Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 1st October, 2015
Gregory Doran’s new production takes its lead from the Chorus, who draws our attention to the limitations of theatrical presentations and pleads with us to use our imaginations – in fact, Oliver Ford Davies yells at us, urging us to work, as though he is a gruff old academic and us his dull students. It makes for the most amusing Chorus I have seen, and it’s easy to imagine Ford Davies as the beloved terror of a university or a curmudgeonly presenter of a historical series on BBC 4.
Doran brings out a great deal of humour and there is no limit to his theatrical presentation! The play seems well-served by this approach. Jim Hooper’s Archbishop of Canterbury who has acres of exposition to deliver in hereby transformed into a delight.
The marvellous Alex Hassell’s Henry is very much a new king, finding his way and taking on board the counsel of his advisors. He sits on the throne with his legs wide apart, consciously asserting his presence, like a selfish commuter ‘man-spreading’ on the Tube. He is a thoughtful, sensitive Henry, a man of conscience and a fast learner. At first, Hassell gives him a haughty, pompous tone as though Henry only uses his telephone voice but as the king becomes more accustomed to his position, he grows more natural, without losing status. By the time we get to the Crispin’s Day speech he is indeed the war-like Harry – the delivery is both rousing and heartfelt.
There is comic support from the likes of Christopher Middleton’s Nym and Antony Byrne’s Pistol – this latter, especially, rounds out his characterisation beyond the physicality of the comic business. There’s a Welshman, an Irishman bristling with mad hair and grenades, and a Scotsman – fun with stereotypes! Simon Yadoo’s Scottish Jamy is hilariously unintelligible. Joshua Richards’s Welshman Fluellen is more even-tempered, look you. The funniest scenes involve Katherine (Jennifer Kirby) trying to learn English from her lady-in-waiting (Leigh Dunn); and Robert Gilbert is a hoot as the effeminate Dauphin, complete with pageboy bob.
But it’s not all laughs, larks and leeks. Far from it. Tensions and drama keep the plot going, linked by the Chorus’s narration: when Henry receives news of the execution of former drinking buddy Bardolph (Joshua Richards again) he has to govern his emotions and temper his response in accordance with his role as monarch. And earlier, the reporting of the death of Falstaff is touchingly done by Sarah Parks’s Mistress Quickly.
There’s a happy ending: wooing Katherine, Henry is out of his depth. His prowess in war cannot help him now. Hassell has always excelled at comedy and leaves us on a high. We come away with the feeling that Henry must have been a good king, (albeit a short-lived one) and we have been royally entertained by a refreshing, rollicking take on a well-worn history.
Royal Shakespeare Company production of
by William Shakespeare
directed by Gregory Doran Photo: Keith Pattison
1 Comment | tags: Alex Hassell, Antony Byrne, Christopher Middleton, Gregory Doran, Henry V, Jennifer Kirby, Jim Hooper, Joshua Richards, Leigh Dunn, Oliver Ford Davies, review, RSC, Sarah Parks, Simon Yadoo, Stratford upon Avon, William Shakespeare | posted in Theatre Review
ARRIVALS & DEPARTURES
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 11th October, 2013
Troubled soldier Ez is tasked with looking after Barry, a witness who will be able to identify a terror suspect when a train arrives. As they wait, Barry’s loquaciousness (particularly about the weather) tests Ez’s patience to the limit but gradually they form a mutual respect and understanding.
Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play is more than a brief encounter on the railways. The first act is intercut with flashbacks of Ez’s past. The second is a repeat of the first act although this time the flashbacks reveal Barry’s personal history. It’s a supremely effective device that maximises the impact of events when they reach both anticlimax and shocking denouement.
Elizabeth Boag is very strong as the cold and reserved Ez, who despite herself forms a kind of attachment to the wittering buffoon in her charge. Kim Wall dazzles as Barry, who first appears as a numpty from the North (he sports a baseball cap rather than the stereotypical flat variety) but is revealed to be a lovely bloke. Both are shown to be victims of unscrupulous people their paths have crossed.
Running the undercover operation is Quentin (a splendid Terence Booth) rehearsing his troops in scenes that show the soldiers’ amateurish dramatics in hilarious light. There is powerful support from the likes of John Branwell, Richard Stacey and Sarah Parks, and I particularly liked James Powell as the young Barry, embarking on married life and taking over his father-in-law’s business. Ben Porter again impresses with his versatility but really the entire ensemble merits praise for the seemingly effortless naturalism of their portrayals within a heightened and extraordinary situation. Even the farcical elements are played for truth and this is why it works like a well-oiled machine.
Ayckbourn’s script balances riotous humour with amusing character study as well as giving us some dramatic and very poignant moments, while keeping the element of surprise up its sleeve. It’s an entertaining, affecting piece, reminding us that we all have pasts of our own; we all go through life’s mill, but sometimes circumstances conspire to bring us together with a stranger and encounters, however brief or bizarre, can lead to a genuine connection.
