THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN
Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 1st March, 2019
Martin McDonagh is one of the finest stage- and screenwriters currently working. This production of his play from 1996 clearly demonstrates his use of Irish settings, idioms and characters, mining the same comedic vein as Father Ted and Stones in His Pockets. On the craggy island of the title, news comes of a Hollywood film crew on a neighbouring island, seeking locals to appear on celluloid. It’s big news for a community used to hearing word of geese and cats and sheep with no ears. ‘Cripple Billy’ is especially keen, forging a letter from the doctor in order to cajole a boatman to take him across the sea…
As the action unfolds against the backdrop of a gorgeous set by Chris Jackson and Martin Tottle, we meet a host of colourful characters. Seemingly hostile to each other, if the insults they hurl at each other and their coarse language is anything to go by, the community has been keeping a secret from Billy his entire life. It seems the worse they say to each other, the more they care.
We meet Eileen (Niki Baldwin) and Kate Osbourne (Viv Tomlinson), Billy’s adoptive aunties, who run a ramshackle shop that appears to stock little else but tins of peas. Baldwin and Tomlinson are a fine double act, gossiping about local affairs, but also as characters in their own right, each handling stress in their own way: the one stuffing herself with sweets, the other talking to stones. Paul Tomlinson’s Johnnypateenmike O’Dougal is a superb piece of character acting among an excellent cast. Sophie Mobberley’s Slippy Helen is fierce and feisty, oozing violence and sociopathy, while Thomas Hodge as Helen’s brother Bartley is convincingly simple, his one-track mind fixated on telescopes. Graham Buckingham Underhill makes a strong impression as boatman Babbybobby Bennett. Dorothy Barlow gives an hilarious turn as Mammy O’Dougal, and there is credible support from David Derrington as Doctor McSharry.
The accents ring true, never veering into ‘Oirish’ parody, diddle-de-dee, and director Vanessa Comer gets the overall tone and pacing just right. It’s a genuine pleasure to see this consistently funny piece presented so excellently. It’s a play about community and fake news, gossip, rumour and the truth. While we enjoy the shenanigans of the community, our sympathies hinge on the central performance by Nathan Brown as Billy. Today we would never address a person with disabilities so bluntly, and it’s not just a matter of political correctness making us mealy-mouthed. McDonagh shows us that the disabled have hopes and dreams of their own and a desire to be loved just like anyone else, and they make mistakes just like everyone else. Brown arouses our compassion for Billy’s predicament rather than his condition. The truth emerges about Billy’s past and his current tuberculosis diagnosis, packing a poignant punch. It’s superbly done.
Thoroughly entertaining, this black comedy is a joy from start to finish. As one of the characters observes, we know we shouldn’t be laughing, but we do. It’s one of the best productions I’ve seen at the Bear Pit – and that’s saying something!
Who is taking whom for a ride? Babbybobby Bennett (Graham Buckingham Underhill) and Cripple Billy Claven (Nathan Brown) Photo: Patrick Baldwin
Leave a comment | tags: Bear Pit Theatre, Chris Jackson, David Derrington, Dorothy Barlow, Graham Buckingham Underhill, Martin McDonagh, Martin Tottle, Nathan Brown, Niki Baldwin, Paul Tomlinson, review, Sophie Mobberley, Stratford upon Avon, The Cripple Of Inishmaan, Thomas Hodge, Vanessa Comer, Viv Tomlinson | posted in Review, Theatre Review
Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 16th March, 2018
Alan Bennett’s curious farce from the early 1970s doesn’t feel like an Alan Bennett. The cosy, Northern bleakness of his bathos is not present in this early work, in which he strives to dazzle with his intelligence at the expense of character development. A farce needs a light touch to make its contrivances palatable; Bennett peppers his with dark observations about mortality amid all the libido-driven incidents and misunderstandings. The play sounds very much like a Joe Orton.
Vanessa Comer gives her production a decidedly seaside postcard appeal: bathing huts and bunting serve as the setting, and the performance style is very much end-of-the-pier revue. The cast adopt a larger-than-life style to suit the excesses of their characters – ciphers, by and large, with their individual lusts and longings driving their actions.
Niki Baldwin kicks things off as charwoman-cum-narrator-cum-host, Mrs Swabb, an impudent but charming presence – a working class character bemused by the goings-on of this middle-class mob. Pamela Hickson is pitch perfect as the frustrated Mrs Wicksteed, neglected by her husband, flitting between deadpan and melodramatic posturing. As her husband, Dr Wicksteed, Peter Ward can afford to be more exaggerated in his lechery, to increase the contrast between his professional and his personal demeanours. Kathy Buckingham is a hoot as lonely spinster Connie, proudly sporting her mail-order mammaries – the triggers for incidences of mistaken identity. After a bit of a flustered start, David Draper’s Sir Percy provides some funny moments with his trousers down. Abi Deehan is sweetly conniving as young Felicity, hoping to trap a man into marrying her and legitimise the child she is carrying, but for me, the most consistent and developed characterisation of the show comes from Nathan Brown as the Wicksteed’s weedy, spotty, hypochondriac son, Dennis – an Emo Phillips lookalike, the antithesis of the dashing young hero!
