Tag Archives: Michael Fenton-Stevens

Queen Anne is alive


The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 9th December, 2015


Helen Edmundson’s new play is her best yet. A five-act history following the Shakespearean model, it tells the story of the accession to the throne of Anne Stuart and deal with a large part of her reign. That’s the backbone of the piece but really it’s about the relationship between two women: Anne and her friend since childhood, Sarah Churchill. It becomes apparent to us, far sooner than it does to the Queen, that Sarah is manipulating the monarch for her own ends and advancement and does not requite Anne’s affection – it is strongly suggested that Anne’s affection runs to lesbianism or ‘rampant femininity’ as somebody calls it.

Emma Cunniffe is an arresting presence as dowdy Anne, with a gammy leg and apparent weakness. She’s a washed-up Richard III, without of course the Machiavellian tendencies. We feel sympathy for her and also a desire to get out of our seats and shake her until she sees what’s happening under beneath the Royal hooter. Natascha McElhone cuts a glamorous figure in comparison as the conniving Churchill, commanding, strident and shrill – you wouldn’t want to cross her.

There is a touch of Yes, Minister to proceedings as courtiers and advisors jockey for position and favour. Jonathan Broadbent’s smarmy, toadying Harley is on the make, in an enjoyable performance, while Richard Hope’s decent and upright Godolphin is the moral rudder, without whom Anne runs adrift. A cameo by Carl Prekopp as King William III leaves an impression – the playing is as loud as the costumes – and Michael Fenton Stevens is a lot of fun as Dr Radcliffe. I also like Tom Turner’s Jonathan Swift, with his Brian May wig and his soft Irish burr.

The play also charts the rise of Abigail Hill (an excellent Beth Park) from destitution to Queen’s confidant (and carrier of the chamberpot). It’s a story where the personal and the political are very much intertwined – inseparable, in fact – and it’s something of a history lesson too without being didactic in the slightest. It closes with Anne’s final rejection of Sarah, having seen the light, leaving her erstwhile friend languishing in delusion.

Enlivened by ribald songs, bawdily presented, enriched by lively characterisations and witty dialogue, expertly performed, Natalie Abrahami’s production is a gripping, entertaining and satisfying look at the early years of the eighteenth century – with, of course, inescapable mirroring of our current situation, as the UK considers yet again the costs and profits (if there can be any) of war.


Playing into her hands: Anne (Emma Cunliffe) and Sarah (Natascha McElhone) Photo: Manuel Harlan


Laughs For Laughs


The Swan theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 11th November, 2015


The plot of William Congreve’s comedy of 1694 is almost incidental in this exuberant, vibrant new production, directed by Selina Cadell. What takes precedence is the presentation. The show revels in its own theatricality from start to finish. What, in Brecht, would work to alienate us, here engages us. The very artificiality of it all infuses the ‘world’ of the play. It’s a right old giggle.

Tom Turner’s Valentine, the romantic lead, is languidly camp, until his ‘mad’ scenes when he is manically camp. There is an assurance here in the comic playing. In fact, the entire company play their parts like virtuoso performers: the timing, the reactions, the archness of it all, operate like well-oiled clockwork animating an intricate machine whose sole purpose is to delight. Carl Prekopp makes an energetic Jeremy, Valentine’s servant, Robert Cavanah is an urbane Scandal, while Jonathan Broadbent’s Tattle is a flamboyant, pouting fop. There is no one in this play who is not funny. Nicholas Le Prevost as Valentine’s unreasonable father Sir Sampson is marvellously embittered.  Daniel Easton’s bumptious Ben, Valentine’s sailor brother, is a hoot (There is some spirited choreography of a sailors’ hornpipe by Stuart Sweeting.)  As Congreve’s play is influenced by stock character types, so Selina Cadell’s production is informed by the workings and business of the Commedia dell’Arte.

