The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 24th May 2023
Noel Coward’s classic comedy gets a spirited revival in this new production at Stratford’s cosy Attic Theatre. Adam Clarke and Sue Kent’s set design uses the intimacy of the space to put us right in the living room with the characters. Up close and personal with the cast, we feel part of the action.
Novelist Charles and his second wife Ruth are hosting a séance, as research for his next book. Inadvertently, the ritual conjures the spirit of his late first wife, which would put a strain on any relationship!
Director Jonas Cemm has his fine ensemble rattle through Coward’s epigrammatic dialogue at a rate of knots, which heightens the comic atmosphere. John-Robert Partridge is note perfect as the novelist-cum-pompous-arse Charles, while Rosie Coles is elegance personified as the long-suffering Ruth. There is excellent support from Robert Moore as the sceptical Doctor Bradman and Matilda Bott as his excitable wife. Den Woods’s medium Madam Arcarti keeps to the right side of caricature, bringing a touch of plausibility to the part, and Florence Sherratt makes the most of her largely silent role as Edith the accelerated maid. Katherine De Halpert is delectable as the pale and playful, ethereal Elvira.
It’s enormous fun, played with exquisite timing from all concerned. The supernatural facets of the story are bolstered by atmospheric sound and lighting design, by Elliott Wallis and Kat Murray respectively. Production values are high (which is no less than what we’ve come to expect from Tread The Boards Theatre Company), with the period and the other-worldly being evoked so effectively.
The subject matter and the dialogue may seem flippant or frivolous, but Coward has plenty to intimate about human relationships. For some, ‘til death do us part’ doesn’t apply. Perhaps there are some relationships we never get over.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Making a comeback: Katherine De Halpert as Elvira (Pic: Andrew Maguire Photography)
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 10th May 2023
Greg Doran bows out of his tenure as Artistic Director of the RSC with this production of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. Set vaguely during the era of the Romans invading Britain, this play sees Shakespeare rounding up all his favourite tropes and packaging them in a dark and funny fairy tale. These days we call them ‘Easter eggs’ and there is a lot of fun to spot what comes from which previous work: the girl dressed as a boy, the death potion, the faithful servant in exile, the wicked queen… But the play is more than a hodgepodge of Shakespeare’s greatest hits.
Leading the excellent cast is Peter De Jersey as the titular king. Cymbeline is hotheaded, railing against circumstances – De Jersey makes a strong impression even though the title role is not the lead role; I can easily picture him playing Lear. The lead is his daughter Imogen, supposedly his last surviving child. Theirs is a fiery relationship. Imogen combines the temper of Hermia with the big heart and wit of Viola. Amber James is pitch perfect in the part. Ed Sayer, as her banished husband Posthumus, is valiant and heroic, but prone to the machinations of Jamie Wilkes’s scheming braggart, Iachimo. Wilkes is a cocksure delight and later, when it all goes belly-up, his crisis of conscience and remorse come across as heartfelt.
Alexandra Gilbreath’s evil Queen is hilarious, melodramatically stalking around, manipulating everyone while letting us see her true face. Equally funny is Conor Glean as her petulant, vainglorious son Cloten, in a superbly cartoonish portrayal.
The mighty Christian Patterson exudes honour and decency as the big-hearted Belarius, while Scott Gutteridge and Daf Thomas are also excellent as his adopted sons. There is a lovely moment when they mourn the supposedly dead Fidele (Imogen cross-dressed) and they sing a haunting lament, Fear No More The Heat of the Sun. That the moment comes hot on the heels of a laughter-inducing shock with the introduction of a severed head to proceedings, shows how well Doran handles the mood swings of this split personality of a show.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s simple set, a circle suspended over a horizon, serves as night, day, England, Rome, Wales, without gimmickery, allowing the actors room to play. Beautifully lit by Matt Daw and just as beautifully underscored by Paul Englishby’s folk-informed score, this is a production that has fun and therefore is fun, with a cast unencumbered by enforced stylisation that doesn’t serve the text. It could be seen as Greg Doran revisiting all his best bits and making them fresh and new. Because the play is not overly familiar, like some of the works, audiences don’t bring expectations; we’re not waiting for famous speeches (there are none!) so we can just take it in and enjoy it at face value. The final scene of protracted revelations and resolutions is hilarious and yet moving. Magical.
It’s great to see the RSC returning to form, and we shall miss Greg Doran for his mastery in bringing the bard to entertaining life.
