THE GRAND GESTURE
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 29th October, 2013
Northern Broadside bring their loose adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide to the New Vic – the action has been translated to a vague representation of the North West of England – but do not let my use of words like ‘loose’ and ‘vague’ put you off. Everything about this production is spot on.
The plot concerns Simeon Duff, depressed from long-term unemployment, his male pride dented because his wife is the breadwinner. Whatever he tries (a scene in which he attempts to teach himself to play the tuba is particularly funny) comes to naught, flinging him from the mania of hope to the despair of failure. He decides to kill himself and it is at this point that he becomes worth something to people – people who try to appropriate his suicide as a ‘grand gesture’ to further their own causes. He is touted as a martyr for the revolution, or a martyr for the church – among other things. His unscrupulous landlord is cashing in, offering sponsorship deals of the big event.
Angela Bain almost steals the show as Duff’s mother-in-law, with her constant appeals to the saints for assistance, her malapropisms and her physical comedy. All the performances are heightened in a larger-than-life world. Robert Pickavance as intellectual Victor Stark is particularly mannered (and hilarious) and other notable mentions go to Alan McMahon as the priest with a propensity for drink and off-colour poetry, and to Howard Chadwick as wheeler-dealer landlord Al Bush. Samantha Robinson brings emotional intensity as Duff’s wife but above all the play offers leading man Michael Hugo a chance to showcase his considerable talents. Duff is a tricky role in that we laugh at him but we are not laughing at his plight, but rather the absurdity of his situation. Hugo pitches it perfectly, the rubber-faced reactions, the physicality of the character in all his moods – the performance is heightened but the man’s anguish seems genuine, within the context of the play. By the end, he has become an Everyman, and his speech on the nature of Life is particularly hard-hitting and affirming.
Conrad Nelson directs with an eye for detail and timing to make the comedy as sharp as it is broad. Deborah McAndrew’s wonderful script (so good I bought the book) is laden with double entendres and gags, but there are also plenty of literary references (to Blake and Burns, for example) that give the farcical elements some depth. I also detected a hint of Alan Bleasdale here and there. Another strong point is the social commentary. The play touches on the mental health of the long-term unemployed and how they are not seen as people but as statistics, mascots for whatever cause you might embrace.
With its wit, energised performances and the added bonus of some lovely singing, The Grand Gesture all makes for a grand night’s entertainment.
Embracing the cause: Robert Pickavance and Michael Hugo
Leave a comment | tags: Alan McMahon, Angela Bain, Conrad Nelson, Deborah McAndrew, Howard Chadwick, Michael Hugo, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Northern Broadsides, review, Robert Pickavance, Samantha Robinson, The Grand Gesture, theatre review | posted in Theatre Review
THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th December 2012
Birmingham Rep’s Christmas show this year is Alan Bennett’s adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic. It’s been yonks since I’ve read the book but the play seems to be me remarkably faithful to the original incarnation.
The animal characters are undeniably people with the odd little touch to denote their species: ears protruding from the brim of a hat, a tail hanging from the seat of a pair of trousers, that kind of thing. Imagine Beatrix Potter characters with human heads.
First we meet Mole (Nicholas Prasad) taunted by a couple of critters when he emerges blinking from his underground home. The tone is that of petulant children and I began to be concerned: I wouldn’t be able to sit through two hours of this. I needn’t have worried. Mole soon meets Ratty (Oliver J Hembrough) and suddenly the piece lifts. Ratty is very spiffy in his blue blazer and white sailing hat, rowing his little boat on the revolving river. I think he could do with being a little more stuffy from the off, so that his changing moods later on are more strongly contrasted but director Gwenda Hughes is obviously trying to establish the friendship of these two. Hembrough becomes ‘rattier’ in later moments but never to the extent that it undermines his character’s lovability. And that’s it: they’re all absolutely adorable.
The show really gets into its stride with the appearance of a camp old otter (Robert Pickavance, if I’ve attributed the role correctly) and moves into brilliance when Michael Hugo arrives as Chief Weasel – it’s a performance that is broadly physical and yet detailed and nuanced to perfection. The man is a living, breathing cartoon character. Badger (Robert Pickavance again) is a delightful old thing, vying with Ratty for Mole’s attention.
The long-awaited entrance of Toad does not disappoint. Matthew Douglas hams it up delightfully as the bombastic hedonist, a verbose buffoon – like Boris Johnson but without the calculating evil (until he sells Albert the Horse to a gypsy, thereby betraying the working class to the entrepreneur…) Speaking of Albert, Chris Nayak gives a scene-stealing performance as the lugubrious Brummie horse, as depressed as Eeyore but hilarious as he catalogues his woes. Or should that be ‘whoas’?
The play works on several levels. There’s plenty to keep the kids amused but under the surface, Bennett’s script is subtly and not-so-subtly satirical. There are nods to political correctness (You can’t tell a rabbit to hop it) and swipes at the establishment (They’re policemen – they won’t hurt anybody!) There is a gay subtext throughout – at one point these confirmed bachelors are quizzed by fieldmice about their lifestyle. And of course the magistrate would look favourably on Toad as a landed member of the upper middle class… It’s all handled with a lightness of touch and an overt theatricality – we accept these characters and the way their world works so that when a toad dons a skirt, we accept that a human woman on a barge wouldn’t see through his disguise immediately.
The set is beautiful, like illustrations from a storybook and there are some wonderful pieces: the train and the gypsy caravan, for example – Michael Holt’s designs help to create this world while retaining the artificiality of the theatre. It’s a toy theatre, pop-up book kind of world, inhabited by characters in human clothes that reflect their animal characteristics.
There is a lovely Englishness to the entire thing and not just the Edwardian cosiness of storybook and a bygone age. The multiracial cast is reflected in the material by the multi-species society of the woods and for the most part, these characters of different make-up and lifestyles rub along together very well, united by the overarching Englishness. It is perhaps a reflection of Birmingham itself.
Leave a comment | tags: Alan Bennett, Birmingham Rep, Chris Nayak, Crescent Theatre, Gwenda Hughes, Matthew Douglas, Michael Holt, Michael Hugo, Nichola Prasad, Oliver J Hembrough, review, Robert Pickavance, The Wind in the Willows | posted in Theatre Review