Tag Archives: Stephen Boxer

Lessons in Love

SHADOWLANDS

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 31st May, 2016

 

Jack (aka C. S. Lewis to you and me) is a confirmed bachelor, a middle-aged don lecturing at Oxford about pain and suffering being God’s way of showing us he loves us.  Something along those lines, anyway.  The lecture, which opens the show, brings to mind the old saw, “Those who can’t, teach”.  Indeed, it’s not long before old Jack learns the harsh lesson that experience is vastly different from theory, or indeed theology.  Into his stuffy male world amid the hallowed halls of academia, comes American Joy Gresham.  They correspond by post initially until she suggests they meet for tea.  A friendship is engendered, which develops into something more, bringing Jack into real contact with the pain and suffering he has been banging on about.

This touring show by the excellent Birdsong Productions is supremely enjoyable.   William Nicholson’s charming and witty script is brought to sparkling life; director Alastair Whatley knows when to temper the British reserve of the characters with glimpses of emotion.  Often, the understated moments are the most striking.

Stephen Boxer makes Jack a likeable figure, as we watch him thaw and take tentative steps toward expressing his feelings, gradually winkled out of his shell.  We urge him on and it is touching to see the progress he makes.  Amanda Ryan as Joy is the chalk to his cheese, but their differences are mainly on the surface.  She is very much his intellectual equal, someone to stir him out of his stagnation.  The dialogue sparks between them and, perhaps surprisingly, the laughs keep coming despite some difficult subject matter.  Even with a terminal illness, she is funny.  The humour binds the couple and endears them to us.

Denis Lill, for me, almost steals the show as Jack’s lovably gruff brother Warnie.  British reserve has rarely been more eloquent.  Simon Shackleton also makes a strong impression as boorish Professor Riley, offering an atheistic counterpoint to Jack’s faith, while Shannon Rewcroft dons schoolboy blazer and short trousers for a convincing portrayal of Joy’s eight-year-old son.

It’s an entertaining, amusing and absorbing tale of love and loss, superbly presented.  Poignant without mawkishness or sentimentality, it shows us that Romeo and Juliet are not the only star-cross’d lovers that can break our hearts and, while it’s based on a couple from real life, shows us the universals in their story, examining notions of pain, suffering and what we mean by ‘love’.

Powerful stuff.

Denis Lill as Major W.H. Lewis and Stephen Boxer as C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands. Credit Jack Ladenburg

Tea for two: Denis Lill and Stephen Boxer (Photo: Jack Ladenburg)

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Back to (the) Front

REGENERATION

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 5th November, 2014 

Officers suffering from shell-shock were sent to Craiglockhart Army Hospital in Scotland in order that they might be made well enough to be sent back to the trenches to be killed.  This is the absurdity that underscores Nicholas Wright’s stage adaptation of Pat Barker’s novel.  It’s like taking a pit-stop during a demolition derby.

With the First World War at the forefront of our minds in this centenary year (rightly so) there is a danger that we shall reach saturation point and desensitised to those terrible events.  Things, I find, are beginning to lose impact.  Certainly Catch 22 makes many of the same points as this play (albeit in a WW2 setting) and makes them sharper and more absurd.  Here, rather than a Yossarian, we have the poet Siegfried Sassoon quite understandably speaking out against the barbarity and senseless horrors.  For his pains, he is squirrelled away at Craiglockhart because his sane opinions are regarded as lunatic.  If he recants, he will be declared fit and sent back to the front and almost certain death – only a madman would want that…

Tim Delap hits all the right notes as the handsome and smug Sassoon, contrasting with Stephen Boxer’s quiet authority as army shrink Dr Rivers, who recognises the absurdity of his position of making men fit to be shot, but does it anyway.  With sturdy support from Garmon Rhys as Wilfred Owen and Christopher Brandon as Robert Graves, the story blends figures from real life with fictitious characters, but it’s not drama-documentary; perhaps it might be more hard-hitting if it was.

Jack Monaghan is excellent as Billy Prior who snaps out of his mutism to relive his nightmarish experiences.  It’s all very well done: Alex Eales’s set is suitably institutional and dour and both the lighting design (by Lee Curran) and the sound (George Dennis) enhance the men’s various ‘episodes’ and recollections.  There is a grimly distasteful scene involving electrodes – torture as treatment – that is still making me squirm.

Director Simon Godwin lets a creeping sense of doom have the upper hand but without the emotional or visceral punch of something like Birdsong or Journey’s End. Regeneration is well-made cannon fodder for the unstoppable and ubiquitous WWI nostalgia machine.

TIm Delap (Sassoon) and Garmon Davies (Owen) - (Photo credit: Manuel Harlan)

Tim Delap (Sassoon) and Garmon Rhys (Owen) – (Photo credit: Manuel Harlan)


Bloody Marvellous

TITUS ANDRONICUS

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 28th May, 2013

 

A box office hit in Shakespeare’s day, this Roman revenge tragedy packs more into its two-and-a-half hours than an entire series of The Jeremy Kyle Show.  It’s got the lot: murder, betrayal, mutilation, rape, and of course revenge.  It’s grisly, gory and gruesome, sordid, squalid and shocking.  And it’s bloody funny.

