Tag Archives: Newcastle under Lyme

Ups and Downs

TAKING STEPS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th October, 2017

 

Alan Ayckbourn expertly directs this revival of his 1979 farce, playing in a double-bill with his latest work, A Brief History of Women.  Set in rambling manor house The Pines, Taking Steps has most of the ingredients of classic farce but the traditional element of doors is swapped for two flights of stairs.  The action takes place on three floors of the hours, with characters running, sneaking and hurrying up and down stairs in bids to avoid each other or seek each other out.  And yet, all three floors are set in the same square of stage, with furniture from three rooms sharing the same space.  The stairs are flat, running alongside two sides of the square.  This allows us to see characters in different rooms at the same time, if you see what I mean.  It works like a charm and the added silliness of actors galumphing along flat sets of stairs augments the overall ridiculousness of the plot – which I won’t attempt to summarise here.

Louise Shuttleworth is great value as Elizabeth, a thwarted (and self-deluded) dancer, attempting to leave her husband.  Laurence Pears is also great as her brother Mark, who has problems of his own, not least of which is people falling asleep when he is talking to them.  The heightened accents, a tad more RP than we use today, add to the period feel – the complications would not work in today’s world of smartphones and technology.  Laura Matthews’s Kitty is quickly established as the timid, overwrought former fiancée of Mark, while Anthony Eden’s hilariously inarticulate solicitor Watson is an absolute delight.  Leigh Symonds’s builder Leslie Bainbridge is all-too recognisable from the ‘real world’ but it is Russell Dixon’s overbearing Roland, Elizabeth’s husband, who dominates the piece and its events.  Dixon is marvellous and his Roland has many colours, all of them increasingly blurring as he knocks back the scotch.

The writing is sublime – Ayckbourn’s dialogue can’t be bettered in my view – and there is plenty of physical business as the action winds itself in knots.

Still funny after all these years and performed by a top-notch ensemble, the play reveals human inadequacies in a vastly enjoyable way, and it’s an undiluted pleasure to escape into this highly manipulated world and get away from the unfolding, deteriorating farce that is our current government and the Brexit ‘negotiations’.  Anything that brings hearty laughter in these troubled times is to be welcomed and embraced like an old and much-loved friend.

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Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth argue in the bedroom while Antony Eden waits downstairs. (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)

 

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Pottering About

ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 31st May, 2017

 

It’s 150 years since the birth of Stoke-on-Trent writer, Arnold Bennett.  To commemorate this, the New Vic has commissioned this new stage adaptation of one of his Stoke-based novels.  The theatre has always sought to offer material about its local area and its people, but will this piece with its Stokie accents and dialect speak to anyone who comes from a town other than those listed in the ‘five’?

Yes, of course it does.

Writer Deborah McAndrew skillfully distills the events of the book to a couple of hours traffic on the stage, with strong characters and economic narrative techniques so that time and place are evoked superbly.  The costumes add to the authenticity, while the set, designed by Dawn Allsopp – all-brick floor (industry built this place), with a sunken rectangle for Anna’s dining room at the centre, (the hub of Anna’s world around which all other events take place) – brings style and stylisation for this otherwise naturalistic piece.  Daniella Beattie’s lighting mullions the set with patches, evoking architecture as well as mood – and there is a special effect at the end that is startlingly powerful.

Anna Tellwright (Lucy Bromilow) has been housekeeper for her father and mother figure for her little sister almost her whole life.  Dad (Robin Simpson) is a bit of a tyrant.  He feels his grip slipping when Anna comes of age and inherits a shedload of money.  Naturally, being a man, he takes control of her finances: we can’t have women being all independent of men, can we?  Bennett, writing in 1902, long before suffrage, captures the fragility of the traditionally masculine.  Dad can only lash out, tighten the reins and almost combust as he fears his position being edged into the side-lines.  Simpson is excellent as this incendiary man.  Mr Tellwright’s explosions of rage are like fireworks going off unexpectedly.

Bromilow is no shrinking violet Cinderella.  Driven by a sense of duty, she finds it difficult to enjoy her new wealth.  Her eyes are opened to the human cost of capitalism when a man is driven to suicide because he cannot make his repayments.  She glimpses what fun money can bring, when she dares to dip her toe into the waters of independence, but she never truly gets to let her hair down; her hedonism consists of the purchase of some new clobber and a fortnight on the Isle of Man – which she ends up being spending as nursemaid to a friend with the flu.  Anna’s lot is not one of frivolity and profligate spending.  She maintains the same straitlaced starchiness throughout, whatever she’s doing.  I would like to see Bromilow’s Anna let rip, just once, and lighten up!

