THE PICKWICK PAPERS
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 4th December, 2013
An ambitious project: to bring Charles Dickens’s rambling, episodic novel (originally a serial) to the stage. But it has been done magnificently with regard to Nicholas Nickleby, so why not give it a go? Unfortunately, The Pickwick Papers lacks the scale and the scope of that other book and, most crucially, it lacks drama. So, what we get with Nicola Boyce’s adaptation is a series of scenes of little consequence involving characters that veer towards caricature.
Ian Dickens (some relation?) directs a cast of faces familiar from his other productions and pretty much gives them an easy ride. Rebecca Wheatley gives a star turn as Mrs Leo Hunter performing a poem set to music about an ‘expiring frog’ – this characterisation contrasts effectively with her other role as the shy Miss Wardle. David Callister is enjoyable as conman Jingle, inhabiting the costume and the vernacular with ease. Poppy Meadows is underused – very funny as Mrs Bardell. Dean Gaffney is well within his comfort zone as affable manservant Sam Weller – a pity he doesn’t get to flex the comedic muscle we saw earlier this year in Murder in Play. Daniel Robinson and Scott Grey are the effeminate, giggling, shrieking ninnies Mr Winkle and Mr Snodgrass – they get the best scene in terms of action when poor Winkle finds himself embroiled in a duel thanks to the misconduct of Callister’s Jingle.
On the whole, the cast is very good and looks good in the costumes. I think part of the problem is the set. Most of the action takes place on a rostrum but this is set so far upstage it adds further distance between the actors and the audience beyond that provided by the fourth wall. It is very difficult for them to engage with us and us with them, being so far removed from each other – my seat was fifth row centre and I felt like I needed binoculars. Often the stage is crowded with people with their backs to us, further shutting us out. A disembodied voice narrates passages to cover scene changes, keeping us at a distance yet again rather than addressing us directly.
Also, the running time is not borne out by the content. The story, such as it is, is too flimsy to sustain interest for almost three hours. I found my mind wandering, unable to focus on some of the verbiage – Pickwick, nicely played by John D Collins – is a garrulous old thing but the script is in need of editing.
What should be a delightful, diverting way to pass an evening, becomes something of an endurance test. It’s like trying to have a five-course meal in a sweet-shop: delightful at first but ultimately unsatisfying and lacking in nutrients.
1 Comment | tags: Charles Dickens, Daniel Robinson, David Callister, Dean Gaffney, Ian Dickens, John D Collins, Malvern Theatres, Poppy Meadows, Rebecca Wheatley, review, Scott Gray, The Pickwick Papers, theatre review | posted in Theatre Review
A MURDER HAS BEEN ARRANGED
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 16th July, 2013
The Ian Dickens Summer Season draws to a close with this fourth offering, an effective chiller from 1930 by Emlyn Williams. It plays out like a murder mystery, typical of that genre, but there is a supernatural element to proceedings that turn it into a ghost story towards the end.
The plot concerns an unusual party that takes place on stage of an empty theatre, rented for the occasion of Lord Jasper’s 50th birthday. According to the terms of a will, if he can survive until 11 pm, he stands to inherit a couple of million quid. Lord Jasper is something of an expert in all things occult and the theatre is reputed to have its own ghostly apparitions – hence his choice of location. Also in the running is Jasper’s only surviving relative, a mystery man who will inherit if the old boy doesn’t make it to midnight…
It’s a creaky old plot but once it’s up and running you go along for the ride, thanks to the performances by a strong ensemble of players. Paul Lavers is dashing and flamboyant as genial eccentric Sir Jasper with Nicola Weeks very good as his young bride. It seems to me Weeks is more suited to these period roles than some of the more contemporary comedies I’ve seen her in. The bride’s mother is the marvellous Anita Harris, looking glamorous and elegant, balancing superciliousness and desperation, as she tries to protect her daughter’s interests. Also in the mix is handsome young hero Jimmy North (the likeable Mark Martin) who worms his way into the party – as a character, he fizzles out in that he is not part of bringing the murderer to light, but that’s all part of how Emlyn Williams plays with the genre. I was impressed by Karen Ford as Mrs Wragg, a character part of strung-together colloquialisms, managing to keep on the right side of gor-blimey; she adds a touch of levity to proceedings and also helps to build the spooky atmosphere. Poppy Meadows adds to the tension as jumpy Miss Groze, although we discover the reason for her nervousness is nothing to do with the theatre ghost…
Of course, the mysterious relative shows up. Oliver Mellor dominates his scenes as Maurice Mullins, whose camp, extrovert exterior masks a Machiavellian heart, playing him with energy but keeping the melodramatic elements of the role toned down somewhat. Any pretence at a whodunit is swept away and the play shifts gear. Supernatural elements are brought to bear to expose the killer – like Banquo’s ghost at the dinner table. Directors Ian Dickens and David North crank the tension slowly and play the dramatic irony to the utmost but the first appearance of the ‘Woman’ (Melissa Thomas) could do with being a touch more unworldly. Good use is made of silence (when the audience is not coughing itself inside out, that is!) and Steve Chambers’s sound design adds to the sense of foreboding very effectively.
It’s an old-fashioned piece, a little longwinded in places, but it’s handled well and bears up in this day and age when we are more accustomed to flashier special effects and faster-moving stories.
Leave a comment | tags: A Murder Has Been Arranged, Anita Harris, David North, Emlyn Williams, Grand Theatre Wolverhampton, Ian Dickens, Karen Ford, Mark Martin, Melissa Thomas, Nicola Weeks, Oliver Mellor, Paul Lavers, Poppy Meadows, review, Steve Chambers | posted in Theatre Review
MURDER IN PLAY
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 28th May, 2013
Noises Off the famous farce-within-a-farce was blatantly the inspiration for Simon Brett’s murder-mystery-within-a-murder-mystery from 1993. It begins with a scene of excruciating dialogue and clunky accents and we fear we’re in for some am dram level old pot-boiler, but, we can relax: this is a rehearsal. The real characters are a troupe of actors struggling through a run the night before their play is due to open.