The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Sunday 2nd April 2023
When Viola washes up from a shipwreck, she believes her twin brother to have perished and so she dons male clothing and finds work running errands for the local duke. Director John Robert Partridge gives his Illyria and Oirish setting, bejabbers, a world of greenery and pub furniture. For the most part, it works very well, with the vocal cadences suiting the text. Some cast members handle the accent and the verse better than others but on the whole this is a clear and accessible version of Shakespeare’s most bittersweet rom-com.
Partridge casts himself in the role of Sir Toby Belch, resplendent in an emerald green suit and ruddy face. Belch’s drunken excesses never seem forced or false; it must have been great fun researching for the role. Partridge also surrounds himself with a fine ensemble of character actors, among them Freya Cooper’s feisty and heartfelt Viola, Sarah Feltham’s brassy Maria, and Ciara Lane’s wildly passionate Olivia (or should that be O’Livia?). While Olivia indulges in prolonged mourning for her late brother, her would-be suitor Orsino indulges in soppiness – Joshua Chandos is in good form as the lovestruck duke, and shares a lovely scene and a portion of chips with the disguised Viola when their bonding goes beyond mateship. Dominic Selvey is opportunistically bisexual as Viola’s brother Sebastian. Selvey makes the character likable and not merely selfish, and you get the idea that he would stay with Antonio (Wilson McDowell) if Olivia doesn’t hand herself to him on a plate. Come to think of it, there’s a lot of repressed bisexuality going on in this play. Perhaps old Will was going through a phase.
Lucas Albion’s Feste, presented here as a busker, is charming and funny with a twinkle in his eye, his guitar-playing adding emotional depth to comic scenes. Edward Manning’s Malvolio is wonderfully pompous and beautifully well-spoken. We enjoy seeing his comeuppance but we also feel for him, such is the power of Manning’s portrayal and the genius of Shakespeare’s writing.
Yes, it’s a fine cast indeed but for me, man of the match is Daniel Grooms, who treats us to a superbly comic characterisation of upper class twit Sir Andrew Aguecheek. No detail escapes him, and there is splendid physical comedy to accompany the portrayal. An absolute delight. Special mention, too, of the versatile Sean MacGregor as Fabian the bartender and other roles, an object lesson in how to have great stage presence no matter the size of the part.
The comedy is well-handled: the raucous late-night drinking, the cowardly confrontation, and the sheer silliness of the box-tree scene where Toby et al spy on Malvolio in the garden is marvellously realised. And the climactic reunion of the twins delivers the emotional kick in the feels I expect. There are a few details I’d quibble with but on the whole this is a marvellous production, hilarious and touching in all the right places.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Cheers! Sir Toby and Sir Andrew (John-Robert Partridge and Daniel Grooms) Phoro: Andrew Maguire Photography
The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 16th December, 2022
You might think the intimate performance space at Stratford’s Attic Theatre would be too restrictive to stage a pantomime. Well, you’d be reckoning without the genius of Tread The Boards’ resident writer-director John Robert Partridge. He puts the focus on his cast of six to deliver all the conventions of the art form, supported by the tech crew, and quite frankly, we are too busy laughing to miss grand-scale spectacular scenes which other, larger venues can accommodate. Partridge frames the story how we would expect: a fairy in a pink spot, the villain in a green… but because it’s Robin Hood, we don’t know precisely what the plot will entail, unlike the more well-worn pantomimes, and this adds freshness to the production.
Opening the show and winning us over instantly is Florence Sherratt as fabulous Fairy Fabulous, friendly and funny, contrasting sharply with Joshua Chandos’s marvellously wicked Sheriff of Nottingham. Chandos is darkly camp and never short of hilarious – and he has the best hair.
Emily Tietz’s Maid Marian is no shrinking violet, with her movie-star looks and a valiant spirit; while Dan Grooms’s Robin may be a long time coming but is definitely worth the wait. For all his posing, posturing, and knee-slapping, it is Robin who must be rescued from the Sheriff’s clutches by Marian and the others.
Those others: Silly Willy – Dominic Selvey is a lovable buffoon with an indefatigable supply of quick-fire one-liners. When he gets three volunteer children from the audience for a rendition of Music Man, he’s on a steep learning curve! Playing Willy’s mother, Dame Tuck, is Pete Meredith, a consummate panto dame, cheeky bordering on bawdy, and sporting a range of eye-wateringly garish outfits as the show goes on.