Stephen Boxer is in the title role as a man already steeped in tragedy and grief: most of his 25 sons have been killed in the wars he fights on Rome’s behalf.  The rest meet their doom pretty quickly.  Two are framed and executed for murder.  Another dies at Titus’s own hand in an almost casual neck-breaking scene.  Life is rough in this supposedly civilised empire.

Titus sacrifices a son of captive Goth queen Tamora, setting in motion a tit-for-tat vendetta that escalates to a blood bath in the final scene.  Katy Stephens is striking and strident as the queen with a grudge.  Fierce and fearsome – you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.  As with Boxer’s Titus, there is relish in the exacting of her revenge.

Titus’s brother Marcus (Richard Durden) is the calm voice of reason in the unfolding carnage.  His scene with the mutilated Lavinia (Rose Reynolds) is very moving.  Reynolds is the car crash you can’t help looking at.  Her agonies are fascinating.  With hands cut off and tongue torn out, she tries to smash and eat a boiled egg.  Horror and pity vie for dominance in the spectator.

Kevin Harvey brings a Merseyside twang to the villainous Aaron; his malevolence is not quite matched by Tamora’s sons, two chavs in hoodies riding bicycles and waving knives around (Perry Millward and Jonny Weldon).  You aren’t sorry to see them strung upside down, their throats slit and drained like pigs – This is the main theme of the piece.  Justice has been usurped by vengeance.  The punishments meted out on both sides could have been devised by the subscribers of certain Facebook pages.

Director Michael Fentiman sets his production in a sort of timeless, undefined space, using images we recognise from contemporary life and history.  Cowled monks in black mingle with big-haired women in biker boots. The soldiers’ tunics combine the historical and the contemporary.  The Emperor’s Italian suit is classic – John Hopkins’s Saturninus is an indulgent, immature figure, a comical bully.

I also liked Matthew Needham as Titus’s noble son Lucius but it is Boxer who dominates. His powerful grief turns to powerful madness before our very eyes.  When it all kicks off at the end, when it is revealed that Tamora has been tucking into her own sons baked in a pie, when everyone jumps from their places at table and the bloodshed is a fast and furious free-for-all, it’s a cathartic release that brings about a swift resolution to what constitutes the worst (or best) episode of Come Dine With Me in history.

The Elizabethans were more accustomed to brutality in the streets and public executions and all of that kind of thing.  This production shows us how we must guard against this violence and bloodlust.  “Thou art a Roman,” Marcus admonishes early on, “Be not barbarous.”

Tamora (Katy Stephens) puts on the dog. (Photo: Simon Annand)

Tamora (Katy Stephens) puts on the dog. (Photo: Simon Annand)


Shakespeare’s Sister

THE HERESY OF LOVE
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th February, 2012


Men are bastards, aren’t they? And religious men are even worse. Helen Edmundson’s new play upholds this view – in all fairness, some of the female characters don’t come out of things smelling of roses either.

The play tells the story of real life nun, Sister Juana, who lived in Mexico in the 17th Century. This was her first mistake. Ahead of her time and out of place, she was never going to sit comfortably with the establishment. As a bespoke poet and playwright, she becomes the darling of the court, thanks to the blind eye of her remarkably lenient holy order, until the investiture of a bigoted new archbishop leads to a clamp down on such lapses and a tightening up of the rules. And so the backlash against Sister Juana begins and eventually she loses everything and dies of the plague.

Religion is an instrument of power – of male power – and of course, a brainy, insightful and witty nun presents a threat to the established order (in more than one sense of the word). She becomes a tool in the machinations of slimy and seductive bishop Santa Cruz (the eminently watchable Raymond Coulthard, playing a Machiavellian version of his Duke in the current Measure For Measure).

Catherine McCormack portrays the decline of Sister Juana from the confident, slightly superior young nun (imagine Julie Andrews’s Maria without the clumsiness) to the broken, betrayed woman she becomes with an assurance that gives way to anguish. It is a powerful performance. Her scenes with Coulthard are the highlight of this often intense production.

I say “often intense” because the thing is somewhat too long. It overran its advertised two hours and forty five minutes by quarter of an hour. Director Nancy Meckler could do a spot of trimming or at least pick up the pace in certain scenes.

The writing has a Shakespearean feel to it without resorting to thees, thous and verilys. Edmundson gives the play a historical air by capturing the cadence of Shakespeare. Bishop Santa Cruz even gets a couple of soliloquies in which his secret desires and, later, his villainy are revealed. Themes of church and state, male and female, freedom of expression are all argued out intelligently and eloquently, and the issues are refreshingly not presented in a black-and-white fashion. Whatever side of the fence you sit on, you can see the point the opposition is making. The archbishop (a brooding Stephen Boxer) is a little hard to take though. He’s a grumpy old bigot who wears a hair shirt and is into the bonkers practice of self-flagellation. He can’t even bring himself to look at women. He removes his spectacles lest his sight be tainted by any female in his path. I suppose you can get away with such behaviour if it is done in God’s name. Religion has been – and still can be – a form of female oppression. Before she dies, off-stage, Juana writes one last document to be waved in the air by triumphant comic slave Juanita (Dona Croll). “She has written my freedom!” Juanita cries out in celebration, as though speaking for all women. A little over-optimistic there, love. Whatever her accomplishments, Sister Juana hardly turned the tide.