Tag Archives: Michael Lunney

Best Case Scenario

THE VERDICT

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 30th January, 2019

 

Famously made into a Paul Newman film in 1982, Barry Reed’s book is here adapted for the stage by Margaret May Hobbs.  There is a strong affinity between the law court and the theatre, because of the rituals, the adversarial nature of the lawyers, and the potential for surprise.

The first act is split mainly between Frank Galvin’s shabby office and Meehan’s Irish bar in Boston, with the odd scene in Galvin’s rival’s office and a judge’s chambers, all presented on a sturdy, detailed set designed by Michael Lunney.  The set adds weight to the drama and, along with the convincing accents of the cast, gives the piece an authentic tone.

As plucky attorney, Frank Galvin, Ian Kelsey is eminently watchable, wearing the role like a pair of comfortable old shoes.  Drinking incessantly, it seems, and viewing the world through Jameson’s-tinted glasses, he is the decent man, standing up for the helpless (in this instance, a young mother reduced to a persistent vegetative state by alleged medical neglect).  Assisting him is his mentor, the irascible Moe Katz, played by the ever-excellent Denis Lill.

Christopher Ettridge also impresses as the big bad lawyer, defending the hospital and the church dioceses that runs it.  As does Richard Walsh as Bishop Brophy, who rounds out a potentially villainous role with humanity.

It’s a large and strong cast with pleasing character work from the likes of Anne Kavanagh as the victim’s mother, Michael Lunney as genial bartender Eugene, and Okon Jones in a hugely enjoyable portrayal of expert witness Lionel B Thompson.  Paul Opacic is suitably suave and assured as flashy doctor Rexford Towler, and there is a striking cameo from Karen Drury as Nurse Mary Rooney.

It’s a wordy piece but is so compellingly played you hardly notice the lengthy running time.  It’s a slow-burner, gradually establishing the background of the case, leading up to a trial scene that does not disappoint.  Michael Lunney’s (that name again!) direction paces the action superbly, so that when the shocks and revelations come, he elicits gasps and murmurs from the enrapt audience.

This high-quality production rewards the attentive audience – and, on a side-note, it also serves as a stark reminder that our American cousins have to pay exorbitant sums for their health care, a sorry state of affairs we must not allow to become the case here, as some in our present government would wish.

galvin&moe_ian kelsey & denis lill

Dream team: Ian Kelsey and Denis Lill

 

 

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Bells and Whistles

CLASSIC GHOSTS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 13th February, 2014

 

The best format for ghost stories is the written word.  Just the reader alone with the story – no one can scare you like you can scare yourself, and writers like M R James and Charles Dickens know how to tickle your imagination until you get a shiver down your spine.

Next best is tales around a campfire – a good storyteller can convey atmosphere and suspense and make you jump.  Long-running hits like The Woman In Black and, recently returned for its second West End run, the brilliant Ghost Stories, fully exploit this.  These shows employ aspects of narrative theatre that address the audience’s imagination directly.  And very scary they are too.

Middle Ground Theatre Company does not take this narrative approach, opting instead for naturalism and keeping the audience safely behind the fourth wall.  In doing so, the company makes a rod for its own back.  Unlike film, where you can use close-ups and changing points of view, the stage is a much harder place on which to create tension and atmosphere.  It doesn’t help that one of the stories in this double bill relies on atmosphere more than anything for its chills and surprises.

Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad tells of a Professor Parkins (Jack Shepherd) who checks into a hotel on a storm-battered East coast, out of season to play some golf and to root around in a local archaeological site.  He buddies up with Colonel Wilson (Terrence Hardiman) with whom he discusses his scepticism with regard to all things supernatural.  He has found an old whistle, the blowing of which seems to conjure the wind.  The whistle bears an inscription, “Who is it who is coming?” and the scene is set for some creepy palaver with moving bedclothes, knocking doors and a bush tapping incessantly on the windowpane.  Eventually, the prof is reduced to a sobbing, terrified mess.  And that’s it.  People expecting explanations are left decidedly nonplussed.  I think Margaret May Hobbs’s adaptation hits all the plot points of the M R James story but, given the absence of a resolution, a narrative theatre approach might engage the audience better.  The special effects are rather good – apart from the face of the ghost projected large enough to fill the backdrop.  Otherwise, the stage technology conspires to give some spine-tingling moments – despite one woman in the audience laughing her face off somewhat inappropriately.

