Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 4th November, 2015
The Original Theatre Company is back on the road, following up their excellent Three Men in a Boat and the superlative Birdsong with this new production of Terence Rattigan’s 1942 play. As ever, production values are high and while this one isn’t as funny as the former or as emotionally powerful as the latter, it flies high on its own merits.
Set in a Lincolnshire hotel it charts the comings and goings of several couples, the male partners of which are in the RAF and are called out on a mission. Waiting for news of their fate adds to the tension in their relationships. It’s a bit ‘terribly, terribly, darling’ being very much of its time but what makes it extra interesting is that neither the characters nor the playwright know when or how the war will be over. We, the audience, know the outcome (spoiler: we won) – the play must have felt very current when it was first produced. And it’s a bit of a morale booster: personal sacrifice for the greater good, kind of thing.
Hayley Grindle’s set combines period stylings with the genius idea of taking away the walls of the hotel. There is a window, upstage and central, surrounded by a vast expanse of sky – the sky is of the utmost importance to the characters, being airmen and airmen’s wives.
Out of the blue comes matinee idol Peter Kyle (Leon Ockenden being suitably charming and debonair) and it turns out he’s as old flame one of the wives, actress Patricia (Olivia Hallinan bringing 1940s glamour); he’s flaring up again and she is forced to choose between her passion for Peter and her duty to heroic husband Teddy (Alastair Whatley in superb form). It’s a choice between a man who plays heroes and one who actually is one. And yet it is Teddy who is in awe of Peter – but then we often set movie stars on pedestals and undervalue our servicemen. Whatley is awfully good, especially when Teddy’s stiff upper lip gives way after a traumatic flight back to base.
But then the entire cast is high calibre. Affable and endearing Philip Franks is affable and endearing as avuncular Squadron Leader Swanson. Simon Darwen and Shvorne Marks are the Millers from London – both capture the essence of period Cockney without descending into caricature, and there is some excellent character work from Stephanie Jacob as irascible hotel manager Mrs Oakes. Adam Best amuses as Polish Officer Skriczevinsky, nagged by his wife to improve his English – there are touching moments when it looks like he won’t be coming back, powerfully handled by Siobhan O’Kelly reacting to a letter read by Leon Ockenden. I also enjoyed James Cooney as chirpy barman Percy who always seems to know more than the airmen.
We never see a plane but we hear them all right courtesy of Dominic Bilkey’s sound design bringing them close: there is a sense of menace to think that might be a German bomber overhead (especially since I’m sitting in Coventry!). Director Justin Audibert gets the tone spot on, evoking period and place while still keeping the characters relatable rather than pastiching them beyond our ability to sympathise.
The whole thing smacks of British understatement and emotion kept reined in by humour and making the best of it. Rattigan’s writing is still accessible – the play has hardly dated despite its specificity – and this production satisfies on all levels. Another winner from The Original Theatre Company, dripping in quality and entertainment value and carried off with flair..
Alistair Whatley and Olivia Hallinan (Photo: Jack Ladenburg)
Leave a comment | tags: Adam Best, Alistair Whatley, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Dominic Bilkey, Flare Path, Hayley Grindle, James Cooney, Justin Audibert, Leon Ockenden, Olivia Hallivan, Philip Franks, review, Shvorne Marks, Simon Darwen, Siobhan O'Kelly, Stephanie Jacob, Terence Rattigan | posted in Theatre Review
THE WITCH OF EDMONTON
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 13th November, 2014
It’s a sad fact of society that when you hold up someone as a scapegoat for your problems, evil deeds will follow – persecution being the least of them. Playwrights Rowley, Dekker and Ford were saying as much four centuries ago. How dismaying to see the message is still relevant today.
Old Mother Sawyer is a lonely old woman whose life is made intolerable by the villagers of Edmonton ( a bunch of UKIP voters in waiting – although these days the focus has turned from little old ladies to immigrants). Bothered and bewildered, she wishes she could bewitch her tormentors. Unlike The Crucible there’s a twist here. Something wicked this way comes: the devil hears the old woman’s curses and makes her an offer she can’t refuse. She becomes a witch for real with the devil at her side as her familiar, Tom the black dog. Eileen Atkins in perfectly credible as the curmudgeonly old boot, arousing our sympathy from the start. Her cantankerous demeanour puts the devil in his place (temporarily, of course). Atkins is superb and so is Jay Simpson as the devil dog.
Cleverly, the script keeps the audience a step ahead of the characters. We always know more than they do and this dramatic irony heightens both the comic and the tense moments.
There is greater evil abroad than making Farmer Banks (Christopher Middleton) kiss his cow’s backside. Ian Bonar’s con artist Frank Thorney Junior is a bigamist and adulterer, swindling his inheritance from his father, abetted by David Rintoul’s Sir Arthur. (When it all goes belly-up, it turns out there is one law for the rich and another for the poor… Imagine that! Oh. Yes…) Bonar is excellent – his early scenes with the first of his wives takes us in. We believe he is a star-cross’d swain. Later we see the depths to which he will sink.
The entire company is in good form. Shvorne Marks makes a strong impression and tugs at the heartstrings as wronged wife Winnifride. Ian Redford’s Carter and Geoffrey Freshwater’s Thorney Senior break your heart with grieving. Dafydd Llyr Thomas is a hoot as the bumptious Cuddy Banks – the only character able to cast the devil from the place. Joe Bannister and Joseph Ashley cut dashing figures as two suitors wrongly accused – it all gets a bit CSI:Edmonton for a while, An underused Liz Crowther gets a moment in the spotlight for a wild-eyed mad scene and handsome RSC newcomer Oliver Dench shines, displaying a talent for comic playing in a couple of minor roles.
Sensibly, director Gregory Doran keeps the play in its own period and lets its delights and messages speak for themselves. Niki Turner’s design is as effective as it is simple: a dense backdrop of tall reeds through which Tim Mitchell’s lighting creates creepily atmospheric moments, complemented by Paul Englishby’s music. Special mention must go to violinist Zhivko Georgiev for his ‘diabolical’ fiddling.
There is much to enjoy here: a bunch of rude mechanicals perform a morris dance and have to dance to the devil’s tune; shocking violence and duplicity; humorous exchanges and poignant scenes of grief and forgiveness… It’s a betwitching evening of theatre with Eileen Atkins casting a spell that lingers long after Old Ma Sawyer is led away to her fate.
Magic! Eileen Atkins (Photo: Helen Maybanks)
Leave a comment | tags: Christopher Middleton, Dafydd Llyr Thomas, David Rintoul, Eileen Atkins, Geoffrey Freshwater, Gregory Doran, Ian Bonar, Ian Redford, Jay Simpson, Joe Bannister, Joseph Arkley, Liz Crowther, Niki Turner, Oliver Dench, Paul Englishby, review, RSC, Shvorne Marks, Stratford upon Avon, The Swan, The Witch of Edmonton, Tim Mitchell, Zhivko Georgiev | posted in Theatre Review