Tag Archives: Michelle Morris

Lacking Bite

CARMILLA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 8th July, 2014

 

Based on a novel that predates Dracula, David Campton’s script has all the makings of a Hammer horror: the gothic 19th century setting, the pretty young girl at risk, the dashing hero… The twist is that the monster is a striking, apparently young woman who feeds off the blood of the locals, with her sights set on the pretty young girl as a long-time companion.   Horror has always used the monster to symbolise the ‘other’ in society. Here it says that sex that is not procreative, is evil, and saps the strength of those who indulge, weakening them in body and mind until they die.

Ian Dickens has assembled a fine cast for this atmospheric tale. Christopher Hogben is the dashing, resolute Captain Field and I enjoyed James Percy’s brief turn as creepy servant Ivan, clicking the heels of his magnificent boots together. Peter Amory is a gruff Colonel Smithson, a sort of Von Trapp character in a bad mood, and Paul Lavers is effective as the ostensible man of reason, Doctor Spielsberg.  Karen Ford gives solid support as the governess and Melissa Clements’s Lucy is suitably lively and engaging – until the ‘illness’ begins to take its toll.

In the title role, Michelle Morris is good as the commanding vampire, with a strident tone and a bit of Jedi mind control power in her hand. I would have liked a bit more light and shade to her or, alternatively, a little bit more camp. The production could do with a lot more camp, in fact. It’s played just a little too straight – and it’s a difficult mood to create and sustain, but all too easy to puncture. A portrait is carried on to show the likeness between Carmilla and a woman who has been dead for centuries. It looks too much like a publicity headshot rather than an oil painting of the period. The destruction of Carmilla at the end – mostly in blackout – is laughable with (SPOILER ALERT) lights up to reveal a naked skeleton lying on a tomb.

Now, if the approach had been a little more light-hearted, including the audience in the asides for example, we would forgive any clumsiness or ineffectual special effects. When Hogben comes on, in disguise as a gypsy, the show really comes back from the dead. I think the whole show should have been done with this larger-than-life gusto – we would be more willing to go along for the ride. This is the spirit, I thought, and I loved Beppo the monke

At the time when the story first appeared, vampires were brand new as a genre of popular culture. Nowadays we are all over-familiar with the lore: the mysterious marks at the side of the neck, the preventative properties of garlic… that it is nigh on impossible to scare us.

The play is therefore riddled with dramatic irony rather than suspense. Our knowledge is vastly superior to any of the characters.

Also, I would have tackled the lighting design differently. What you don’t see is always scarier than what you do. More spots and candlelight would have raised the play’s game in the scary stakes. And I would have nixed the plodding tick-tock music that covers every scene transition.

A good-looking production in terms of costumes and set, Carmilla could have been an entertaining evening of comic-horror. As it stands at the moment, it’s rather bloodless and toothless.

carmilla

 

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Off the Boil

STEAMING

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 2nd July 2013

 Nell Dunn’s play is doing the rounds in Ian Dickens’s revival and while the all-female cast quite happily and valiantly bare all, this story of a Turkish room in an East End public baths is showing its age.  In the thirty years that have passed since its original production, we have become more accustomed to hearing women speak frankly about their lives and sex and so on (e.g. The Vagina Monologues) that nowadays Steaming seems a bit tepid.

Every week a diverse group of women gather at the baths for respite from the hassles and stresses of their lives.  The steam room is their refuge and the treatment a metaphor for cleansing themselves of the toxic influence of men.  They pose the eternal question, “ Why are all men shits?” and, interestingly, acknowledge that women have to take some of the blame for the way they bring up their sons… It’s feminism but not a polemical piece – it is largely presented as a comedy where the personal is political.  Largely.  The script is uneven and patchy, clunkily changing gear like a learner driver.

The sessions are run by Violet (Kim Taylforth) who acts as a sort of den mother for her clients.  Jane (Michelle Morris) introduces her recently single posh friend Nancy (Katherine Heath) to the place and the people – instant recipe for culture clashes.  Nancy sets to ‘correcting’ the pronunciation of barmaid Josie (Rachel Stanley), who beneath her brash and coarse exterior is victim to an abusive (inexplicably German) boyfriend.  Old Mrs Meadows (Patricia Franklin) brings her mentally ill daughter Dawn (Rebecca Wheatley) every week as a break from their grim existence in a dilapidated house – the inference is that their lives have fallen into neglect and decay since she became widowed.  The cast are more than competent.  Franklin and Wheatley form a comic duo along the lines of George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, although some of the laughs, at the expense of mental illness, don’t sit comfortably today.  The mouthpiece of the play and the character whose ‘journey’ is the most defined is Josie – she gets all the choice lines and the more explicit speeches; the others don’t really match her in terms of spirit but that’s a problem with the writing rather than the performances.  The problem is we don’t really bond with these characters.  We learn about their situations through lengthy exposition – we are at a remove from them all along the line.

The baths are threatened with closure.  They are to be replaced by a library.  How times have changed!  These days, they would be closed and the library along with them.  And, in the second half, the play reveals its continuing relevance at last.  The women campaign to save their precious resource, by challenging the myths perpetrated to justify the cuts.  They fight back with facts and figures to blow the council’s argument out of the water.  Josie speaks out for ordinary people, the old and the vulnerable: public services are a necessity.  Thirty years on she should be leading the Labour party and fighting the self-serving coalition’s cuts, and we should be behind her.

Not as sentimental as the more recent Calendar Girls, Steaming is well-presented and performed but three decades on, appears to have gone off the boil.

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