The songs are mainly lifted from Disney, with a touch of ABBA; there’s a wonderful send-up of the Bryan Adams mega-hit, Everything I Do I Do For You, and an exciting climactic swordfight between Robin and the Sheriff while Dame Tuck belts out her best Bonnie Tyler.
Adam Clarke’s set design comprises a stylised forest backdrop complete with a real tree trunk, the branches of which stretch across the ceiling. The set is rendered multi-purpose by Kat Murray’s lighting and the dialogue, proving you don’t need elaborate scenery to evoke location and atmosphere.
There’s plenty of audience participation. This reviewer was picked on to be Dame Tuck’s ‘boyfriend’ and it could have been worse! I think I got off lightly…
A riotous, fun-filled evening and an affordable seasonal treat. As a measure of every panto, I glance around at the nearby children in the audience to see if they’re enthralled. And tonight they’re lapping it up.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Full of beans: Dominic Selvey gives us his Silly Willy, with Pete Meredith’s Dame Tuck behind
The Other Place, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 27th October, 2022
Long ago, white Europeans went to the Americas and wiped out the natives with diseases. Centuries later, the grey squirrels returned the favour by coming to the UK and doing the same to our native reds. There is a movement now to ‘control’ the grey population, a kind of ethnic cleansing for squirrels.
This new comedy by Bea Roberts, currently playing in the RSC’s underused Other Place studio theatre, seems as though it was tailor-made for comedian Daisy May Cooper, with a very strong feel of the BBC sitcom This Country about it. Cooper does not appear, but her spirit is evoked by the superb Jenny Rainsford in the title role.
Ivy is something of an eco-warrior, hunting and killing the invasive grey squirrels in order that the native reds may flourish. This activity gives Ivy a sense of purpose and self-importance, because in no other arena is she afforded these feelings: her teacher training is down the drain, her father is cold and distant, treating her like a skivvy… And so squirrel-hunting has replaced caring for her late mother, and here is something she can control, a ‘disease’ she can eradicate. Fresh out of jail, cousin Gary (Nathan McMullan) comes to visit. Ivy picks up where they left off, wallowing in childhood nostalgia.
This is not really a play about conservation. It’s more to do with grief – or to be precise, not grieving. Ivy is unable to move on from the loss of her mother, so when even the squirrel-killing dries up and her team is disbanded, she has nowhere to turn. She tries to cling to her eco-warrior role and keep it going, but it is slipping from her grasp.
This very funny piece turns out to have been a tragedy, after all.
Rainsford and McMullan make a fine double act, and they are supported by a fine quartet. I really enjoy Alex Bhat as Reece, Ivy’s comrade-in-arms who is in love with her; Tim Treloar as local landowner Tig and other roles; Anna Andresen as a beleaguered headteacher; and Jade Ogugua as a primary school teacher – her clashes with Rainsford are excellently played.
Caitlin McLeod’s direction hones the comedic playing to the hilt, wisely allowing dumbshow sequences to cover transitions, to give us physical comedy to complement Roberts’s dazzling script.
One of the aspects I most admire about this production is it credits the audience with the intelligence to piece together characters’ histories, to divine why they are the way they are. We meet Ivy and her milieu as observers – the distance helps us to laugh – but it is our recognition of the characters’ humanity that fills in the blanks.
The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 15th October, 2022
Back in 1818, young Mary Shelley invented the science fiction genre with her gothic novel that deals with those little things like creation, life and death. By creating life and thereby usurping God, Victor Frankenstein then shirks his responsibilities as a creator. His creation, unguided, has to find his own way in the world. Thus, the Creature represents the human condition, floundering while God insists on being an absentee father.
This new adaptation by Catherine Prout hits all the right plot points, even with a scaled-down cast of characters. The rather verbose dialogue is true to the style of the Shelley original and does a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to conveying a sense of the period.
Dan Grooms is an impassioned if youthful Victor, adept at showing signs of high distress both physically and emotionally. I wonder if his pre-recorded narration would be better done live as he potters around in his laboratory.
He is more than matched by his Creature, in a towering performance from Alastair Oakley, who is imposing and innocent, ferocious and frightening, while also being pitiful. It’s a remarkable portrayal.
This central pair is supported by a versatile ensemble. The mighty Robert Moore is charming as Victor’s BFF Henry, and brings a touch of humour as farmer Felix; Matilda Bott is devastating as the wrongly-accused Justine; Phil Leach brings gravitas as Victor’s dad, and warmth as blind De Lacey; Joshua Chandos impresses as Captain Waldman to whom Victor unfolds his tale; while Lily Bennett does a bang-up job of making too-good-to-be-true Elizabeth sympathetic rather than soppy.