In contrast is never-lifted-a-finger-in-her-life, well-off young woman, Beatrice Sutton (Molly Roberts, who brings colour in her dresses and humour in her portrayal).  Also delightful is Rosie Abraham as Anna’s little sister Agnes: it is through Anna’s sacrifice that Agnes is permitted a childhood rather than a life of domestic service.

Now rich, Anna becomes inexplicably attractive to her chum from Sunday school, young gent Henry Mynors (a suitably dapper Mark Anderson) and she accepts his marriage proposal – almost impetuously.  Meanwhile, decent and hard-working Willie Price (not a porn name!) offers a chance at true love.  Benedict Shaw is perfectly placed as the upstanding Willie, handsome and down-to-earth.  Who will Anna choose?  Unable to follow her heart, it is her sense of duty not any taste for the high life that leads our heroine to make her choice – with tragic consequences.

The production is superb: strong on atmosphere, with choral singing of hymns and folk tunes covering scene transitions.  Kudos to musical director Ashley Thompson for the vocal work, accompanied by the occasional brass instrument for added local colour.

Director Conrad Nelson manages the changes of tone so that we are drawn into this society and enjoy our time there.  The interval comes and you realise that while you’ve been seduced by the sound and the visuals, not much has happened really.  The drama is mostly condensed into the second half.  Bennett’s story is at heart a melodrama but he goes against the norms of the genre: the happy ending here is that duty has been served, rather than Anna getting the man she loves and deserves.  And that’s no happy ending at all.  For the time being, female independence has been shut back into Pandora’s box…

Yet another example of excellence from all departments at the New Vic.  With Stoke-on-Trent bidding for ‘City of Culture 2021’, this theatre must surely be the keystone of the campaign.

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Cheer up, duck. Lucy Bromilow, Mark Anderson and Benedict Shaw (Photo: Steve Bould)

 


The Best Laid Plans…

DIAL M FOR MURDER

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 3rd May, 2017

 

I have seen several productions of Frederick Knott’s masterpiece over the years but never in-the-round, so it’s intriguing to see how a story in which doors and windows are so important is staged with neither of these features…

The short answer is: brilliantly.

Lis Evans’s design gives us the London flat of Tony and Sheila Wendice, complete with floor plan showing us where the doors and French windows are, like an architect’s plan.  The flat is an island set on a sea of street maps, to give us the Maida Vale setting, while stylish furniture evokes the 1950s period.   Rather than have his actors mime the opening and closing of the non-existent doors, director Peter Leslie Wild opts for lighting changes and sound effects – the added bonus is we see characters arriving at the flat before they ring the doorbell, increasing the dramatic irony, and also exposing the workings of Knott’s taut plot – it’s like watching an exquisitely made clock with its cogs in full view.

Nicole Bartlett is a rather cool Sheila in the Grace Kelly mode, elegant and vulnerable.  Daniel Easton is a likeable Max – her one-time boyfriend – and Paul Brendan is a workmanlike Inspector Hubbard, teasing out the complexities of the crime.  But it is William Ellis’s Tony, the mastermind of the murder plot, who captivates, weaving his web of intrigue and drawing us in – even if we know what’s coming.  Rob Heanley’s Lesgate is the heavy, coerced into doing the dirty deed, completing a flawless ensemble.

Daniella Beattie’s lighting adds to the atmosphere, although things are a little too hazy at the start, as if the peasouper in the streets has invaded the flat.  James Earl-Davis’s sound has plenty to do to give us the sense of the flat, accompanying the action with appropriate sound effects, but there is also something disconcerting in the air, keeping us on edge.

There is something incredibly satisfying in seeing Tony scheme his detailed scheme, topped only by seeing how it is foiled, brought down by a similar attention to detail.  Much of it comes from Knott’s superlative writing, of course, but this production’s skilful handling of some wordy scenes along with tense moments of action and suspense, delivers all the thrills in all the right places.

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Plan for murder – Lis Evans’s set design for Dial M For Murder (Photo: Mark Douet)

 

 


Winning by a Nose

CYRANO

New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 7th February, 2017

 

The New Vic has teamed up with Northern Broadsides for this new version of the classic romance by Edmond Rostand.  Writer Deborah McAndrew cleverly keeps the play as a verse drama – it’s not just rhyming couplets and doggerel; it’s a technical achievement in itself, let alone its faithfulness to the original while having an altogether fresh feel.  It’s her best work yet.

