage uncluttered – there is enough to create an impression of era and place – and keeps the company on the right side of caricature. The play is all about the puzzle, although what drives it is the notion that no two people remember an event in exactly the same way.
Leave a comment | tags: Agatha Christie, Antony Edridge, Ben Nealon, Birmingham, Gary Mavers, Georgia Neville, Go Back For Murder, Joe Harmston, Liza Goddard, Lysette Anthony, New Alexandra Theatre, review, Robert Duncan, Sophie Ward, theatre review | posted in Theatre Review
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Thursday 21st June, 2012
The title of John Chapman’s 1950s comedy refers to a patch on the staircase in a country house hotel. The step is to be avoided at all costs – so we wait with mounting anticipation for someone to put their foot in it.
This is just one element of this traditional farce contrived to amuse. That’s the thing with farces: it is all about contrivance. This one, involving the switching of racehorses and the kidnapping of a jockey, is still very amusing. Most of the jokes still work and the comic business, when it works, is a scream. The performance I saw included a pair of trousers that didn’t drop at the crucial moment and a scene that began before the stage manager had quit the stage – I suspect hitches like this happen all the time. The way the actors ad lib and handle these problems adds to our enjoyment.
Timing is essential. A skilful cast is required and this production boasts a wealth of comic talent, with some well-known and lesser-known faces all pulling together as the action winds them up like clockwork. Ron Aldridge’s direction builds the pace nicely but there are a couple of moments that could do with a rethink: the inadvertent knocking out of the hotel owner seemed very awkward to me, and the sounds of Beth the maid dropping stuff sound a little too recorded.
The characters would not look out of place in a P G Wodehouse novel. Neil Stacy as long-suffering proprietor Colonel Wagstaff is a likeable old cove. He is the stiff upper lip put to the test. Liza Goddard is his bright-eyed, absent-minded wife. The two of them barely tolerate the walking disaster area of a maid they inherited from the previous owners (Susan Penhaligon in a consistently hilarious portrayal). Their status quo is disturbed by the arrival of the crooks, Alfred Tubb and Fred Phipps (Derren Nesbitt and Norman Pace) masquerading as respectable bookies. They are in cahoots with Norman Pace’s erstwhile double act partner Gareth Hale as local ne’er-do-well, Flash Harry. These three provide most of the physical comedy. Norman Pace is especially energetic and moronic, eagerly becoming falling-down-drunk.
I liked naive young secretary Bob Saul, handsome but a bit of a twit, trying to woo the proprietors’ daughter (Evelyn Adams, who reminded me of a young Jane Asher). Add a French jockey who doesn’t speak English to the mix (Michael Keane, who manages to wring humour from his characterisation without resorting to caricature or xenophobia) and by the interval, the scene is set for a fast and frantic second half. And then a buxom WPC (Sarah Whitlock in a spirited performance) turns up and the potential for misunderstandings and confusion is maximised.
At times the plot seems as creaky as the stairs. At any second it could fall through but for the most part there is plenty of use left in this old play. It has aged very well but my admiration remains firmly with the cast and the way they keep the balloon in the air, when lines fall flat, or a bit of business goes awry. It must be hard work but I suspect they’re having as much fun as the audience.
2 Comments | tags: Bob Saul, Derren Nesbitt, Dry Rot, Evelyn Adams, farce, Hale and Pace, John Chapman, Liza Goddard, Malvern Theatres, Michael Keane, Neril Stacy, Sarah Whitlock, Susan Penhaligon | posted in Theatre Review