We have Alison Mead as stuffy ‘Lady Chomondley’ as performed by the ‘director’s’ snooty wife; Lord Rodney Pirbright (Dean Gaffney in a James Bond dinner jacket) as performed by Equity stickler ‘Tim’; Katy Manning plays a former soap legend reduced to mugging and girning as cook/housekeeper ‘Mrs Puttock’; Richard Tate in a ridiculous wig as villainous Mr Papadapoulous as portrayed by dotty old sot ‘Harrison Braithwaite’…
Poppy Meadows gives the greatest contrast between her two roles. As ‘Virginia Chomondley’ she is all cut-glass and straight-necked, and then as actress ‘Ginette Vincent’ she is all ditzy and gor-blimey. This helps us to keep clear about when they are ‘on’ and when they are ‘off’.
The rehearsal is interrupted by ‘director’ Boris Smolensky – David Callister, mangling vowels and strutting around despotically in pretentious cowboy boots. It’s a masterly comic turn. It’s pleasing to see many of the cast, who are old hands at the creaky murder mystery, sending up the genre so effectively. Katy Manning is enjoying herself as health-nut ‘Christa’, firing off bitchy remarks with relish. Julia Main is hilarious as dopey stage manager Pat, and Dean Gaffney is a revelation, showing a flair for comic timing and face-pulling. He seems more at ease in this type of thing and should do more comedy.
Richard Tate is the funniest by a country mile. A veteran performer, he is a master of the silly accent and migrating limp when ‘in role’ but also delivers a fine characterisation as the absent-minded old lush.
It falls to Gemma Bissix as ‘Sophie Lawton’, whose sexy maid outfit hides an analytical mind. She has great swathes of exposition and explanation to get through in order to reveal the killer – somebody has to do it! It’s just a pity she doesn’t get to have as much fun with her characterisation as the rest of the cast do with theirs.
Real-life director Ian Dickens keeps it moving. With farcical shows, you can’t let the balloon touch the ground. I can’t help wondering how close his own working methods are to those utilised by the on-stage Boris…
A funny, clever script well-played, this production is doing the rounds as part of Ian Dickens Productions’ summer season. It is well worth an evening of anyone’s time.
Well hard. Dean Gaffney and Poppy Meadows.
Leave a comment | tags: Alison Mead, David Callister, Dean Gaffney, Gemma Bissix, Ian Dickens, Julia Main, Katy Manning, Malvern Theatres, Murder in Play, Poppy Meadows, review, Richard Tate, Simon Brett | posted in Theatre Review
A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED
Derby Theatre, Tuesday 29th January, 2012
Brother and sister Patrick and Julia are staying with their aunt Lettie in her home in the sleepy village of Chipping Cragburn. Also knocking around are Lettie’s old friend Dora Bunner, young widow Phillipa, Mrs Swettenham and her son Edmund, and Eastern European housemaid Mitzi… They come across an advertisement in the local paper that someone in that very house is to be murdered that very day at 6:30pm. Speculation runs rife: who would do such a thing? Who’s for the chop? As nerves begin to fray, revelations are teased out. No one is who they seem…
This is the set-up for Agatha Christie’s play, a sort of who-will-do-it, currently on tour. I’ve seen several productions of these things by Ian Dickens and they are generally of a high standard. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for this slow-moving and verbose piece – you can forgive a lot of things if the mystery is intriguing and puzzling enough to keep you hooked. This one, I’m afraid doesn’t cut it.
Katy Manning is the lynchpin as Aunt Lettie, elegantly stalking around in high heels (and almost stumbling off them at one point). She is something of a cold fish and consequently, we don’t care. Her childhood friend, we are led to believe, is Dora Bunner – Claire Fisher plays the spinster as a whiny, childlike, on-some-kind-of-spectrum figure; she is consistent in her characterisation, I’ll give her that, but it’s very wearing on the patience. A bit of variety in delivery would make her more sympathetic and also she could do with looking older – at first I thought she was a younger sister or even daughter.
Gemma Bissix is underused as the snitty, bored Julia. Dean Gaffney as her brother Patrick seems to have a self-satisfied smile plastered to his fizzog. He’s supposed to be the urbane twit of the piece but, and this is symptomatic of the whole, lacks the verve and energy necessary to bring the play to life.
Here’s the thing: you cannot perform a piece like this entirely naturalistically. The characters aren’t fully rounded representations of people. They are sketches, types, and sometimes only ciphers. You have to heighten the portrayal to draw us in. In my view, those who pull off this feat are Julia Main as Mitzi the maid, Geraldine Newman as amateur sleuth Miss Marple, and John D Collins as Inspector Craddock. These three seem to have a spark I couldn’t detect in the rest of the cast, although Poppy Meadows as widow-with-a-secret Phillipa has her moments.
The plot, more contrived than a Heath Robinson contraption, lumbers on for over two and a half hours. Not enough jeopardy and not enough murders. The cast seemed to be forever bumping into the furniture and the names of the village and some unseen foreign characters caused them difficulties.
I fear this production has murdered my enthusiasm for these Agatha Christie plays, and I’ve got another one lined up next week.
Leave a comment | tags: A Murder is Announced, Agatha Christie, Claire Fisher, Dean Gaffney, Derby Theatre, Gemma Bissix, Geraldine Newman, John D Collins, Julia Main, Katy Manning, Poppy Meadows, review | posted in Theatre Review