Tag Archives: Russell Dixon

Ups and Downs

TAKING STEPS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th October, 2017

 

Alan Ayckbourn expertly directs this revival of his 1979 farce, playing in a double-bill with his latest work, A Brief History of Women.  Set in rambling manor house The Pines, Taking Steps has most of the ingredients of classic farce but the traditional element of doors is swapped for two flights of stairs.  The action takes place on three floors of the hours, with characters running, sneaking and hurrying up and down stairs in bids to avoid each other or seek each other out.  And yet, all three floors are set in the same square of stage, with furniture from three rooms sharing the same space.  The stairs are flat, running alongside two sides of the square.  This allows us to see characters in different rooms at the same time, if you see what I mean.  It works like a charm and the added silliness of actors galumphing along flat sets of stairs augments the overall ridiculousness of the plot – which I won’t attempt to summarise here.

Louise Shuttleworth is great value as Elizabeth, a thwarted (and self-deluded) dancer, attempting to leave her husband.  Laurence Pears is also great as her brother Mark, who has problems of his own, not least of which is people falling asleep when he is talking to them.  The heightened accents, a tad more RP than we use today, add to the period feel – the complications would not work in today’s world of smartphones and technology.  Laura Matthews’s Kitty is quickly established as the timid, overwrought former fiancée of Mark, while Anthony Eden’s hilariously inarticulate solicitor Watson is an absolute delight.  Leigh Symonds’s builder Leslie Bainbridge is all-too recognisable from the ‘real world’ but it is Russell Dixon’s overbearing Roland, Elizabeth’s husband, who dominates the piece and its events.  Dixon is marvellous and his Roland has many colours, all of them increasingly blurring as he knocks back the scotch.

The writing is sublime – Ayckbourn’s dialogue can’t be bettered in my view – and there is plenty of physical business as the action winds itself in knots.

Still funny after all these years and performed by a top-notch ensemble, the play reveals human inadequacies in a vastly enjoyable way, and it’s an undiluted pleasure to escape into this highly manipulated world and get away from the unfolding, deteriorating farce that is our current government and the Brexit ‘negotiations’.  Anything that brings hearty laughter in these troubled times is to be welcomed and embraced like an old and much-loved friend.

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Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth argue in the bedroom while Antony Eden waits downstairs. (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)

 

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Dramatic Devices

HENCEFORWARD

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 11th October, 2016

 

Almost thirty years old, Alan Ayckbourn’s vision of a dystopian near-future is still bang on the money.  In some ways, technology has almost caught up with the world of the play, with touchscreen tablets and face-time video messaging, and our fascination with robots continues to this day in TV shows like Humans and WestWorld.  (Not forgetting, of course, that we owe the word ‘robot’ to a 1920 play by Karel Čapek).  Science fiction not only predicts future tech but also warns us about it.  Here, the technology, not so different from our own, is recognisably frustrating with its glitches and flaws.  Meanwhile, the world outside is becoming increasingly violent, with thugs ruling the streets.  With homophobic and racist attacks on the rise today, this nightmarish world doesn’t seem too far-fetched in post-Brexit Britain.

Composer Julian, unable to work since his wife departed with their daughter, hires actress Zoe to masquerade as a life partner.  The aim is to convince both wife and an official that Julian is able to provide suitable care for his daughter and thereby gain access to his child.  When the actress doesn’t work out, Julian has to rethink his plan, adapting an android to play the role… And so the scene is set for some wonderfully farcical shenanigans and, due to the genius of Ayckbourn’s writing, some heartfelt emotional outpourings.

Bill Champion’s Julian is a broken man, who awakes from his reclusiveness through his meeting with Laura Matthews’s effervescent and ditzy Zoe.  That he gets what he wants – the composition of new music – but in doing so, loses everything, is genuinely tragic.  Matthews is an irresistibly lively presence and equally compelling in the second act when she plays the remodelled robot – played in the first act by Jacqueline King, who elicits both chuckles and chills as the wonky automated nanny.  King later appears as Julian’s estranged wife – the play is an excellent showcase for female talent.  Daughter Geain (Jessie Hart) also displays a duality – the play touches on gender roles and social conditioning.  Like the robot, we are programmed to behave and respond in certain ways.   There is also some excellent character work from Russell Dixon as wet-lettuce official Mervyn, and Ayckbourn, with his director’s hat on, orchestrates the comedy, the dramatic irony and the tension like a master.  Which, of course, he is.

It’s a play about how technology dehumanises us, getting in the way of our interactions, blocking rather than liberating our communications.

It’s also very, very funny.

