Tag Archives: Robert Powell

The Ayckbourn Supremacy


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 1st November, 2016


Alan Ayckbourn’s hit comedy from 1967 still comes across as fresh and funny, mainly because the devices it uses (mistaken identities, misunderstandings) are timeless and as old as theatre itself.  At the time of its premiere, the play was actually rather progressive with its matter-of-fact depiction of a young unmarried couple and their evident sexual relationship.  Ginny and Greg have only been together for a month!  Gasp!  Of course, these days we take these things in our stride; Ayckbourn was clearly ahead of the game when it comes to the way social mores were going.

It soon becomes apparent that Ginny is more worldly-wise than Greg.  Details of previous lovers emerge and she is rather too vague about the flowers and chocolates that continue to arrive.  Greg’s suspicions (among other things) are aroused and he follows her to what he thinks is her parents’ house in deepest Buckinghamshire.  Somehow he arrives before she does and so a web of mistakes and misunderstandings ensues, entangling the characters but giving the audience delicious treat after treat.  Ayckbourn takes dramatic irony and stretches it almost beyond the bounds of plausibility but he is such a master of the form, he knows exactly how to stir and season the pot.

The cast of four is excellent, playing the finely-tuned comedy like a virtuoso quartet.  Antony Eden is Greg, well-meaning, decent but a bit dim Greg, the catalyst for the chaos.  Lindsey Campbell is his perky but secretive girlfriend, with Robert Powell and Ayckbourn veteran Liza Goddard as the older couple mistaken for her parents.  Eden is energetic and likable while Campbell balances attractiveness with shadiness – we begin to suspect she’s not quite good enough for him.  Powell’s comic timing is a joy as grumpy Philip is wound up like a clock spring while Goddard is the perfect foil for him as the sweetly oblivious Sheila who is not as dim as she might appear.

Robin Herford directs with a light touch.  The characters come across as credible people in an incredible situation and the laughs keep coming.  Big, hearty belly laughs – it is as though maestro Ayckbourn is playing us like fiddles and we love him for it.  He keeps us in on the joke throughout and we revel in our superior knowledge as the characters flail and flounder.  It all seems to stem from a terribly English inability to introduce ourselves properly.  We assume, we leap to conclusions, rather than breach convention, rather than risk appearing impolite and say who we are and what we mean.  And we’re all the more fun because of it!


Confusion reigns: Liza Goddard and Antony Eden


History Tomorrow


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 8th September, 2015


Mike Bartlett’s hit play turns out to be something of a modern masterpiece.  It’s a Shakespearean history play set in a not-too-distant future and begins with some funereal choral singing by the candlelit cast, a requiem for the late Queen Elizabeth II (a beautifully atmospheric composition by Jocelyn Pook).   There is an additional frisson seeing the play on the eve of Her Maj’s breaking of the record for the longest reign in British history.

The Queen is dead, boys, and Charles succeeds.  The action covers the period between succession and coronation and it soon emerges that Charles will not settle for being a figurehead, rubberstamping legislation willy-nilly.  His refusal to sign off a law restricting the freedom of the press triggers a constitutional crisis, the dissolution of Parliament and riots in the streets.  Prince William, egged on by a Lady Macbeth-like Kate, puts himself forward in a bloodless coup, seeking to take the crown for himself ahead of time.

In fact, blood is the only thing missing from this history.  Bartlett gives us a lot of fun with blank verse (where mentions of Sainsburys and Wetherspoons add bathos and seem anachronistic); rhyming couplets end scenes and there is even a ghostly Diana stalking across the stage, intoning cryptic prophecy.

It’s a very funny piece, peppered with satirical barbs (the script is updated constantly to keep it topical) but in the end it is a tragedy on the grand scale, where the main character’s fatal flaw is his conscience.

As the new king, Robert Powell is magnificent, stately and regal and also human.  The iambic pentameter of the verse drips off him – It is important to note the cast do not do impressions of their real-life counterparts.  They are personages in a drama, a game of thrones, rather than caricatures – although there are plenty of references to make them recognisable to the people we know and lampoon today.

Penelope Beaumont brings dignity to the role of Camilla, here a kind of advisor and voice of reason, while Jennifer Bryden is deliciously Machiavellian as the scheming Kate, urging husband William (Ben Righton managing to look dashing in a comfy pullover) to man up and step up.  Charles is pretty damning of the Wills-and-Kate effect, their empty, plastic, tabloid popularity.  Monarchy without meaning is very much the thrust of the drama.

Richard Glaves is fun as hedonistic Harry, slumming it in nightclubs and late-night supermarkets, until the pull of duty and the status quo yanks him back into line.  The play questions the role of monarchy in a supposedly democratic, egalitarian society.  Evans, the somewhat Cromwellian Labour PM, speaks passionately and reasonably (a forceful Tim Treloar) while Stevens, leader of the Tory opposition (an excellent Giles Taylor), behaves exactly as we expect politicians to carry on.  Evans seems almost too principled and too good to be true in comparison!

There is strong support from Lucy Phelps as Jess, Harry’s proletarian girlfriend, and Dominic Jephcott as James Reiss, both on contrasting ends of the social scale.

Directors Rupert Goold and Whitney Mosery give the piece the gravitas necessary for us to take the play seriously.  What could have been just an amusing skit and an intriguing conceit becomes a thought-provoking and relevant night at the theatre, powerful, entertaining, enlightening, and ultimately moving.

