Tag Archives: Malvern Theatres

Picture Imperfect


Festival Theatre, Malvern, Saturday 11th May, 2019


Tilted Wig Productions bring this new adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s only novel to the stage, courtesy of Sean Aydon, who also directs.  It’s a stylish affair, with a set by Sarah Beaton that suggests Victorian grandeur left to rot.  Beauty in decay is an emblem throughout this tale of handsome young Dorian who, wishing to retain the beauty captured in his portrait, makes a wish… As time goes by, it is the painting that shows signs of age, cruelty and dissipation, while the subject himself is unchanged.  Dorian takes to covering his painting, only to display ‘poor traits’ in his conduct.

Gavin Fowler begins as a sweet, appealing Dorian, subtly hardening his characterisation as his hedonistic pursuits increase his sociopathy. Dorian models himself on his friend, Lord Henry Wotton, played by Jonathan Wrather (evil Pierce off of Emmerdale).  Wrather is marvellous in the role, lazily debonair and louche, the aphorisms dripping from his lips.  Aydon’s script fizzes with Wildean wit, and Wrather has the perfect delivery.  In contrast is Daniel Goode as Basil the artist.  Here Aydon brings Wilde’s homoerotic undertones closer to the surface, although nothing is explicit.


Rather good! Jonathan Wrather as Lord Henry

Kate Dobson is a lively Sybil Vane, the actress who captures Dorian’s fancy, and she shares a funny scene with Samuel Townsend’s Romeo, where Sybil misses her cues.  I adored Phoebe Pryce’s pragmatic Lady Victoria Wotton, inured to her wayward husband’s shenanigans.  Adele James makes a strong impression as Ellen Campbell, ensnared in Dorian’s web.

Beneath the humour and the urbane epigrams, there is an undercurrent of dread and foreboding, accentuated by Jon McLeod’s music and sound design.  The peeling walls and general dinginess aid the idea that beauty is transient and decay is inevitable.  As they seek pleasure in whatever form, the characters are overshadowed by impending mortality.  For a story that concerns the passage of time, this production is curiously timeless in his setting: there are nods to the story’s Victorian origins, in the costumes, but then there are also dresses and slacks that are out of period, and Basil’s plastic bottles of white spirit, let alone the polythene sheet Dorian makes use of, American Psycho style.  Some of these anachronisms jar, others seem to fit, but nothing dilutes the overall tone of the production.

Dorian’s decadence is stylised, with choreography by Jo Meredith and a few masks and electropop beats.  It’s all rather classy so when a murder happens, it’s all the more visceral.

All in all, it’s a gripping version, although I did find it slows a little as it heads towards the climax.  A little more intensity in those final encounters would not go amiss.  I love the way the dreaded painting was handled.  Like Wilde, Aydon leaves it to our imaginations, and imagined horrors and imagined depravities are invariably more effective than depicted ones.


Look at his face; it’s a picture! Gavin Fowler as Dorian Gray


Not Short on Fun


Malvern Theatres, Thursday 19th December, 2013


Once again Malvern Theatres come up with a Christmas cracker of a pantomime – it works so well because it upholds the familiar traditions of the genre.  At the helm is Chris Pizzey who not only directs (and provided additional material to Andrew Ryan’s marvellously corny script) but also appears as funnyman-in-chief, Muddles, jester to the Wicked Queen.  Pizzey has an instantly likable persona, energetic and clearly enjoying himself.

My only quibble with this Snow White is it takes a while to get going.  I’m not sure that reading out birthday messages and shoutouts to members of the audience is best placed in Muddles’s first monologue.

Olivia Birchenough is a perky Snow White with a more than decent singing voice.  Songs from the Disney animated feature are put to good use along with more up-to-date pop numbers that get the youngsters in the audience singing along.  Pantos that use ‘original’ songs miss a trick in terms of audience engagement.  Seasoned old pro Charles Burden (if I may call him that) is a splendid dame, Snow White’s nursemaid, Dolly, holding his own when it comes to banter with the audience and working like a dream with Pizzey in time-honoured panto routines.