As Angelica, Justine Mitchell displays some excellent melodramatic posturing, which she punctures in her asides – the audience, especially the front rows, is very much included, as prop holders, costume minders, and butts of pointed remarks. Jenny Rainsford’s Miss Prue is broadly played, in contrast to Angelica’s cultured poise. Congreve provides a wealth of funny roles for women. Hermione Gulliford plays the scheming Mrs Foresight to the hilt. It is one of those pieces where we deplore the characters while revelling in their transgressions and admiring the hell out of the actors.

An underused Michael Fenton-Stevens bears the brunt of the satirical jibes against the legal profession, while Michael Thomas’s superstitious Foresight represents an attack on those credulous enough to give credence to astrology. We can still recognise these targets from society today.

Rosalind Ebbutt’s vivacious costumes and Tom Piper’s toy theatre set convey the period and add considerably to the fun. There is a consort of musicians in a corner, underscoring the silliness, and sound effects and props contribute running jokes. It all makes for relentless fun – so much so that by the end, when all the plots have been resolved, we are not touched by the denouement.   There is so much laughter here there is no room for sentiment and that is perhaps this production’s only shortcoming, yet there is a moment of stunning beauty thanks to the countertenor singing of Jonathan Christie.

I have a lot of love for Love For Love.

Legend! Nicholas Le Prevost as Sir Sampson Legend (Photo: Ellie Kurtz)

Legend! Nicholas Le Prevost as Sir Sampson Legend (Photo: Ellie Kurtz)

Satirically Correct


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 7th May, 2013

Writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn have updated their fondly remembered TV sitcom for this new stage version – the familiar characters are there but the piece feels wholly up-to-the-minute.

The scene is Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence. Over the course of a weekend, the fate of the government, Europe and the civil service is decided when an international crisis is provoked and just about averted.   Simon Higlett’s set, all wooden panels and leather-bound books, suggests strength and permanence – two qualities rarely present in government!

It begins like a drawing-room comedy, with cabinet secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby popping out epigrams like champagne corks  His view of what makes a PM is “No previous experience, no qualifications, and limited intelligence.”  Seems about right.  As Sir Humphrey, Crispin Redman expunges the brilliant ghost of Nigel Hawthorne and makes the character his own, in a masterly portrayal of snobbishness, privilege and devious manipulations.

The PM, by contrast, is less erudite and slower on the uptake.  Michael Fenton Stevens rants about our fellow Europeans in a litany of politically incorrect and derogatory names – and you can’t help wondering what our current PM blurts out behind closed doors.  Fenton Stevens’s Jim Hacker is a tightly wound spring, kept that way by Sir Humphrey’s evasions.  The play says what the TV series said: it’s really the civil service that has the power, the appointed officials rather than the elected representatives.

There are topical jokes aplenty and many examples of impenetrable verbiage and double-talk for the actors to get their teeth into.  There’s a very amusing sequence when principal private secretary Bernard (Michael Matus) takes a phone call from the BBC and reels off stock answers from a pre-prepared folder, exactly the kind of fobbing-off MPs give us every time they speak to the media.

Matus is excellent as bungling Bernard – the playing is broader than you get on television and this version needs it to be.   There is a danger the whole thing could become rather static and overly wordy, but the energised performances keep the pace fast and the characters engaging.

In the second act, Fenton Stevens dominates as Jim Hacker falls apart, becoming more manic and desperate by the second.  It’s a hilarious display of fury and sarcasm that ends up with him cowering under his own desk.

The plot is farcical but not Whitehall farcical, so to speak.  It’s like a chess game played by committee as Hacker and his advisors try to think their way in and out of trouble.  Their quick fire discussions cover a lot of ground: oil deals, the environment, curbing the civil service, religion’s place in government, morality… Hacker makes a salient point when he advocates experts within departments, such as actual teachers in the Department of Education, clinicians in the Health Service… It’s a lovely idea and preferable to those Hacker calls ‘amateurs’ that we have today.

You really have to pay attention to catch all the barbs but your concentration is rewarded with some sharp satire and deftly played comedy.  This, being a sitcom-based piece, has the status quo restored by the end.  Like the sturdy set, the established order remains; only those rushing about and making fools of themselves within it come and go.

Michael Fenton Stevens keeps calm and carries on

Michael Fenton Stevens keeps calm and carries on