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
TOAD OF TOAD HALL
Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 2nd December, 2016
A.A. Milne’s stage adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved novel is a classic in its own right, and its brought to charming life here by director Nicky Cox and a talented cast. The playful staging (umbrellas for wagon wheels, stepladders for trees) sits well in the studio space, while the energised performances of the actors makes the action irresistible.
Natalie Danks-Smith is a likeable Mole, a blinking innocent who finds there’s a world of adventure beyond her front door. Dominic Skinner’s affable, dapper Ratty represents what is decent in all of us. Badger (Shirley Allwork) is the voice of experience and authority – the characters each represent an aspect of human nature, it seems. Toad himself is an irrepressible hedonist, selfishly sweeping everyone else along with his whims and fads, embroiling them in the problems he creates. Toad is also a supreme manipulator, caring only for his own interests – he is the attractive but negative side of us, all ego and no conscience. He thinks the law of the land does not apply to him – much like certain members of the ruling class today!
As Toad, David Mears is magnificent. Repellent and attractive at once, his antics are enjoyable if reprehensible, and Mears’s performance is a masterclass in comic acting. No detail is overlooked. Every twitch of an eyelid, every roll of the eyes is calculated to perfection. Toad almost swamps the stage with his personality but Allwork’s Badger provides a well-tuned counterpoint, and an equally rounded if contrasting characterisation. It is a treat to see these two working together.
Tony Homer’s Chief Weasel is an imposing figure, dressed like a sinister doorman – he and the Wild Wooders are clearly of a lower class to the protagonists and therefore undesirables. This is class war of a kind the Tories still propagate to this day: the lower classes are scavengers, liars and criminals – the very transgressions of which they themselves are all too guilty! But, leaving Marx behind for a bit, Homer is rather scary at first before mellowing into a figure of fun, in the court scene and so on. The overthrow of the weaselly squatters puts them back in their place in the societal pecking order, revolution has been averted and the status quo is restored and celebrated, while Toad gets away with escaping from prison…
There is sterling support from Charlotte Froud as a sardonic horse, Philip Hickson as a blustering judge, David Southeard as an affronted policeman, but all players work with commitment and focus, be they providing the walls of a secret tunnel or nattering away as members of the jury. Pamela Hickson gives a delightful cameo as an exuberant washerwoman.
Songs are performed a capella – the ‘Down With Toad’ by Chief Weasel and his confederates is especially effective. It all adds up to an enjoyable evening (my political reservations aside!) excellently presented and reinforcing the Bear Pit’s reputation for the high quality of its productions.
Leave a comment | tags: A A Milne, Charlotte Froud, David Mears, David Southeard, Dominic Skinner, Kenneth Grahame, Natalie Danks-Smith, Nicky Cox, Pamela Hickson, Philip Hickson, Shirley Allwork, Toad of Toad Hall, Tony Homer, Wind in the Willows | posted in Theatre Review, Uncategorized