Director Conrad Nelson blends naturalism with more heightened moments – the changes in pace and tone of each act are handled to perfection.  We laugh, we love, we cry – in all the right places.  Nelson has also composed the score, performed by the ensemble of actor-musicians, that adds to the period feel and the emotional impact of each act.  Led for the most part by Michael Hugo’s Ligniere, the music casts its spell as much as the story and the characters.  Hugo is such an appealing presence as the minstrel – I also enjoy his ham actor Monfleury, heckled off the stage by the eponymous Cyrano.

Christian Edwards in the title role is outstanding – and I don’t just mean his massive conk.  He is everything you could wish for in a Cyrano de Bergerac.  Swaggering, witty, charming, brave and selfless.  Edwards plays it with panache, literally and figuratively.  He is supported by a team of excellent players: Sharon Singh is an elegant Roxane, headstrong and independent – worthy of Cyrano’s devotion.  Adam Barlow is the handsome but dim Christian, the third point of the love triangle – he contrasts nicely with Cyrano’s erudition and we can’t help but see how sweet he is.  Andy Cryer’s De Guiche changes our opinion – we see there’s more to him than the figure lampooned by Ligniere.  Paul Barnhill’s poetic pastry-purveyor Ragueneau, Perry Moore’s prancing ponce Valvert, Jessica Dyas’s sardonic Mrs Ragueneau, Francesca Mills’s busybody Sister Martha, all help to populate the story with a wide range of characters, different facets of humanity – Rostand has respect for all walks of life and yet he makes Cyrano seem more human than all of us.  Especially touching is Andrew Whitehead’s Le Bret, his heart breaking to see Cyrano’s decline.

Lis Evans’s design is stylish – the stage floor is beautiful – and the New Vic’s costume department has pulled out all the stops for the 17th century setting.  Daniella Beattie’s lighting emulates the soft glow of the chandeliers with the occasional shaft of brightness – like Cyrano’s wit, enlivening the gloom.

Cyrano’s panache tickles the funny bone before plunging into your heart.  I know it’s only February but already I think I might have seen the show of the year.

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“You don’t have to put on the red light…” Cyrano (Christian Edwards) and Roxane (Sharon Singh)  Photo: Steve Bould


Winter Wonderland

THE SNOW QUEEN

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 26th November, 2016

 

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale is given the Theresa Heskins treatment in this beautiful new version that continues the New Vic’s impeccable tradition of superlative Christmas entertainment.  Heskins’s adaptation improves on the original, in my opinion, by giving the Snow Queen a backstory.  We understand why she is the way she is by seeing how she became the bogeyman, a legend used to frighten children.  The play begins with a sweet courtship scene between the awkward Soren Sorenson (a sweetly clumsy and tongue-tied Oliver Mawdsley) and Karen, the object of his affection.  They skate around the issue – literally: the cast wear inline roller skates to glide around – and come to an understanding, only to have tragedy strike, putting their romance on ice.

Polly Lister gives a chilling performance as the icy, mournful ghost.  Everything about her is striking, the voice especially.  Once again, we are treated to a magnificent score by genius composer James Atherton, and Lister’s voice is the strongest of the night.  Her scenes with Kai (Luke Murphy) are reminiscent of Edmund and the White Witch of Narnia, and there are echoes of other tales, other myths: Summer’s garden, on which Gerda becomes trapped, is like Circe’s island, and the three puzzles Kai must solve remind me of icy Turandot’s riddles with their one-word answers.

Natasha Davidson is an appealing heroine/narrator as the plucky yet bookish Gerda.  Books form the scenic elements here, great slabs like ice floes.  There is a running theme that storybooks are at least as valuable as factual ones.  The Dickensian, Gove-like education meted out by Schoolteacher (Rachael Garnett) is not enough to get children through life and its problems.  Creative thought is vital to our survival.

It’s a stunningly beautiful show, visually, thanks to Laura Clarkson’s set (the stage floor is especially important to the story), Lis Evans colourful Danish-Victorian chic costumes, and Daniella Beattie’s magical lighting design; and aurally, courtesy of Atherton’s evocative compositions, played on stage by the talented actor-musicians.

The splendid leads are supported by equally strong ensemble members.  Matthew Ganley’s Bitzer, for example, and Rachel Dawson’s Robbergirl, help to populate Gerda’s account with engaging characters.  Heskins’s direction includes her trademark ‘distance fighting’, a kind of non-contact violence that is expressive, effective and fun, and there are also stand-out sequences, like the toboggan race, the flight of the Snow Queen, and a stunning backwards scene – Heskins puts the performer at the heart of her stage effects.  She gives the design and tech teams challenges (which they meet, no question) but she is essentially an actors’ director and, above all that, a consummate storyteller.

