The Norman Conquests: ROUND AND ROUND THE GARDEN
Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 29th February, 2020
Ever ambitious, the Bear Pit Theatre Company have taken it upon themselves to stage Alan Ayckbourn’s classic comedy trilogy. To this end, the theatre has been transformed so that the plays can be staged in the round, as Ayckbourn originally intended. The action of the plays takes place in and around the same house over the course of a weekend and each play interlocks with the others like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle but the good news is, each piece stands alone in its own right to provide an entertaining couple of hours.
This one, as the title gives away, takes place in the garden. Annie (Lily Skinner) is planning a dirty weekend with brother-in-law Norman (Roger Ganner) but their departure is delayed until the arrival of brother Reg and his wife Sarah, stepping in to look after the invalid mother. Lily Skinner gives us all of Annie’s fretfulness and neuroses – a carer in desperate need of a break – while Roger Ganner shines as her unlikely paramour, the shabby, selfish Norman. The least likely thing about him is his job as a library assistant but then everything about Norman is inappropriate, and yet Ganner imbues him with a particular kind of charm.
Andrew Lear is the monstrous Reg, the kind of man who communicates by advising which A-roads you should have taken. Lear booms, dominating conversations, making empty vessel Reg a joy to behold. Vicki Jameson is also great as the haughty and frazzled Sarah, Reg’s longsuffering wife. Thomas Hodge is in superb form as Tom, a hanger-on who uses his status as local vet to keep coming around to tend to Annie’s cat. Hodge’s Tom is an affable twit – we quickly get the feeling this is a play about women’s frustrations with men, who are all infuriating in their own way.
We have to wait until the second act to encounter Norman’s wife Ruth – an ice-cold Zoe Mortimer, whose searing condemnations of the male sex give the play its social commentary. Ayckbourn writes women’s points of view exceptionally well, and Ruth is a prime example. “Oh, I suppose those kinds of women must exist,” she snaps, ”in books. Written by men.”
As you might expect from an Ayckbourn, these middle-class, middle-aged monsters are caught in a hell of their own making. Each character has their own moment and director Nicky Cox does a bang-up job of getting her actors to shine, balancing the tensions with the inherent humour, the farcical action and the wonderfully funny lines.
The set, designed by Cox together with Ginny Oliver, keeps things simple: an oblong of turf framed by paving stones, with a couple of things to sit on, and an unruly clump of foliage in a corner, is all you need. It’s a play about the people, not the garden, after all. The transformed auditorium keeps things up close and personal and it all works like a treat. A splendid ensemble giving a virtuoso performance of a fine piece of work. I can’t wait to see the other two!
Leave a comment | tags: Alan Ayckbourn, Andrew Lear, Bear Pit Theatre, Ginny Oliver, Lily Skinner, Nicky Cox, review, Roger Ganner, Round and Round the Garden, Stratford upon Avon, The Norman Conquests, Thomas Hodge, Vicki Jamieson, Zoe Mortimer | posted in Review, Theatre Review
BLACKADDER GOES FORTH
The Bear Pit, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 2nd November, 2018
I don’t enjoy tribute bands. I don’t see the point of them – especially when the original act is still alive and kicking. Similarly, I am puzzled when episodes from situation comedies are brought to the stage; they never work as well on the boards as they do in the medium for which they were intended. And when you haven’t got the original cast for whom the roles were tailored, I question the whole enterprise. You can’t hope to match the brilliance of the original so why try to emulate it? Why not just bung the DVD on?
But here we are: three episodes of the fourth and final Blackadder series by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis. Half a box set. The characters are fully formed – there is no scope for development in a sit-com – so with each half-hour piece, we hit the ground running with little in the way of exposition. The sit of the com is self-contained and self-perpetuating.
Paul Tomlinson’s Captain Blackadder has the sneering, sardonic tones down pat as he dishes out sarcasm, hyperbole and absurdist similes, but he is disadvantaged by not having a funny face. Rowan Atkinson’s facial expressions go a long way in selling the often-verbose lines; Tomlinson, sorry to say, is too good-looking!
Nathan Brown’s youthful Baldrick channels Tony Robinson rather well and his comic timing is excellent. Roger Ganner’s bleating General Melchett is perfectly monstrous in his pigheadedness (bringing to mind the stubbornness of a Brexiteer, wilfully disregarding disaster), he’s an excellent foil for Richard Ball’s nervous wet lettuce Darling. There are amusing turns from Justin Osborne, enjoying himself as the dastardly Baron von Richtofen, and from director David Mears who goes ‘over the top’ as the bombastic, bullying braggart Lord Flasheart. How much are they imitating the original cast? How much is advisable? Audiences expect the familiar intonations and appearances, I suppose – which is why tribute acts have little to do with creativity and originality. Tonight, the cast member who seems to make the part his own is Thomas Hodge as posh thicko Lieutenant George.