Adrian Daniel’s set has something of a steampunk aesthetic, all ropes and chains, dials and switches. Lit by Kat Murray, it becomes a versatile and atmospheric setting for the play’s many locations.
As ever, director John-Robert Partridge makes the most of the Attic’s intimate space. Characters roam around in blackout, menacing the front row. Sudden screams and loud noises keep us on edge, as the gruesome tale weaves its fascinating spell. Even the scene changes are eerily done. It all flows smoothly and creepily – apart from some teething troubles with a recalcitrant table top that threaten to hold up the action! With today’s matinee being only the second performance of the run, I’m sure these minor problems will soon be ironed out.
Production values are high – special shout out to Sue Kent’s make-up work on the Creature – proving that with the right treatment, the familiar fable still has the power to intrigue, provoke and shock.
Like Victor’s Creature, this spellbinding show is extremely well put together.
Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 15th September 2022
Following last year’s rip-roaring Hound of the Baskervilles, Tread the Boards theatre company is back with this anthology of Holmes’s adventures. Back as the detective duo is the excellent pairing of Robert Moore as Sherlock and John-Robert Partridge as Dr Watson. Moore is in peril of becoming my favourite Holmes: he has the attitude, the humour, the intensity, and the heroism all down to perfection, with Partridge’s Watson and intelligent padawan and emotional barometer for the action.
The four stories in this exquisite adaptation are A Scandal in Bohemia, The Speckled Band, The Dancing Men, and The Final Problem, but the script avoids an episode structure by providing a throughline courtesy of arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty – Stephen Hardcastle in a suitably sinister portrayal.
Matilda Bott delights as a chirpy Mrs Hudson. Leo Garrick impresses as an aggressive Doctor Roylett, while Stephanie Miles makes a spirited Irene Adler. The supporting players get to demonstrate their versatility by doubling roles; the leading men get to demonstrate theirs by adopting disguises.
Partridge also directs, getting the tone of the piece spot on. The intimate space of the Attic puts us right in the Baker Street flat where all the action unfolds. Judicious use of lighting and sound effects suggests the other locations – Elliott Wallis’s superb music-and-sound design goes a long way to creating the atmosphere and a sense of time and place.
The script, by Robert Moore himself, wisely adheres to Conan Doyle, delivering everything we expect from and love about the most famous consulting detective.
There are plenty more stories that could be staged in this manner and I really hope a Tread The Boards Sherlock Holmes show becomes an annual treat.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 15th August, 2022
Perhaps more than most plays, Shakespeare’s Richard III depends on the charisma of its leading man, who in this case happens to be the villain of the piece. Through soliloquies and asides, the scheming Duke of Gloucester lets us in on his nefarious plots. Richard needs to be more than a pantomime villain, enjoyable though it is to boo and hiss at those figures. This production boasts a remarkable Richard; we take to him from the off. From the sarcasm of the famous opening speech and along every step of the way as his Machiavellian machinations play out, Arthur Hughes gives us a somewhat Puckish Richard, playfully turning on the histrionics whenever someone needs gaslighting. It’s a joy to watch him at work, especially since most of the other characters are ‘worthy’ beyond stomaching. The quickfire asides and glances through the fourth wall, the lines that drip with dramatic irony, are all deliciously delivered. The wooing of a woman he has widowed is a masterclass in manipulation.
Hughes is supported by a superlative company. In a play where the women have little else to do but grieve and wail, Minnie Gale’s Margaret stands out in a powerfully emotive scene. Kirsty Bushell’s keening cry as the grieving Elizabeth is truly heartrending and has to be heard to be believed. Jamie Wilkes impressed as Richard’s sidekick, the Duke of Buckingham, while Conor Glean and Joeravar Sangha are great fun as a pair of darkly comedic murderers who have been sent to despatch Ben Hall’s sympathetic Duke of Clarence.
Director Gregory Doran keeps the action fast-moving with swift transitions, and the sense of period in augmented by some beautiful treble vocals. The climactic battle scenes are presented in a highly stylised manner using physical theatre and a symbolic staining with blood of the massive cenotaph that has cast its shadow over proceedings. These scenes come hot on the heels of an effective dream sequence where Richard is tormented by those he has killed. The sudden stylistic shift at the tail end of the play is at odds with the rest of the show, making this a production of strong moments but patchy in its overall presentation. The first half is bum-numbingly longer than the second.