Sue Holderness is an impressive, imperious and enjoyable villain – you almost want her evil plot to succeed!   It is her Wicked Queen who steers the silliness into darker waters.  When she offers Snow White the poisoned apple there is genuine tension in this iconic moment, even though we know what’s going to happen.  The kiddies near me were thoroughly caught up in the action.

Ben Harlow is a charming Prince Frederick, dashing in a camp and goofy kind of way, and director Pizzey gets a lot out of his strong singing voice and his comedic skills.  Pizzey also capitalises on the talents of one of the dwarfs in particular, bringing out ‘Smiler’ (Jamie John) to join the nurse, Muddles and the Prince for a raucous rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas – although I have seen rowdier.

Routines like the ghost scene are executed superbly well, proving that the traditions and tropes of the form are still effective and still have currency in the hands of skilful performers.  And above all, it’s still very, very funny.


Pickwick From A Distance


Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 4th December, 2013

An ambitious project: to bring Charles Dickens’s rambling, episodic novel (originally a serial) to the stage.  But it has been done magnificently with regard to Nicholas Nickleby, so why not give it a go?  Unfortunately, The Pickwick Papers lacks the scale and the scope of that other book and, most crucially, it lacks drama.  So, what we get with Nicola Boyce’s adaptation is a series of scenes of little consequence involving characters that veer towards caricature.

Ian Dickens (some relation?) directs a cast of faces familiar from his other productions and pretty much gives them an easy ride.  Rebecca Wheatley gives a star turn as Mrs Leo Hunter performing a poem set to music about an ‘expiring frog’ – this characterisation contrasts effectively with her other role as the shy Miss Wardle.  David Callister is enjoyable as conman Jingle, inhabiting the costume and the vernacular with ease.  Poppy Meadows is underused – very funny as Mrs Bardell.  Dean Gaffney is well within his comfort zone as affable manservant Sam Weller – a pity he doesn’t get to flex the comedic muscle we saw earlier this year in Murder in Play.  Daniel Robinson and Scott Grey are the effeminate, giggling, shrieking ninnies Mr Winkle and Mr Snodgrass – they get the best scene in terms of action when poor Winkle finds himself embroiled in a duel thanks to the misconduct of Callister’s Jingle.

On the whole, the cast is very good and looks good in the costumes.  I think part of the problem is the set.  Most of the action takes place on a rostrum but this is set so far upstage it adds further distance between the actors and the audience beyond that provided by the fourth wall.  It is very difficult for them to engage with us and us with them, being so far removed from each other – my seat was fifth row centre and I felt like I needed binoculars.  Often the stage is crowded with people with their backs to us, further shutting us out. A disembodied voice narrates passages to cover scene changes, keeping us at a distance yet again rather than addressing us directly.

Also, the running time is not borne out by the content.  The story, such as it is, is too flimsy to sustain interest for almost three hours.  I found my mind wandering, unable to focus on some of the verbiage – Pickwick, nicely played by John D Collins – is a garrulous old thing but the script is in need of editing.

What should be a delightful, diverting way to pass an evening, becomes something of an endurance test.  It’s like trying to have a five-course meal in a sweet-shop: delightful at first but ultimately unsatisfying and lacking in nutrients.




Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 27th November, 2013


Henrik Ibsen’s tragedy was a bit of a flop in its day, but of course I was too young to have seen it back then.  At last, English Touring Theatre is bringing this top quality production to the provinces and we get to see what all the commotion was about.

Upcoming artist Osvald has returned to his widowed mother’s home for the summer.  Mother is busy preparing to open an orphanage in her late husband’s name to commemorate a decade of him being in the ground.  Osvald has an eye on Regina the maid – although his intentions are not wholly romantic… As the action unfolds, family secrets emerge from the shadows.  I won’t go into detail but there is a whiff of incest in the air, degenerative disease and assisted suicide – Osvald has inherited more than a propensity for pipe-smoking from his dear old dead dad…

Amazingly, it’s not heavy-going at all.  Stephen Unwin directs his own (superb) translation of the Norwegian, allowing brief moments of light among all the clouds.  There is warmth and levity in this storm- and doom-laden household, principally from Pip Donaghy’s portrayal of Engstrand, the Santa-bearded workman, remonstrating with daughter Regina (Florence Hall) in Highlands twangs.  Patrick Drury makes a commanding Pastor Manders, a cleric who is not as holier-than-thou as he pretends, but the key players are Kelly Hunter as the Widow Alving and Mark Quartley as her ailing son.