Mears does well to translate the action to the stage (although sit-coms are somewhat stagey in themselves) making efficient use of a changeable set, built by Martin Tottle and Chris Jackson. The final images, when the series came to a definite and irrevocable end, made for one of the most powerful scenes of television ever, and Mears makes a good fist of emulating them. It’s a wrenching change of tone, a sobering moment and a reminder that those who died in this stupid and futile war were more than statistics from a century ago; they were real people, with hopes and dreams, a sense of humour, fears and friendships… And this is the point of this production and what makes it, in the end, a fine and fitting tribute.
Thomas Hodge, Paul Tomlinson and Nathan Brown (Photo: Sam Allard)
Leave a comment | tags: Bear Pit Theatre, Ben Elton, Blackadder Goes Forth, David Mears, Justin Osborne, Paul Tomlinson, review, Richard Ball, Richard Curtis, Roger Ganner, Stratford upon Avon, Thomas Hodge | posted in Review, Theatre Review
THE 39 STEPS
Bear Pit Theatre, Friday 11th May, 2018
Patrick Barlow’s affectionate spoof draws more from the Hitchcock film version than the John Buchan original novel – and indeed, his script is peppered with direct nods to Hitchcock’s filmography for those in the know. Director Nicky Cox’s ambitious production is an excellent fit for the Bear Pit’s intimate space; her set design maximises the performance area with a raised level, including judicious use of a screen for projections that both identify the location and bridge the scenes of on-stage action. Cox works her cast of just four hard; this is a show where the hand of the director is clearly visible, especially during inventive moments like a chase on the roof of a train, and an aeroplane conjured up from a propeller and a ladder. Also clearly in evidence is the wit of the writer: Barlow’s wordplay spoofs the stilted dialogue with the addition of extra-silliness.
But, of course, it is the actors who draw our admiration the most readily. Tony Homer is perfectly cast as the protagonist Richard Hannay, tall, slender, his old-fashioned matinee idol looks enhanced by his neat moustache. Homer proves adept at facial expressions, especially the world-weariness and the self-congratulatory wink, and he uses his pipe to great effect. I would say he could emphasise Hannay’s R.P. and his stuffy manner to make the most of the character’s ridiculousness, but that’s a quibble, and I don’t wish to detract from his wildly enjoyable portrayal.
Carol Roache reappears as Hannay’s love interests, from a German femme fatale (What is German for femme fatale?) to a crofter’s wife and Pamela, a terribly English young woman who finds herself handcuffed to our hero to great comic effect. Roache pitches each role perfectly: larger-than-life but never going over-the-top. That indulgence is permitted to the remaining two cast members, Natalie Danks-Smith and Roger Ganner, who play (tirelessly, it seems) everyone else. This versatile pair undergo the quickest of quick changes, their characterisations becoming broader and broader, in some breathtakingly silly moments. Danks-Smith is hilarious as a crofter and the landlady of a hotel; while Ganner excels as the evil professor and the twitchy hotel landlord, to name but four of their many roles.
There are a few first night glitches: a wayward moustache and a runaway pen – but the cast handle these mishaps with aplomb, and it all adds to the fun. A couple of times, the pace could be quicker – especially during a couple of scene changes – but I’m sure things will sharpen up as the show’s run gets into its stride.
All in all, this is comedy heaven, an excellent opportunity to exercise your laughing muscles for a couple of hours and, generally, the moments when we’re not laughing are times when we’re just marvelling at the brilliance of it all.
Jolly good show! Tony Homer as Richard Hannay
Leave a comment | tags: ALfred Hitchcock, Bear Pit Theatre, Carol Roache, John Buchan, Natalie Danks-Smith, Nicky Cox, Patrick Barlow, review, Roger Ganner, Stratford upon Avon, The 39 Steps, Tony Homer | posted in Theatre Review
ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS
The Bear Pit, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 15th May, 2017
Ever ambitious, the Bear Pit brings to its intimate space Richard Bean’s hit comedy, a knockabout farce based on a much earlier work by Goldoni. Subtle, it ain’t.
