Tag Archives: Oliver Cotton

Bowing Out


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th September, 2017


Tom Kempinski’s famous play for two actors comes to Birmingham in this new production featuring reliable old hands, Oliver Cotton and Belinda Lang.  Lang is Stephanie, a classical violinist whose career has been brought to an abrupt end by her encroaching multiple sclerosis.  Cotton is Doctor Feldmann, the psychotherapist she visits even though she insists she doesn’t need to.   Through a series of scenes showing her sessions with the doctor, we find out more about her as the truth is teased out – mainly through reading into her vehement denials.  There is a sameness to the scenes: he sits and listens, she rants sarcastically, berating him and using her wheelchair for dramatic turns.

Yes, it’s rather funny as the spiked barbs fly and Feldmann punctures her fury with well-timed questions delivered deadpan, but as it goes on, I find that I don’t particularly care for this woman’s tragedy – the loss of her violin is more than being put out of a job, of course it is – but I haven’t warmed to her particularly, and as for him, well, apart from one unprofessional outburst in which it’s his turn to have a rant about his lot, Feldmann is a closed book.

So what can we take from it?  Can we relate to a classical superstar whose parents ran an artisanal chocolate shop?  “The meaning of life is life itself” – there is that.  Life is more than merely occupying your time.  True.

Lang and Cotton are in good form.  After a couple more shows, maybe even in great form, as the dialogue becomes less slippery and performances tighten up.  Lang is better when she’s mouthing off than during the more tearful moments and Cotton, with his enviable head of hair, listens like a hawk – if such a thing is possible.

Director Robin Lefevre works hard to keep things from becoming too static, getting Stephanie out of her wheelchair as much as possible and Feldmann too gets opportunities to stretch his legs.  The play makes amateur analysts of us all; as we listen, we deduce what’s been going on, why she is the way she is, and perhaps we question what we would do if we were faced with this terrible disease or were similarly robbed of our way of life.

Inevitably, it’s a wordy piece, a radio drama with bookshelves and furniture.  As the professional relationship between therapist and patient/customer develops and looks likely to unravel, we suspect Feldmann has been playing her like a fiddle all along.

Solidly performed and presented, more amusing than touching, Duet For One is worth a look, or rather, a listen.

Oliver Cotton in Duet for One_credit Robert Day

That’s about the size of it – Oliver Cotton (Photo: Robert Day)

Three Step


The REP, Birmingham, Monday 21st October, 2013

It’s the 1980s and in their New York apartment, septuagenarians Joe and Elli rehearse for an imminent dance competition.  They bicker and question each other in the manner you might expect from an old Jewish couple – every line is laced with humour, despite the mutual annoyance and sarcasm.  Playwright Oliver Cotton captures the cadence and his cast deliver the lines with credible accents (only one of the three is an actual real live American).   Their evening is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Joe’s long-lost brother Billy, not seen or heard of for thirty years.  Billy has a tale to tell and a crime to reveal…

As curmudgeonly Joe, Harry Shearer has a strong presence and stillness, given to emotional outbursts as the situation demands (spoiler: I wouldn’t like to be his corned beef sandwich).  Maureen Lipman is wife Elli, thoroughly believable as a long-suffering, mature woman, who lights up when she dances.  The advent of Billy brings out past history and unresolved resentments as well as providing the couple with a present-day moral conundrum.  John Bowe dominates as loud-mouthed, hard-drinking Billy, firing off monologues with great energy and spellbinding delivery.  David Grindley directs the contrasts, the loud and the quiet moments, the emotion and the humour, as though conducting a trio of virtuoso performers – which, in fact, is what this cast of three is.

The play is about trying to make amends – Billy tries to atone for a wrong in the past with another wrong in the present.  Joe and Elli struggle to see his point of view.  The play is also about living a lie, about living without what would make you happy, about settling for second best and the sadness that can lead to.

As a piece of theatre it’s hardly innovatory.  What we get is a solid, well-written, somewhat old-fashioned piece that touches and amuses us, and gives us something to think about.  Performed by this excellent cast of veterans, it becomes a couple of hours that intrigues and interests and, every now and then, grips.


Dance in the old-fashioned way… Maureen Lipman and Harry Shearer

No Socks, Please, We’re American

Malvern Theatres, Tuesday 10th April, 2012

Maureen Lipman appears in and directs this Neil Simon comedy from the early 1960s. Simon is a prolific writer often called the American Ayckbourn. I would say he is more of a diluted Woody Allen. He uses the patterns and rhythms of New York speech with a strong Yiddish influence. This kind of fast-talking, prone to hyperbole, sarcastic talk is very funny but, almost fifty years on, it has lost what edge it might have had. What we get instead is an amusing, comfortable evening at the theatre. It’s like watching an elderly pet cat being playful.

The plot concerns the first couple of weeks of married life of a young, up-and-coming lawyer and his wife. He, Paul, (a handsome Dominic Tighe) is a bit of a stuffed shirt, who expends a lot of energy ‘kvetching’ – he’s like Woody Allen played at the wrong r.p.m. I would have liked an increase in the speed of his delivery when he became more worked up, even at the expense of diction. He’s just a little too controlled all the time, even when he gets off his tits on scotch towards the end.

Faye Castelow is young wife Corrie and has something of the young Tracey Ullman about her. She is the yin to Paul’s yang but again I would have liked her a little more flighty and skittish, a little more Bohemian, to make the contrast between them all the sharper. This Corrie was a little one-note for me. At the end, when the roles are reversed and he is wigging out on the ledge outside the window of their penthouse flat, and she is taking charge of the situation, how far they have come (and I don’t mean up the five flights of stairs) could be made more apparent. He has loosened up and has actually been walking barefoot in the park, something his wife has been advocating all along. She has realised there is more to marriage than furnishing an apartment or running about with no shoes on. The curtain falls on him teetering on the high ledge with her calling to him, about to climb out and assist. Here, Simon gives us a metaphor for the precariousness of marriage. It’s a tightrope that both parties need to walk together if they are to avoid plummeting towards divorce. It’s an ending that manages to be heart-warming and downbeat at the same time.

Maureen Lipman plays Mrs Banks, Corrie’s mother. The stage lights up when she appears, to prove her talent at character-based and also physical comedy. Her exhausted entrances, having climbed the five flights (and a stoop!) to the apartment are hilarious but never over-the-top. Oliver Cotton is the dashing and exotic neighbour, Victor Velasco, and the play really comes to life when either of these two appear. Their scenes together are the highlights, deftly played, bringing the warmth and humanity of the characters to the fore. Their characters are more rounded, shaped by life experience. The younger couple have less to them, attractive and amusing though they are – they learn about themselves as the action progresses. It’s the difference between grown-ups and kids, I suppose.

It’s not so much a matter of going barefoot in the park – it’s more like revisiting a comfortable pair of slippers. But all in all, it’s an evening of gentle comedy that has aged well – unlike another revival from the same era I endured in this same venue exactly a week before!