Robert Powell, Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as Charles, Wills and Kate.  (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Robert Powell, Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as Charles, Wills and Kate. (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Grounds for Murder


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 3rd February, 2014

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company is back on the road.  This year’s offering is an excellent production of Christie’s first play, featuring Robert Powell at the top of the bill as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

From curtain up it is clear this is a quality show.  Simon Scullion’s art deco set is grand, stylish and elegant, and is matched by the formal evening wear of the characters.  This is very much a period piece, as evinced by a plethora of lines about ‘foreigners’ and how they can’t be trusted.  “They’re clever!” someone says as though it’s a bad thing.  It’s like a UKIP broadcast and just as funny.

Director Joe Harmston is a dab hand at this kind of thing; he knows how to pitch it just right for a present-day audience, having his cast play the cardboard characters as naturalistically as possible – We’re not meant to care about them; we’re meant to suspect each and every one of them as we try to solve the puzzle before the detective reveals who done it.

Robert Powell is a marvellous Poirot, acting with a quiet authority, assurance and wry humour – the play is funnier than you might expect.

The plot centres around the sudden death of a rich inventor and no one is above suspicion.  Company stalwart Ben Nealon gives a solid turn as the dead man’s disgruntled son.   Another regular, Liza Goddard witters and sparkles as batty Aunt Caroline – imagine Christine Hamilton in Downton Abbey.   Felicity Houlbrooke brings energy as bright young thing Barbara, cutting a rug with the dashing Mark Jackson as Raynor, the dead man’s personal secretary.  We almost veer into Allo Allo territory with Gary Mavers’s Italian doctor – but then foreigners are supposed to be dodgy – and I particularly enjoyed Robin McCallum as Captain Hastings, Poirot’s nice but dim sidekick.

It’s hardly ground-breaking theatrically speaking but with its fine blend of humour and intrigue and a cast that’s full of beans, Black Coffee perks up a dismal winter evening.


Bad Medicine

Malvern Theatres, Tuesday 3rd April, 2012

I remember Richard Gordon’s Doctor books with affection, along with the films starring Dirk Bogarde and the TV sitcom with Robin Nedwell and Barry Evans. The stories are forerunners of Men Behaving Badly and The Inbetweeners , involving as they do men striking out on their own and trying to fit in to a hierarchical society.

What could have been a pleasant, fairly innocuous evening, a chance to look back, to reflect on how humour has and hasn’t changed in sixty years – and by extension, how society has and hasn’t changed – was ruined for me by the casting of comedian and ‘personality’ Joe Pasquale in one of the central roles. It’s like someone has dropped a baked potato in your trifle.

He kickstarts proceedings with an unnecessary warm-up in which he ingratiates himself with some of the less discerning members of the audience, and then patronises us with a rambling spot of exposition. In a rare moment of self-awareness he invites us to suspend our disbelief and accept he is portraying a medical student. Yes, Joe; we’ve been to the theatre before. We know how it works.

Suspend your disbelief from the highest bough, but you can’t get over the fact that Pasquale is too bloody old. Even though his character has been lingering at medical school for twelve years that would put him in his early thirties. But even if you let that slide – one can’t help one’s age, I suppose – the man makes no attempt at characterisation. He delivers his somewhat plummy dialogue in that distinctive high-pitched mewling voice of his with no concession to the accent or social status of the part. “He went to one of those posh schools” claims one of the others. Really? It must have been closed that day. This role calls for a Leslie Phillips but we get Mr Punch instead.

Harder to swallow and impossible to stomach is his kissing and canoodling of his French girlfriend Vera (a stunningly beautiful Emma Barton). It is quite revolting to behold. I begin to suspect that this production is something of a vanity project for Pasquale. If it isn’t, someone somewhere clearly wishes to brown-nose him. It is baffling.

With Vera French and Allison McKenzie’s ebullient Ozzy an Australian, the play gives us interesting presentations of women and sexual politics. Because these two are foreigners, they are sexually liberated and liberal with it. The English women – the Matron (a stone-faced Gay Soper) and her nurse niece Janet (Rachel Baynton)- are repressed and oppressive. Marriage must come before anyone else does.

Bursting into the guys’ flat is Sir Lancelot Sprat played by distinguished and respected actor Robert Powell. I know. Imagine Tom Jones with Jesus’s eyes. He raises the tone every time he appears but even he struggles to keep this balloon in the air. The contrivances of the plot, restricted as they are to a single set, are all too apparent. All of a sudden, the characters decide to rehearse a Victorian melodrama for a Christmas do. And so we get twenty minutes of extraneous nonsense with Pasquale “directing” and playing the moustache-twirling villain. Never mind my disbelief, my patience was being sorely tested.

As leading man, Simon Sparrow, sweet-faced Phillip Langhorne is very effective at portraying nervous embarrassment and a keenness to please his uncle Lancelot. Flatmate John (Tom Butcher – a younger, more palatable Nigel Havers) adds to the fun, aided and abetted by corpulent Peter Dunwell as obliging hospital porter, Bromley. This tug-your-forelock working class bloke tells us horror stories, albeit humorous ones, of what conditions were like before the NHS was founded. A chilling vision of the near future, perhaps… The play is a microcosm of the class system and would hold together were it not for the miscasting of Pasquale. I suppose he is a ‘name’ to draw in the crowds. Pasquale fans expect to see him being Pasquale. He should stick to pantomime. I certainly didn’t need him to step out in front of the curtain between scenes to fill us in with more exposition. That time has passed should be apparent in the writing. We should be able to work it out for ourselves with no trouble. I felt patronised and ready to put someone in the hospital.

All in all, the whole cast tackle this old-fashioned material very well – apart from one unsightly lump that needs to be excised.

Next up: King Lear with Mr Blobby.