Tag Archives: Robin Simpson

Pottering About

ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Wednesday 31st May, 2017

 

It’s 150 years since the birth of Stoke-on-Trent writer, Arnold Bennett.  To commemorate this, the New Vic has commissioned this new stage adaptation of one of his Stoke-based novels.  The theatre has always sought to offer material about its local area and its people, but will this piece with its Stokie accents and dialect speak to anyone who comes from a town other than those listed in the ‘five’?

Yes, of course it does.

Writer Deborah McAndrew skillfully distills the events of the book to a couple of hours traffic on the stage, with strong characters and economic narrative techniques so that time and place are evoked superbly.  The costumes add to the authenticity, while the set, designed by Dawn Allsopp – all-brick floor (industry built this place), with a sunken rectangle for Anna’s dining room at the centre, (the hub of Anna’s world around which all other events take place) – brings style and stylisation for this otherwise naturalistic piece.  Daniella Beattie’s lighting mullions the set with patches, evoking architecture as well as mood – and there is a special effect at the end that is startlingly powerful.

Anna Tellwright (Lucy Bromilow) has been housekeeper for her father and mother figure for her little sister almost her whole life.  Dad (Robin Simpson) is a bit of a tyrant.  He feels his grip slipping when Anna comes of age and inherits a shedload of money.  Naturally, being a man, he takes control of her finances: we can’t have women being all independent of men, can we?  Bennett, writing in 1902, long before suffrage, captures the fragility of the traditionally masculine.  Dad can only lash out, tighten the reins and almost combust as he fears his position being edged into the side-lines.  Simpson is excellent as this incendiary man.  Mr Tellwright’s explosions of rage are like fireworks going off unexpectedly.

Bromilow is no shrinking violet Cinderella.  Driven by a sense of duty, she finds it difficult to enjoy her new wealth.  Her eyes are opened to the human cost of capitalism when a man is driven to suicide because he cannot make his repayments.  She glimpses what fun money can bring, when she dares to dip her toe into the waters of independence, but she never truly gets to let her hair down; her hedonism consists of the purchase of some new clobber and a fortnight on the Isle of Man – which she ends up being spending as nursemaid to a friend with the flu.  Anna’s lot is not one of frivolity and profligate spending.  She maintains the same straitlaced starchiness throughout, whatever she’s doing.  I would like to see Bromilow’s Anna let rip, just once, and lighten up!

In contrast is never-lifted-a-finger-in-her-life, well-off young woman, Beatrice Sutton (Molly Roberts, who brings colour in her dresses and humour in her portrayal).  Also delightful is Rosie Abraham as Anna’s little sister Agnes: it is through Anna’s sacrifice that Agnes is permitted a childhood rather than a life of domestic service.

Now rich, Anna becomes inexplicably attractive to her chum from Sunday school, young gent Henry Mynors (a suitably dapper Mark Anderson) and she accepts his marriage proposal – almost impetuously.  Meanwhile, decent and hard-working Willie Price (not a porn name!) offers a chance at true love.  Benedict Shaw is perfectly placed as the upstanding Willie, handsome and down-to-earth.  Who will Anna choose?  Unable to follow her heart, it is her sense of duty not any taste for the high life that leads our heroine to make her choice – with tragic consequences.

The production is superb: strong on atmosphere, with choral singing of hymns and folk tunes covering scene transitions.  Kudos to musical director Ashley Thompson for the vocal work, accompanied by the occasional brass instrument for added local colour.

Director Conrad Nelson manages the changes of tone so that we are drawn into this society and enjoy our time there.  The interval comes and you realise that while you’ve been seduced by the sound and the visuals, not much has happened really.  The drama is mostly condensed into the second half.  Bennett’s story is at heart a melodrama but he goes against the norms of the genre: the happy ending here is that duty has been served, rather than Anna getting the man she loves and deserves.  And that’s no happy ending at all.  For the time being, female independence has been shut back into Pandora’s box…

Yet another example of excellence from all departments at the New Vic.  With Stoke-on-Trent bidding for ‘City of Culture 2021’, this theatre must surely be the keystone of the campaign.

Anna

Cheer up, duck. Lucy Bromilow, Mark Anderson and Benedict Shaw (Photo: Steve Bould)

 


Big Fun

GRANDPA IN MY POCKET

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 19th June, 2013

I have limited knowledge of the television programme.  I know James Bolam is in it and that’s about it, but on arrival at the theatre, I found myself surrounded by young aficionados, ardent viewers all, who were able to call out names of characters who had yet to appear on stage.  It was a bit like wandering into a meeting of some kind of cult.

To get around the absence of the original actors, the cast announce they are going to pretend to be the characters.  They grab bits of costume and props from their dressing-up box and it’s on with the show.  It’s a lively, bouncy, colourful affair with jolly, tuneful songs and a likeable cast who keep energy levels high.

Set in the idyllic Sunnysands – a place where everyone is cheerful without being overbearing about it – this is the story of Jason Mason and his grandpa, who possesses a special flat cap that enables him to shrink to pocket size.  On the telly, special effects of this kind are a doddle but I was interested to see how they would achieve this change of scale live on stage.  The solution is a series of puppets of decreasing size and some clever sleight of hand.  This is a production that translates the television show to the stage with no short changes or lazy video tricks.  The enthusiastic young audience (and me too) are treated to a purely theatrical experience – how refreshing for those little kids to experience something live and not on screen.

The show uses the conventions of theatre, including some audience involvement (i.e. shouting out) borrowed from pantomime.  Things can get pretty loud.  Of course, the characters are never going to be in any serious jeopardy and nothing really bad is going to happen.  There is an ongoing mystery of valuable objects going missing and half of the cast end up stranded on Bongle Island, but you can bet your life Grandpa is going to save the day.

It’s a thoroughly charming piece, amusing rather than laugh out loud funny.  Of the many songs, the one about the Bongle Birds stuck in my mind.  The energetic company of six keep things moving, sharing the puppetry and sometimes doubling up their roles.  Javan Hughes makes a likeable Jason Mason, with Lizzie Franks as his mum and also his eccentric Great Aunt Loretta, whose culinary inventions could give Heston Blumenthal a run for his menu.  Sam Worboys is a rather young Dad, as well as a dotty Mr Mentor the Inventor and cycling enthusiast Mr Liker Biker.  Dale Superville is great fun and has great fun as Horatio, a banker who longs to be a pirate.  Insert your own satirical comment here. Ebony Feare veers sweetly from young girl as Jason’s sister to grown woman as Miss Smiley.  Finally, Robin Simpson plays the man-sized Grandpa and also a toy shop owner with some comic form of dyspraxia the kids all seemed to adore, Mr Whoops.

This cheerful production worked its magic on the kids – it’s a show for them rather than a family audience, but as a so-called grown-up I found much to enjoy in the form of the piece and the exuberance of the performers. Created by Nottingham Playhouse and touring all over the country, this is an excellent summer treat.

Grandpa in My Pocket?  I was pleased to see it.

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Jason Mason (Javan Hughes) gives flight to his imagination