Ultimately heart-warming, this is the perfect entertainment for a chilly winter’s night.  You leave the theatre feeling cosy and warm.  It’s the simple, uncomplicated things of life that make you feel good, especially at this time of year – I suppose this is the hygge that’s all the rage these days, something that Hans Christian Andersen knew all about.

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Frozen assets: Polly Lister as the Snow Queen (Photo: Andrew Billington)


Public Parts

THE KARAOKE THEATRE COMPANY

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 14th October, 2016

 

Alan Ayckbourn’s new piece (his 80th!) is something of a departure while remaining very Ayckbourn in flavour.  Ostensibly, we are in the hands of an improv troupe who treat us to several skits in various genres, calling upon us to provide sound effects en masse, with the occasional brave individual selected for greater things…

There are two words to strike fear into the heart of a British theatregoer: audience participation.  Despite the cast’s assurances that we only have to take part as much as we would like to – or we can ‘sit there and sulk’ all night, you never lose the feeling that you might be called upon at any moment for ritualised embarrassment.  But of course, it’s great fun to see others getting up – and there is no shortage of willing participants.  Naturally, the volunteers cannot match the skills of the professionals and so the cast work hard to ad lib and joke in order to cover the inevitable shortcomings.  There are shades of The Generation Game and Whose Line Is It Anyway?

As for the skits, we get a very Ayckbournesque farce about a plumber and suspected infidelity, with a string of coarse innuendos; there is a Nordic Noir dumb show dubbed by audience members haltingly reading lines from scripts; a period drama of sibling rivalry – this is performed twice with an audience member standing-in for one of the roles; and a Victorian Gothic horror that gives the cast more to play with.  The material, deliberately shoddy, us by-the-by.  We are too intent on watching for our next cue to mimic birdsong or stamp our feet to take it in properly.   The grand finale is a conjuring trick, Find The Lady, writ large with huge cabinets.

There is much to enjoy and plenty of laughs but the set-ups can take a long time for little payoff.  All the way through, I’m waiting for the twist, for the reveal that this is all a spoof, a send-up of those gung ho theatre groups of little merit, for the hand of the dramatist to reveal itself once and for all, but it never comes.

Taken at face value, it’s an amusing night out and the energy of the performers just about keeps us interested and on their side.  A bit of fun but, unusually for Ayckbourn, there’s no bite behind the laughs.

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Downright shabby (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)

 


Dramatic Devices

HENCEFORWARD

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 11th October, 2016

 

Almost thirty years old, Alan Ayckbourn’s vision of a dystopian near-future is still bang on the money.  In some ways, technology has almost caught up with the world of the play, with touchscreen tablets and face-time video messaging, and our fascination with robots continues to this day in TV shows like Humans and WestWorld.  (Not forgetting, of course, that we owe the word ‘robot’ to a 1920 play by Karel Čapek).  Science fiction not only predicts future tech but also warns us about it.  Here, the technology, not so different from our own, is recognisably frustrating with its glitches and flaws.  Meanwhile, the world outside is becoming increasingly violent, with thugs ruling the streets.  With homophobic and racist attacks on the rise today, this nightmarish world doesn’t seem too far-fetched in post-Brexit Britain.

Composer Julian, unable to work since his wife departed with their daughter, hires actress Zoe to masquerade as a life partner.  The aim is to convince both wife and an official that Julian is able to provide suitable care for his daughter and thereby gain access to his child.  When the actress doesn’t work out, Julian has to rethink his plan, adapting an android to play the role… And so the scene is set for some wonderfully farcical shenanigans and, due to the genius of Ayckbourn’s writing, some heartfelt emotional outpourings.

Bill Champion’s Julian is a broken man, who awakes from his reclusiveness through his meeting with Laura Matthews’s effervescent and ditzy Zoe.  That he gets what he wants – the composition of new music – but in doing so, loses everything, is genuinely tragic.  Matthews is an irresistibly lively presence and equally compelling in the second act when she plays the remodelled robot – played in the first act by Jacqueline King, who elicits both chuckles and chills as the wonky automated nanny.  King later appears as Julian’s estranged wife – the play is an excellent showcase for female talent.  Daughter Geain (Jessie Hart) also displays a duality – the play touches on gender roles and social conditioning.  Like the robot, we are programmed to behave and respond in certain ways.   There is also some excellent character work from Russell Dixon as wet-lettuce official Mervyn, and Ayckbourn, with his director’s hat on, orchestrates the comedy, the dramatic irony and the tension like a master.  Which, of course, he is.

It’s a play about how technology dehumanises us, getting in the way of our interactions, blocking rather than liberating our communications.

It’s also very, very funny.

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Jacqueline King, Bill Champion, Laura Matthews and Russell Dixon (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)