Tag Archives: Rebecca Wheatley

Pickwick From A Distance

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.

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Off the Boil

STEAMING

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 2nd July 2013

 Nell Dunn’s play is doing the rounds in Ian Dickens’s revival and while the all-female cast quite happily and valiantly bare all, this story of a Turkish room in an East End public baths is showing its age.  In the thirty years that have passed since its original production, we have become more accustomed to hearing women speak frankly about their lives and sex and so on (e.g. The Vagina Monologues) that nowadays Steaming seems a bit tepid.

Every week a diverse group of women gather at the baths for respite from the hassles and stresses of their lives.  The steam room is their refuge and the treatment a metaphor for cleansing themselves of the toxic influence of men.  They pose the eternal question, “ Why are all men shits?” and, interestingly, acknowledge that women have to take some of the blame for the way they bring up their sons… It’s feminism but not a polemical piece – it is largely presented as a comedy where the personal is political.  Largely.  The script is uneven and patchy, clunkily changing gear like a learner driver.

The sessions are run by Violet (Kim Taylforth) who acts as a sort of den mother for her clients.  Jane (Michelle Morris) introduces her recently single posh friend Nancy (Katherine Heath) to the place and the people – instant recipe for culture clashes.  Nancy sets to ‘correcting’ the pronunciation of barmaid Josie (Rachel Stanley), who beneath her brash and coarse exterior is victim to an abusive (inexplicably German) boyfriend.  Old Mrs Meadows (Patricia Franklin) brings her mentally ill daughter Dawn (Rebecca Wheatley) every week as a break from their grim existence in a dilapidated house – the inference is that their lives have fallen into neglect and decay since she became widowed.  The cast are more than competent.  Franklin and Wheatley form a comic duo along the lines of George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, although some of the laughs, at the expense of mental illness, don’t sit comfortably today.  The mouthpiece of the play and the character whose ‘journey’ is the most defined is Josie – she gets all the choice lines and the more explicit speeches; the others don’t really match her in terms of spirit but that’s a problem with the writing rather than the performances.  The problem is we don’t really bond with these characters.  We learn about their situations through lengthy exposition – we are at a remove from them all along the line.

The baths are threatened with closure.  They are to be replaced by a library.  How times have changed!  These days, they would be closed and the library along with them.  And, in the second half, the play reveals its continuing relevance at last.  The women campaign to save their precious resource, by challenging the myths perpetrated to justify the cuts.  They fight back with facts and figures to blow the council’s argument out of the water.  Josie speaks out for ordinary people, the old and the vulnerable: public services are a necessity.  Thirty years on she should be leading the Labour party and fighting the self-serving coalition’s cuts, and we should be behind her.

Not as sentimental as the more recent Calendar Girls, Steaming is well-presented and performed but three decades on, appears to have gone off the boil.

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