Elizabeth Boag and Kim Wall
1 Comment | tags: Alan Ayckbourn, Arrivals and Departures, Ben Porter, Elizabeth Boag, James Powell, John Branwell, Kim Wall, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, review, Richard Stacey, Sarah Parks, Terence Booth, theatre review | posted in Theatre Review
TIME OF MY LIFE
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 8th October
In a restaurant, members of the Stratton family gather for matriarch Laura’s 54th birthday. It’s a favourite venue and a bit of a family tradition – which is good, because all the action can take place on one set. Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy was first produced in the 90s. Now, 25 years later, it is still as relentlessly funny as ever – along with the usual Ayckbourn undercurrents of tragedy and bitterness.
What sets this piece apart is the structure. We join the action during the celebration dinner but then, at other tables in the restaurant, we follow the fates of Laura’s sons. We see one son’s future unfold at one table, and the other’s past is revealed at another. It cuts from one to the other seamlessly and we are never confused about where we are in the timeline.
The ensemble works excellently to reveal these characters. As selfish Laura, Sarah Parks brings a deadpan humour to the callous observations, balanced to perfection by “EveryDad” Gerry (the superb John Branwell). Laura’s neglected son Glyn (Richard Stacey) matches her in monstrous selfishness, and one really feels for his good-natured wife, Stephanie (a delightful Emily Pithon). Over-indulged son Adam (James Powell) is less abrasive than his brother, a sort of hapless twit in Tweed who, after some hilarious misunderstandings, falls for the dubious charms of hairdresser Maureen (Rachel Caffrey, bringing bathos and colour to the proceedings).
For me, the touch of genius comes in the device of having one actor play all the restaurant staff. The versatile Ben Porter is a scream as a range of waiters in dodgy wigs and Greco-Albanian accents, mangling the English language, bursting into incomprehensible song and making gestures, lewd or threatening as the case may be. This keeps the play firmly rooted in comedy even though some very dark things are said and indeed happen, off-stage.
The theme is reflected in the title. It is about recognising moments of happiness when they occur rather than in bittersweet retrospect. Which is, of course, easier said than done. But while you’re in the theatre, revelling in this virtuoso display of acting and comedic brilliance, for that couple of hours you are enjoying the time of your life.
No present like the time
Leave a comment | tags: Alan Ayckbourn, Ben Porter, Emily Pithon, James Powell, John Branwell, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Rachel Caffrey, review, Richard Stacey, Sarah Parks, theatre review, Time Of My Life | posted in Theatre Review
ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 16th October, 2012
Three Christmas Eves, three kitchens, and three couples. Ayckbourn’s play from the 1970s seems deceptively straightforward. Each of the acts is an exercise in comedy of some kind: comedy of manners, black comedy, slapstick and the traditional bringing authority figures into ridicule… to name but a few. By the end of the evening, the play has charted the rise of petit bourgeois Sidney, the upwardly mobile shopkeeper and small businessman. Along the way he becomes a monster and a boor, but the others, the bank manager with whom he invests, and the disgraced architect desperate for work, have to dance to his tune – or rather freeze when he stops the music. Within the couples, fortunes rise and fall: Hopcroft’s cleaning-obsessed wife becomes his equal; suicidal Eva reins in her philandering husband and takes charge of his business affairs ; and Marion, the bank manager’s wife sinks from snobby disdain to rampant alcoholism.
Yes, there is darkness permeating their lives but for the audience it is a treat to sit back and watch as this finely tuned clockwork reveals its delights. As Sidney, Ben Porter stands out, at first neurotic and slimy, he gains confidence as his empire grows. Laura Doddington is a hoot as downtrodden Jane who is able to enjoy herself when Sidney gains other victims to bully. Ayesha Antoine’s Eva gives us contrasts: the strung out on antidepressants woman at the start could not be more different to the hardened and focussed wife at the end. And yet it is in the second act, in which she doesn’t say a word, that she really shines as each mute attempt to top herself with whatever’s handy in her kitchen, is hilariously and unwittingly thwarted by her unwelcome guests. Richard Stacey plays her husband Geoff, perhaps the least exaggerated character of the bunch and the architect of his own downfall. Bill Champion brings a note of pathos to befuddled bank manager Ronald, still puzzling over why his first wife left him, and Sarah Parks’s Marion descends into drunkenness with a startlingly well-observed performance.
I’ve seen this play several times but never before in a production directed by Alan Ayckbourn himself. Here the class distinctions seem sharper, the darkness casts a longer shadow. When first produced, the play must have seemed prescient about the rise of the Thatcherite, the businessman over the professional and the powerful. Now it seems to hint that the banks are hopeless and we must all kowtow to private enterprise – the power is in Hopcroft’s greedy hands and he is a brute without taste, grace or concern for public welfare.
1 Comment | tags: Absurd Person Singular, Alan Ayckbourn, Ayesha Antoine, Ben Porter, Bill Champion, Laura Doddington, New Vic Theatre, review, Richard Stacey, Sarah Parks | posted in Theatre Review