David Mears plays Francis Henshall, the conniving if dim protagonist driven by basic appetites (hunger and desire), striving to keep two employees happy – and apart. As ever with Mears, it’s a masterclass in comedy. Characterisation, timing and physicality are all done to perfection, although from time to time, especially in the more intense moments, it’s as though he is channelling James Corden, the originator of the role at the National Theatre. Given Corden’s phenomenal success in the part, this is no bad thing!
Others in the excellent ensemble also dazzle. Roger Ganner’s upper class Stanley is a wiz with comic exclamations and comes complete with comedy back hair. Jack Sargent’s histrionic, wannabe actor, Alan, is an absolute treat, while Flo Hatton’s Pauline makes a delightfully thick ingenue. Natalie Danks-Smith’s Rachel, in disguise as her murdered ‘identical’ twin is also a lot of fun.
For me though, the show is stolen by a towering performance from Ruth Linnett as Dolly, having to tilt her beehive do sharply every time she comes on or goes off – a running gag that never gets old. Linnett is a match for Mears in the comedy stakes, able to throw away asides to the audience with quickfire precision.
There is strong and enjoyable support from the likes of Mike McClusky as Charlie Clench, Rob Woolton as Lloyd, and Graham Tyrer in dual roles of Harry the brief and Alfie the geriatric waiter.
The laughs come thick and fast – from Bean’s hilarious script, the cast’s larger-than-life, energetic playing, and the attentive eye of director Nicky Cox who doesn’t let a detail pass her by, keeping the action focused and the pace consistent in order to maximise our laughter.
An onstage skiffle trio plays through the leisurely scene transitions – the economic almost Spartan set proves to be versatile in its suggestion of the action’s locations, allowing the actors to come to the fore. It’s a pity there isn’t more space for the running around, which would crank up Francis’s frenetic activity, but this is a taut production of Bean’s genius with plenty of sauce, relentlessly funny and expertly executed.
1 Comment | tags: Bear Pit Theatre, David Mears, Flo Hatton, Goldoni, Graham Tyrer, Jack Sargent, Mike McClusky, Natalie Danks-Smith, Nicky Cox, One Man Two Guvnors, review, Richard Bean, Rob Wootton, Roger Ganner, Ruth Linnett, Stratford upon Avon | posted in Theatre Review
GOD OF CARNAGE
Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 6th May, 2016
One young boy has knocked out a couple of teeth of another boy. Their parents meet to discuss what is to be done. It all begins in civilised fashion: they are agreeing the wording of a definitive statement of events. Soon, however, as blame is hurled from one side to the other, the thin veneer of civilisation begins to crack and peel away.
Yasmina Reza’s black comedy of manners, played here in a sharp translation by Christopher Hampton, makes acute observations about the human condition – the middle-class human, that is. One of the fathers, Michael, has tipped the family hamster out onto the road. It’s not a wild animal or a domesticated animal, he observes. This incident is a metaphor for the entire piece. Out of their cages of etiquette and civility, the characters flounder. They turn on each other but their attacks are as effectual as an assault by hamster – I imagine; I’ve never crossed one’s path. There is always something enjoyable about seeing people behaving badly, in ways we would never dare to in our real lives.
As Michael, Roger Ganner brings Black Country bathos, forever undermining the pretensions of his wife Veronica (Penny Sandle-Keynes) whose African masks and artefacts adorn the set – clues to the primitive tribalism we are about to witness. This powwow of chieftains is not going to be fruitful. Tony Homer’s Alan, apparently surgically welded to his mobile phone, emits waves of cynicism effortlessly, while his brittle wife Annette (Ruth Linnett) does a marvellous turn in falling ill and getting pissed. In short, this quartet delivers an excellent performance of well-defined characters, whose excesses are within keeping of their established tropes, and the contrasting moments of action are adeptly orchestrated by director Colin Lewis Edwards, staging a mini-Lord of the Flies meltdown in Bel Derrington’s detailed but not cluttered set.
We only care about ourselves, opines Alan – between phone calls. Reza holds up this attitude to ridicule. If we only care about ourselves, we are no better than selfish, squabbling children. Like the unfortunate hamster, we need our cages for our own protection, whether those cages are good manners, convention, or indeed technology like Alan’s ever-ringing mobile.
A bleak view of society but a darkly entertaining and thought-provoking piece of theatre, tightly played by an excellent cast. I enjoyed every wince-inducing minute.
Leave a comment | tags: Bear Pit Theatre, Bel Derrington, Christopher Hampton, Colin Lewis Edwards, God of Carnage, Penny Sandle-Keynes, review, Roger Ganner, Ruth Linnet, Stratford upon Avon, Tony Homer, Yasmina Reza | posted in Theatre Review