The Signalman fares better.  Shepherd in the title role is paired with Hardiman again and tells him tales of railway disasters and spooky comings and goings.  This story-telling sets us up nicely for what transpires and there is a proper surprise denouement that rounds it off neatly.  A more conventional ghost story, then, and Francis Evelyn’s adaptation of Dickens works a good deal better than the James.

Shepherd is very good as the eccentric professor who loses his wits and equally solid as the signalman.  Hardiman is spot on as the bluff old colonel and as the inquisitive traveller.  There is excellent support from Dicken Ashworth as the hotel boss and a railway inspector.  With a lesser cast, these dramatisations would fall completely flat.

Director and designer Michael Lunney goes all out to create a sense of period, place and atmosphere, although I would say his set for the hotel in Whistle is a little too crowded.  The set for Signalman is impressive and Bob Hodges’s excellent sound designs do most of the work in creating mood in both pieces, but on the whole I came away thinking less would be considerably more.  There are too many ‘bells and whistles’ in addition to those that feature in the stories. A darkened space with someone holding a torch under his chin is as good a starting place as any – anything else is gravy.

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Bad Habits

CADFAEL: The Virgin in the Ice

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 24th April, 2013

I will begin with a confession: I’ve never read any of Ellis Peters’s medieval whodunits.  I’ve never seen any of the television adaptations either.  So I approached this production with no expectations or prejudice but now, having seen it, I believe it’s unlikely I ever will.

On face value, the production looks impressive and has clearly had a lot of money spent on it. The set is elaborate and evocative – but the trouble is there’s too much of it.  A lot of time is spent transitioning from one scene to another, interrupting the flow.  To cover these gaps, we get clips of video or pre-recorded snatches of dialogue but the changes of scenery get in the way of both of these.  I would suggest a different approach: emblematic theatre would be a more efficient way of staging the story.

There is a lot of scenes and some of them are very short indeed, suddenly plunged into blackout so that the set can be on the move again.  There is a totally unnecessary scene of the titular virgin in her giant ice cube thawing out on a bier with some flame-effect lamps.  She needs to be defrosted so Cadfael can examine her but we don’t need to see this. A line of dialogue at the top of the examination scene would do the job more efficiently.

The video clips are a mixed bag. When they enhance the scenery (showing leafless trees with rooks cawing and flapping about) they work quite well.  When they are used to bridge scenes, they don’t.  Conflation of scenes would neaten this up.  It feels like the show wants to be a film, and the conventions of that medium don’t translate very well to the stage.

This brings me to the dialogue.  Everyone speaks in that heightened manner you tend to get in ‘historical’ dramas, in a way that no one ever spoke in the past.  I’m not suggesting they should be spouting cod Chaucer instead (that would be worse) but a touch more naturalism would not be amiss.  On the page this kind of talk reads well.  On the telly, where performances are smaller and more intimate, you can get away with it.  But when actors have to project, they just sound like pompous arses.  Few can handle such lines and pull them off.  In particular, James Palmer as Evrard Boterel stands out as being able to breathe life into the words.  Others had their moments.  I also liked Paul Hassall as Cadfael’s lawman friend Hugh Beringar and Gareth Thomas (Blake off of Blake’s 7) as the inquisitive monk.  Cadfael is a combination of Sherlock Holmes and CSI: Medieval Shropshire, and Thomas occupies the character with warmth and credibility.

To adaptor, director and designer Michael Lunney I say three words: Less is more.  Fans of Cadfael will probably have read the book anyway but new to it, I found the whole thing lacking in tension and the unfolding mystery uninvolving.  There is, however, the most staggering bit of over-acting in an eye patch you will ever be privileged to witness.

Paul Hassall and Gareth Thomas

Paul Hassall and Gareth Thomas