These last two are utterly compelling in a powerful denouement, pitched perfectly against the dawning of a new day – Simon Higlett’s set draws from Edvard Munch’s original designs; the back wall is dominated by an enormous picture window – we watch the weather over the mountains; clouds roll, rain falls… and ultimately the sun comes up to dazzle us as dark truths are brought into the light.

Ibsen was a forerunner in the movement from melodrama to Naturalism in 19th century theatre, and while there is something of the Greek tragedies in this piece, something a little Oedipussy in the central relationship, the play reminds us of Ibsen’s importance and brilliance.


Ducking and Diving


Festival Theatre, Malvern, Tuesday 5th November, 2013


It’s 2009 and despicable self-serving rotter Robert Houston MP is about to defect from New Labour to the Conservative Party (although why bother?).  He and his wife are drinking champagne and getting frisky at the prospect of going further upmarket.  Then news of the expenses scandal breaks and Houston is thrown into a panic.  Can he hide everything he’s claimed for (such as hanging baskets, bags of manure and yes, a duck house) before Tory bigwig Sir Norman Cavendish arrives to give him the final nod?

Dan Patterson and Colin Swash’s script begins like a Yes, Minister deleted scene, peppered with satirical references.  It’s like watching a repeat of Mock The Week as you cast your mind back to remember what was going on four years ago.  Ha ha, Nadine Dorries did bite an ostrich’s anus! And yes, Michael Gove still looks like ‘a smug fish’! Fortunately for the play, many of the things mentioned are still current, with the phone-tapping case in court right this minute. It’s humour for the current-affairs crowd, Spitting Image made out of meat.   My problem with satire is it is the ‘allowed fool’ – it’s all very well to laugh at the not-so-great and the far-from-good but it’s not going to change anything.  It’s not really bringing anyone to account.

Be that as it may, all of that is thankfully just a prelude, a springboard from which launches a hilarious couple of hours of traditional farce of the Whitehall variety.  As fraught fraudster Houston, Ben Miller pulls off the remarkable feat of making us detest the character but love his performance.  He does a Fawltyesque rant very well, along with knowing asides and some excellent physical comedy.  He is ably supported by Nancy Carroll as his snobbish Mrs, and James Musgrave as his student son who has been subletting the flat that is supposed to be Houston’s second home… It all gets wonderfully, farcically complicated.  Add to the mix a superb Debbie Chazen as Russian housekeeper Ludmilla, who espouses the rabid rightwing views of the Daily Mail, and the vocally versatile Diana Vickers as an acupuncturist who offers ‘personal services’.  Simon Shepherd’s Tory bigwig is both the foil for the humour and the butt of the jokes in a stoic performance that descends into broad humour as his particular peccadilloes are laid bare.  Shepherd is wonderful as Sir Norman, the stock character of the authority figure brought low by hypocrisy and sexual perversion.

Director Terry Johnson keeps the energy levels high and the pace unrelenting.  His cast are already so at ease with the material they can improvise their way around troublesome ruches in the carpet and props that don’t behave as they might.  In an age where television comedy is going all retro and postmodern, it’s refreshing to see that the traditional farce form still works and still has a place on the British stage.

Rather than a call to action about the shameless scoundrels who continue to rip us all off and line their own pockets, The Duck House is a reminder that old-fashioned farce done well is a heck of a good time at the theatre.  And when the government is hell-bent on making life as miserable as possible for the majority of us, anything that makes us laugh consistently for a couple of hours is to be welcomed.



Sweatbox Jury


Festival Theatre, Malvern, Monday 28th October, 2013


Reginald Rose’s play puts a twist on the courtroom drama, in that we spend the duration of the drama, behind the scenes in the jury room.  We listen to the dozen jurors argue and analyse their opinions of what seems at first to be an open-and-shut case.  A young man is accused of stabbing his father to death.  There is an eyewitness and even an earwitness.  The men believe their work will be done in minutes flat and they will be able to leave the hothouse atmosphere of the room and get on with their widely different lives, having paid lip service to their onerous civic duty.