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Jacqueline King, Bill Champion, Laura Matthews and Russell Dixon (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)


Most Welcome

HERO’S WELCOME

New Vic Theatre, Monday 19th October, 2015

 

Alan Ayckbourn’s latest (yes, he’s still churning them out!) is darker than most of his output but nonetheless as funny as ever. It tells the story of the return to his home town, after 17 years in the armed forces, of local lad Murray (Richard Stacey) acclaimed as a hero for his part in saving a children’s hospital from rebel forces. With him is his sweet, young wife Madrababacascabuna (Terenia Edwards) whose struggles to learn English lead to many an amusing moment.

Trouble is, no one seems happy to have Murray back. It emerges he left town under something of a cloud, having deserted Alice (Elizabeth Boag) at the altar, a woman he stole from former best mate Brad (Stephen Billington). Alice is now Mayor and wields power enough to scupper Murray’s plans to reopen his family’s old hotel.

Murray is the least exaggerated of the characters: Stacey gives him an earnest, likeable manner bringing to mind the skills of Christopher Eccleston, while Terenia Edwards, in her professional debut, sparkles as his wife (I can’t be bothered to type that name out again), growing in confidence in tandem with her vocabulary. Russell Dixon is Alice’s husband and mayoral consort Derek, a gossipy old woman of a man fixated on model railways – a stock Ayckbourn type. Ayckbourn rarely gives us absolute, complete and utter shits (I can think of Paul in Absent Friends) but here with Brad is a villain of unadulterated nastiness. Billington is dashing and dapper enough to offset Brad’s inner ugliness; we enjoy detesting him. Suffering Brad’s emotional and verbal abuse is long-suffering wife Kara – Emma Manton utterly excellent at showing us the pain behind the brave face in an outstanding performance.

Ayckbourn packs a lot in and although Michael Holt’s set is a little cluttered, the three locations-in-one work well to keep the action zipping along. There are underlying themes of the difficulties faced by soldiers who leave the army, and the treatment of immigrants as less-than-human (Brad sees Murray’s wife as fair game in a bet with Derek) but the emphasis is on the personal dramas unfolding, as events of the past come to the fore and the present situation becomes untenable.

It’s as bitter and delicious as dark chocolate, performed by a flawless ensemble and, while not a masterpiece, proves that Ayckbourn is still at the height of his powers, unmatched in his presentation of contemporary human interactions.

Richard Stacey and Terenia Edwards (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)

Richard Stacey and Terenia Edwards (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)


Circle of Life

ROUNDELAY

New Vic Theatre, Thursday 9th October, 2014

Alan Ayckbourn’s latest is another display of his genius. Rather than one play, this is a collection of five shorts. The running order is chosen at random by audience members in the bar about half an hour before show time. Therefore, every night is different: the order in which you see the plays affects your understanding and appreciation of what goes on. Characters may appear in more than one. Names are mentioned that will resonate in other pieces. It’s a circular jigsaw puzzle of entertainment.

Each play has a different flavour: there is hilarious mistaken identity in The Politician, when an aspiring actress is mistaken for a call girl; heartbreak in The Star; tenderness in The Judge, spookiness in The Novelist; and thrills and tension in The Agent. All of them are rich with Ayckbourn’s observational humour, and each of them has its own twist or surprise.

The ensemble cast is top notch. Nigel Hastings impresses as camp, CSI-obsessed neighbour Ashley in The Agent, and as the odious Politician, channelling Boris Johnson (and yet only managing to be about 10% as abhorrent as the real thing). Russell Dixon’s Tom brings the authority and vulnerability that come with old age. Alexandra Mathie brings restraint and madness to Blanche in her two appearances. Brooke Kinsella gives call girl Lindy sweetness and understated pathos. Krystle Hylton lights up the stage as ball-of-energy teenage wannabe Roz, determined to be The Star but only if she can dispense with such time-wasting things as training and experience. Her reappearance in The Politician shows another side to the brash youngster, as nerves overcome her prior to her ‘audition’. Leigh Symonds comes the heavy as Lance: there is some quite brutal violence in The Agent, the most thrilling of the pieces, and a powerful performance from Sophie Roberts as Gale. Richard Stacey is amiable but ineffectual vicar Russ – his devastation at the hands of an old school girlfriend is very touching and is the most downbeat ending of the five – some evenings the show must end with this piece, leaving the audience with a very different feeling…

As a whole, it’s about human experience in all its colours: love, loss, memory, regret, mistakes, violence, passion, ambition, hypocrisy, lust, fear… Somehow Ayckbourn covers the lot.  Life is a dance in the round.  The characters reveal different aspects of themselves depending on the circles in which they move.

Each piece is a treat from Ayckbourn’s chocolate box. Each centre is not what you expect from the labelling. The whole evening, rather than giving you a bellyache, leaves you with a sense of satisfaction. And a sense of wonder at the kind of mind that can put all this together, while respecting the audience’s intelligence to make the connections and spot the ramifications: what is a throwaway line in one, can have life-changing consequences in another…

Bloody marvellous. I want to go round again.

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