A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 9th January 2014
Alan Ayckbourn’s 1984 comedy is set in the world of amateur dramatics. Professional productions of the piece usually cannot afford to put enough bodies on the stage to represent the scale of an amateur cast, while amateur companies have the advantage of lots and lots of willing (if not necessarily able) members with whom to fill the performance space. Birmingham’s Stage2 youth theatre company is short of neither bodies nor ability – what impresses first and foremost is the focus and discipline of the crowd scenes. Director Liz Light keeps the teeming throng of young actors tightly packed while at the same time allowing for the individuality of each and every one of them. It’s like watching a Hogarth engraving come to life.
The plot charts the progress of handsome but inhibited widower Guy Jones (played by Tom Baker – not that Tom Baker, although there are traces of Matt Smith in his performance!) as he auditions for a part in the chorus of his local am-dram’s production of The Beggar’s Opera. He meets affable but tyrannical director Dafydd ap Llewellyn – a towering portrayal by Ethan Tarr. Guy works his way up the cast list and through various female members of the society.
Baker is the perfect foil for Tarr’s monstrous Llewellyn, although one suggestion I would make is that everyone needs to take it down a notch, especially in the earlier scenes. The Ron Barker Studio allows smaller, understated work. The cast need to take their foot off the pedal a bit so that when the action unfolds and simmering emotions boil over, they have somewhere to go. This way the contrast between moments of relative peace and outbreaks of aggression and resentment is sharper. It seems a little too angsty and uptight from the get-go.
That being said, as Guy finds himself more deeply embroiled on and off stage, there is some lovely comic playing. Baker is highly skilled at being uncomfortable and his reactions to what he sees and hears are excellent – especially his spit-takes. Tarr plays all the colours of the tyrant like a virtuoso. His sudden explosions of sarcastic rage are hilarious.
But this is far from a two-man show. I can’t mention everyone in this superb ensemble but I will point out Helen Carter as Dafydd’s wife, played with sensitivity and truth. Priya Edwards’s Fay is more broad as a characterisation but equally truthful with her knowing humour.
The adult themes and subject matter are handled beautifully, leading to some hilarious moments of misunderstanding and unintentional innuendo on the part of the characters. Such is the quality of some of the acting, it is easy to see past the youth of the players. Andrew Brown elicits empathy as the clueless, useless Ted who gets the brunt of Dafydd’s ire and derision and I also enjoyed Sarah Quinn as the aggressive barmaid/stage manager. George Hannigan gives a well-observed turn as old boy Jarvis – similarly Rosie Nisbet’s Rebecca is played with assurance, haughtiness and stature, convincingly middle-aged rather than the teenagers they actually are.
The staging is kept simple (there isn’t room for much!) but there is sophistication in the handling of settings and transitions. At the end when they appear in their 18th century costumes and rise to the occasion of their show, it’s a measure of the high quality of the production as a whole.
Amateur actors acting as bad amateur actors in quite a feat to pull off. The dozens of members of Stage2 fill the space with their energy, dedication and talent, undaunted by the complexities and nuances of Ayckbourn’s script. With a lighter touch at the beginning, this production would be flawless.