It’s familiar territory but Bennett heightens the theatricality; the cast need to sharpen the quickfire asides to the audience and I’m sure the first-night fluffs will disappear as the show’s run progresses, and the entrances and exits need sharpening to maintain a fast pace.
The plot winds up with a direct riff on The Importance of Being Earnest with Margot McCleary’s Lady Rumpers doing a Lady Bracknell and Dennis paraphrasing John Worthing regarding his adopted fatal illness.
And so Bennett, yet to find his own voice, gives us Orton and now Oscar Wilde – it makes sense. All three are gay men holding up to ridicule the social and sexual mores of heterosexuals, making the audience laugh at themselves. Society has moved on since the play’s first production – does the audience recognise itself on the stage? Probably not very much; these two-dimensional stereotypes are old hat.
All in all, this makes for an enjoyable production, with the energy of the cast just about covering the creaking of the plot.
Mrs Swabb (Niki Baldwin) introduces Dennis (Nathan Brown)
Leave a comment | tags: Abi Deehan, Alan Bennett, Bear Pit Theatre, David Draper, Habeas Corpus, Joe Orton, Kathy Buckingham, Margot McCleary, Nathan Brown, Niki Baldwin, Oscar Wilde, Pamela Hickson, Peter Ward, review, Stratford upon Avon, Vanessa Comer | posted in Review
Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 17th June, 2017
One of the many commendable things about the Bear Pit Theatre Company is they are not shy of staging productions of works that provide challenges for cast and audience members alike. Ostensibly, Moira Buffini’s 2002 play takes us to somewhere similar to Ayckbourn country, with its premise of a middle-class dinner party attended by monstrous people. Buffini is less subtle than Ayckbourn; here the savagery is not beneath the surface, the savagery is the surface. Also, while Ayckbourn’s middle-class monsters are often likable or at least amusing, Buffini doesn’t bother trying to endear us to any of hers. They’re a pretty rotten bunch and that’s all there is to it. That’s not to say they’re not fun, and the roles are gifts for the actors.
Our hostess is Paige (an enjoyably arch Charlotte Froud). She has hired a man off the internet to act as waiter for the evening. The dinner party is in honour of the success of her husband’s book, success that Paige begrudges. The book, Beyond Belief, sounds like a dreadful tome bursting with self-help psycho-babble. Husband Lars (a strong and convincing Tony Homer) behaves like a spoiled brat and moody teen from the off. He is also pompous and condescending in his bitterness, most of which he directs at his wife.
The sparks fly between Froud and Homer as this embattled couple, although we never really get to the bottom of why they are at loggerheads. Could it be Lars’s reacquaintance with old flame from college, hippie throwback Wynne (Penelope Sandle-Keynes in a hilarious, detailed characterisation)? There are cheap laughs at Wynne’s vegetarianism but otherwise Buffini serves up a buffet of barbs that are generally as sharp as poisoned darts.
Abi Deehan is laugh-out-loud funny as the blunt and outspoken Sian while Ben Coventry warms into his role as her husband Hal, providing some of the funniest moments of the night.
The dinner is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of young Mike, a stranger whose van has broken down in the fog. Nathan Brown is instantly appealing as the cocky interloper who is not all that he claims – it’s a fine contrast with Richard Ball’s stony-faced menace of a Waiter.
Arguments boil over and fizzle out. Rows build to crescendos and are followed by immediate silence. This is always effective but it happens at least once too often as director Steve Farr helps his cast ride out the sometimes patchy quality of the script. Farr injects some lovely touches of comic business and keeps the action far from static – always a danger when the set is dominated by table and chairs.
What’s it all in aid of? There’s a lot of grandstanding, point-scoring and cod philosophical discourse. The nature of life is bandied around between the courses of Paige’s ridiculously pretentious and ultimately inedible menu. It turns out there is nothing like death to make you appreciate life. The Waiter has other services to offer and the middle-class ritual of the dinner party becomes a darker and more arcane, more primal affair.
With Buffini serving up seafood and the C-word in generous measure, this is perhaps not to everyone’s taste but there is a great deal to delight in the comic playing of this committed and capable cast.
Leave a comment | tags: Abi Deehan, Bear Pit Theatre, Ben Coventry, Charlotte Froud, Dinner, Moira Buffini, Nathan Brown, Penelope Sandle-Keynes, review, Richard Ball, Steve Farr, Stratford upon Avon, Tony Homer | posted in Review