But… Juror Number 8 pipes up.  He alone doesn’t vote Guilty.  Martin Shaw is superb as the quiet man, standing his ground.  His dissent sets off the fireworks that fill the rest of the two hours. Bit by bit the evidence is picked apart and just as gradually, more of the jurors begin to have doubts.  Every time the foreman (Luke Shaw) takes a vote, it’s an electrifying moment of theatre.

In the humid and oppressive atmosphere of a stormy evening, the men reveal their characters and their prejudices.  Rose gives us more than a murder mystery – the play is also a set of character sketches.  There is plenty for the excellent cast to get their teeth into.  Nick Moran brings energy as the brash loudmouth, eager to get to his baseball game.  Robert Vaughan brings quiet dignity and acuity as the most senior of the jurors.  Miles Richardson’s Juror 10 is a remarkable portrayal of a blue collar bigot, direct from the streets of Noo Yoik in the 50s. Edward Franklin as the youngest juror proves he can give as good as these acting heavyweights, but in truth, every man jack of them is compelling.

Director Christopher Haydon keeps the energy going.  Twelve men around a table could quickly become static and boring.  He keeps them moving, keeps the moments of contrast sharp, and the emotional intensity cranked up.  There is also humour in their heated interactions but what I didn’t expect is the emotional kick in the guts at the end.  Jeff Fahey is a commanding stage presence as the hothead, short-tempered Juror 3 with a forceful personality, whose personal bias is revealed in the final moments.  Fahey is so good throughout the piece but he tops it off with his moment in the spotlight.  I rarely give standing ovations to drama but I voted with my feet on this occasion, my applause only interrupted when I stopped to wipe my eyes.

Verdict: Guilty of providing a flawless and moving night at the theatre.

Sentence:  They will be taken from this place to a place in the West End to do a long stretch there.


Bed and Bawdy


Malvern Theatres, Tuesday 1st October, 2013


Oh no, you might think: a blatant cash-in based on the unexpected runaway success of that book.  And indeed that’s what I did think when I heard about this touring production.  Based on her own book, which grew from a Facebook update, Leesa Harker has adapted her Belfast-based script for a UK audience.

Adele Silva (Kelly Windsor off of Emmerdale) is Maggie Muff – yes, that’s the protagonist’s name, setting the tone and a low bar from the off – in this one-woman show that turns out to be very funny and provocative (in a different sense).  Silva is a revelation as narrator Maggie, slipping in and out of other characters that populate her story, while rotating the giant bed of a set to indicate changes of scene.  It is an energetic, detailed and captivating performance of a lively story of relentless incident.

Harker’s script would be at home on any page of Viz magazine with its talk of ‘hatchet wounds’ and ‘spunky clunges’.  Jane Austen it ain’t, but what it does have in common with Austen’s classic works is its feisty (I hesitate to say spunky again) heroine.  Maggie Muff in her pink shorts and leopard-skin leggings is no shrinking violet.  Hard-drinking, hard-smoking, dole-fiddling Maggie shags her way around Hackney but has her eyes (and other things) opened to an alternative lifestyle when she hooks up with her version of Christian Gray, “Mr Big”.  He introduces her to life as a ‘submissive’ and it’s all new to Maggie.  There’s fun to be had with whips and a tub of Ben and Jerry’s – up to a point.  Maggie comes to realise that she wants more from a relationship than Mr Big is prepared to offer, and when sex games cross the line into violence and abuse, she comes to her senses, stands up to the weirdo and gets her happy ending (in a non-massage parlour sense – although, a saveloy is involved…)

It’s a raunchy, raucous night out, not for the prudish or those whose bums clench at the sound of strong language, and it’s a tour de force from Adele Silva.  I was so glad I overcame my prejudices about the source material.  Harker’s play makes an important point.  It is a morality play at heart, for those people who got caught up by Christian Gray and to those who play the submissive in all walks of life.  She may be low-rent but Maggie Muff reminds us to stand up for ourselves and to gather our rosebuds while we may.


Maggie may…and invariably does. Adele Silva, touring her Muff around the country