Tag Archives: Sophie Ward

Murder with Class

A JUDGMENT IN STONE

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 20th February, 2017

 

Formerly the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, the Classic Thriller Theatre Company hopes to emulate its earlier success by expanding the range of writers it draws upon, and so we have this adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel, delivered in the company’s solid and classy style.

I don’t know if it exists in the book, never having read it, but this version, by Simon Brett and Anthony Lampard, uses the device of alternating scenes of the police investigation with flashbacks leading up to the brutal murder of the Coverdale family.  Past and present collide and keep us hooked on the developing mystery.

Sophie Ward is excellent as the dowdy housekeeper, Eunice Parchman, hiding what to her is a terrible secret.  As the detectives, Vetch and Challoner, Andrew Lancel and Ben Nealon exude an air of easy professionalism.  Mark Wynter amuses as the smug patriarch George Coverdale, while Rosie Thomson as his wife is the life and soul of the household.  Joshua Price mills around as the bookish, oddball son, and Jennifer Sims brings emotional depth to her role of Melinda, the daughter home from university.  We know the family is doomed – it’s a matter of when and by whom that keeps us intrigued.  They’re all so terribly middle-class, calling each other ‘darling’ all the time, that we perhaps don’t much care about them as individuals.  Rather our sympathy lies elsewhere – but that would be telling.

The usually glamorous Shirley Anne Field dresses down as cleaner Mrs Baalham, and Deborah Grant muttons up as outlandish postmistress and religious crank, Joan Smith.  Revelation of the night (apart from the whodunit) is former Blue singer Antony Costa delivering a nice line in character acting as the reformed criminal and gardener, Rodger Meadows.

Julie Godfrey’s set epitomises the country house mystery, but it also communicates a message about the permanence of the class system – this is a story with class, in more ways than one.  Director Roy Marsden keeps the action flowing seamlessly between the two timelines, using Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design to mark when we are, as well as to highlight certain dramatic moments.

It all makes up for a solid and reliable piece of entertainment, excellently presented.  We may guess who is responsible, but when the murder scene finally arrives it is no less shocking.  Pace and tone are handled expertly to deliver the goods.

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company is dead; long live the Classic Thriller Theatre Company!

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Sophie Ward (Photo: Mark Yeoman)

 

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We’re All Going On A Soma Holiday

BRAVE NEW WORLD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 5th November, 2015

 

Aldous Huxley’s visionary 1930s novel is doing the rounds in this new adaptation by Dawn King, and it’s refreshing to see serious science fiction being tackled live on stage. It turns out Huxley’s ideas have lost none of their sting or pertinence. In fact the brave new world he depicts seems frighteningly close, given the technological advances and ideological backwards moves that have happened since his day.

We begin in the London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, where its Director (James Howard) addresses us as newly arrived trainees. It’s a nifty means of exposition, detailing how this society operates and Howard is smarmily splendid in his PR spiel. The alphas and betas in society get the cream, while further down the social scale, the epsilons would be lucky even to glimpse the carton.   This caste system is achieved mainly by genetic engineering (natural reproduction has been eliminated) in vitro and then social conditioning brainwashes the resulting children into a narrow way of life that promises them Order, Stability, and Happiness – this latter comes in the form of a freely available drug called Soma. Take four and you can have a holiday, just zonk out for a specified period, truly getting away from it all.

Bernard, though, is a bit of a misfit. Not quite alpha enough, he isn’t accepted and is excluded from the general promiscuity all around him. Until he takes popular Lenina (Olivia Morgan) to visit the Savage Reservation where people live like beasts, drinking, reproducing, and practising religion. Imagine! They bring back John, who turns out to have links back home. John finds it hard to accept his new way of life and becomes something of a celebrity, a novelty act, stirring ‘inappropriate’ feelings within the impressionable Lenina.

As Bernard, Gruffudd Glyn is a sympathetic figure in this alien way of life. Olivia Morgan convinces as the thoroughly conditioned Lenina (and I’m not talking about her hair), while William Postlethwaite’s savage John is a commanding presence – he gets all the best lines, quoting Shakespeare at every opportunity. Ironic that a literary figure we regard as a pinnacle of human endeavour is banned and derided for his ‘tricky emotional content’. In charge of it all is an icy Sophie Ward as Margaret Mond, chilling in her detachment but not entirely inhuman, contrasting with derelict Linda (Abigail McKern making an excellent drunkard and invalid).

Director James Dacre keeps the action clear, using cross-cutting and freeze-frames to zap us from scene to scene and back again. Naomi Dawson’s design is deceptively simple, making effective use of TV screens and projections to give us glimpses of the world beyond the windows, aided by the precision of Colin Grenfell’s lighting and George Dennis’s sound. There is evocative, original music by These New Puritans.

It’s an absorbing, thought-provoking and scary piece. The society on stage is divided by genetic interference. Here we see social engineering at work, pricing the poor out of London, while certain politicians promote division based on cultural and racial differences. In Huxley’s day it was the rise of Nazi Germany. We are more in peril of surrendering our freedoms to corporate overlords. Suddenly the advent of the Coca-Cola lorry does not seem so cosy. All right, it’s not exactly delivering Soma but the way people profess love for this symbol of rampant capitalism should be a warning sign…

All the feels: Olivia Morgan and William Postlethwaite (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

All the feels: Olivia Morgan and William Postlethwaite (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Scene of the Crime

GO BACK FOR MURDER

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 25th November, 2013

On paper the premise for Agatha Christie’s 1960 play seems rather intriguing.  Young woman comes to England from Canada to uncover the truth behind her parents’ deaths.  Did her birth mother really poison her father?  She meets, takes tea and interviews people who were material witnesses in the murder trial.  One after the other… The first act is, in reality, a string of two-handed scenes in which the witnesses (now also suspects) spill their guts all-too-readily.  The dialogue is like giving testimony in court rather than conversation.  They all remark on how much the Canadian girl looks like her murderer mother.

In the second act, the cast are let off the leash as, in flashback, the events of that fateful day are played out, and they get to interact with each other at last, and we get to see a country-house murder after all.

Sophie Ward, all 60s hip in bobbed hair and a dress like a Mondrian painting plays her own mother (so that’s why they kept mentioning the resemblance!) contrasting the accents of mother and daughter very well.  Gary Mavers is the victim, the artist and temperamental prick Amyas Crale – there is no pity engendered for him; the suspense comes from waiting for him to die.  In this respect, Christie is playing to our darker side.  And we love it.

In the first act, Lysette Anthony gives an overly mannered performance as Lady Elsa Greer but in the flashback she is more palatable as the artist’s model-cum-mistress.  Stuffed shirts Robert Duncan and Antony Edridge have little to stretch them but they occupy the stage as potential culprits and atmosphere-bringers more than competently.  The marvellous Liza Goddard is underused as Miss Williams the governess, and Georgia Neville makes for a rather grownup little girl.  Tying it all together in the quasi-detective/narrator role is Ben Nealon as the dashing young solicitor.

Director Joe Harmston keeps the stage uncluttered – there is enough to create an impression of era and place – and keeps the company on the right side of caricature.  The play is all about the puzzle, although what drives it is the notion that no two people remember an event in exactly the same way.

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