Tag Archives: London Classic Theatre

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.

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Gareth Bennett-Ryan and Cheryl Kennedy review the papers

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Storms in Teacups

ABSENT FRIENDS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 8th June, 2015

Alan Ayckbourn’s acerbic ‘comedy of embarrassment’ pre-dates Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party by a few years and television shows like The Office by many. A real-time glimpse into a suburban house, one cringe-worthy Saturday afternoon when hostess Diana is throwing a tea party for old friend Colin, whose fiancée has recently drowned to death. As the guests gather, acrimony and suspicion, resentment and bitterness, all float to the surface so that when the bereaved Colin finally arrives, he is by far the most well-adjusted and happy of the lot – and that’s not saying much!

Catherine Harvey is excellent as the brittle Diana, a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, both driven and hampered by social niceties. Bullied by husband Paul (Kevin Drury) Diana reaches breaking point, leaving it to her guests to keep the party going. Kathryn Ritchie’s Evelyn is a truculent, gum-cracking monster, making the most of her mainly monosyllabic lines. John Dorney is absolutely hilarious as Evelyn’s ants-in-his-pants husband, John, but it’s Alice Selwyn’s Marge who takes the comedy crown in a superbly realised and rounded characterisation of a woman who mollycoddles her hypochondriac (and unseen) husband, while sublimating her own needs into shopping for hideous clothes. Here she is helped by Simon Kenny’s design work. The 1970s setting (the play is now a period piece) adds to the humour: Marge’s truly awful new shoes look funnier now than they might have done back then, when we were all wearing them.

Michael Cabot keeps things cracking along at a fair lick. Any moments of quiet are thus all the more effective, and he builds moments of crescendo with an expert touch. Ayckbourn’s script is extremely funny, showing his ear for the humour in naturalistic dialogue as well as bringing out the bleakness of the characters’ lives. Each marriage we observe is some kind of hell for its inmates. Only Colin (Ashley Cook, splendidly irritating), who escaped marriage due to his fiancée’s premature death, seems at peace – he missed the opportunity for the shine to go off his perfect relationship and so it is eternally untarnished, as encapsulated in the holiday photographs he insists on passing around.

London Classic Theatre delivers a highly entertaining production, like one of those sweets with a sour filling. Fashions and furniture may have changed but human beings remain resolutely as flawed as ever.

absent friends


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)

 

 

 


Back Story

BETRAYAL

Derby Theatre, Thursday 5th September, 2013

London Classic Theatre’s latest tour kicks off in Derby but already it feels like a production that has had more performances.  The cast of four seem well bedded in their roles – and I use the term advisedly: Pinter’s Betrayal is the story of an affair.

On the face of it, “Man sleeps with best friend’s wife” seems unremarkable as a storyline.  It is a staple ingredient of every soap you can think of.  What sets Pinter’s version apart is the structure.  The action happens backwards – I don’t mean in some comic rewind kind of way.  We meet the characters in nine scenes, each scene occurring before the previous.  This is a device that has since been used in more than a couple of films, but few examples are as effective as presented here.

And so we first meet Emma (Rebecca Pownall) and Jerry (Steven Clarke) sometime after their affair has ended.  Gradually we track their relationship right back to the pivotal moment of their decision to embark on it.  Along the way, husband Robert (Pete Collis) gets wind of it.  Such is the effect of the structure, the tension is almost palpable.  Earlier (or later!) Emma reveals that Robert has hit her a few times.  When we come to the scene when the truth comes out, the possibility of our witnessing such violence is very real.

The cast run the gamut of emotions.  As Emma, Rebecca Pownall is brittle, strident, vulnerable, happy… but, as if often the case with Pinter, her most powerful scenes are when she says very little.  She squirms in her Venetian deck chair as Robert skirts around her infidelity during a holiday.  Her silence speaks volumes.  It is remarkable.  Lover Jerry is a bit of a prat; Steven Clarke imbues him with likeability along with his selfishness and impulsive nature.  Pete Collis’s Robert is, by contrast, quite a static figure, but his stillness hints at the emotion he is restraining.  The fourth member of the cast is Max Wilson as the Italian waiter who gets the brunt of Robert’s annoyance, as anger is deflected from his best friend across the table.

It all runs like clockwork.  The script is undeniably Pinter.  The drama is leavened by the unconscious humour of everyday interaction, the highly charged subtext contrasts with the banality of the characters’ middle class existence, emotions are articulated between the lines, and an underlying sense of tension bubbles along throughout.

Director Michael Cabot has got it spot on in terms of pace and tone.  Bek Palmer’s set evokes ruined buildings, in a war zone, perhaps: scenes take place among partial corners, doorways and windows.  The characters lives are in ruins, after all!  Andy Grange’s lighting design helps differentiate the locations – the final moment, when the affair begins, owes as much to the designers as it does the performers.  The colour palette is muted, greys and browns.  This is the 1970s.  Touches of colour appear the closer we revert to the 60s.  It’s very subtly done through costume (designer: Katja Krzesinska) making for a quality production in all respects.  The only nit I would pick is that the hairstyles need 70-fying a bit more.  Perhaps as the tour goes on, this will happen naturally as the actors’ hair grows! Image