Of course, the play has plenty to say to us about the times we live in — especially given recent events: the suitability (or otherwise) of those who rule over us; the gaslighting of the masses by those who abuse their power… Unlike the liars and crooks in power today, Richard does not get off scot-free. Perhaps that’s why we indulge him in his excesses, and perhaps that’s why our sense of morality and our need for a proper story make us hope the wretches in government get their comeuppance.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 7th August, 2022
Everyone knows the title of Shakespeare’s late comedy (characters even say it as part of their dialogue) but fewer people are familiar with the story it tells. The play isn’t performed as often as Much Ado, Twelfth Night and As You Like It, so every new production has a head start in delivering something fresh.
Basically, young Helena takes a fancy to Bertram, who rejects her. She does a favour for the King of France (as you do) and he grants her a wish. Her wish is to marry Bertram. Bertram runs away to war because that is preferable to an unwanted marriage, apparently. Helena goes after him, finds the girl he’s got his eye on and colludes with her to swap places so that Bertram will have sex with Helena after all, unwittingly and without consent.
In some respects, Helena can be regarded as something of a feminist figure, a woman who knows what she wants and goes all out to get it. Trouble is, she behaves like a man to do this. Since comedy was invented, male characters have done what Helena does, the exception being that the female object of pursuit enjoys the chase, making only token protestations. Imagine Sid James going after Barbara Windsor and you get my point. But when the tables are turned, and it’s a woman taking the lead, it’s uncomfortable somehow.
At this performance, the role of Helena is played by Jessica Layde, and she does a good job, although in later scenes, when Helena is pretending to be a pilgrim, more could be made of the character’s duplicity. Deception is a big theme of the piece, after all. Benjamin Westerby is pitch perfect as the cocky but emotionally immature Bertram, while Jamie Wilkes steals the show as the cowardly braggart Parolles. We like him instantly, as a stock character, an archetype that predates Shakespeare by centuries, but when he is mock-kidnapped and mock-tortured by his soldier buddies, and spills his guts, being even more careless with military secrets than Donald Trump, things change. The moment when Parolles strips himself to his underpants, rolling around the stage, divested of all pretence is, along with the very final few seconds, the most striking point of the production.
Funlola Olufunwa brings a confident and easy nobility to the elegant Countess, and I could watch Micah Balfour all night. Bruce Alexander as the King of France and Simon Coates as LaFew show how it should be done, demonstrating vocal strength and mastery of the text that is not quite there with some of the less experienced members of the cast.
Director Blanche McIntyre is keen to point out that her production is set in the here and now. Projections flash up the date, along with news reports, social media posts (mostly illegible) and selfies; I’m not sure they add much to proceedings other than crying out ‘Look! How relevant we are!’, when really what is interesting and contemporary about the piece is the reversal of gender behaviour, with Helena as a predatory figure. In the light of the #MeToo movement, there is much to explore here.
All’s Well is a play of moments rather than a cohesive whole. This production delivers the highlights superbly but doesn’t really get to grips with the lesser parts.
Stratford Play House, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 6th May 2022
Stratford Musical Theatre Company turn their talented hands to the musical adaptation of the well-known Reese Witherspoon comedy film, in a vibrant production at the Play House, a venue that is more suited to bands and stand-up comedians. And so the staging tonight is minimal, leaving the floor free for the large chorus to occupy – director Georgie Wood has drilled her cast to maximum efficiency for getting things on and getting things off again, so the piece runs like clockwork.
It’s the story of Elle Woods who, dumped by her egotistic boyfriend, follows him to Harvard Law School in hot pink and hot pursuit, as though getting a law degree will win the chump back… Elle is faced with prejudice because of her looks and demeanour but she overcomes obstacles to prove she is top of the class, and hey, you don’t need a man to make you happy… The show’s message seems to be about not judging books by their covers and breaking down stereotypes, which is a pertinent point to make: to be one’s authentic self. Why then, does writer Heather Hach tarnish the piece with homophobic representations of LGBTQ+ people, who don’t get a chance to demonstrate they are more than the effeminate, posing, skipping fairies we are subjected to here? Signs, I think, of the material exceeding its show-by date. I cringe throughout the song Gay Or European which goes against the positive stereotype-busting message of the rest of it.
Leading the cast as the titular blonde Elle Woods, Vanessa Gravestock delivers an engaging, impressive performance, balancing the dumb-blonde looks with Elle’s innate intelligence. She’s an appealing presence with the star quality required by the role.
Other highlights (because she’s blonde!) include Christopher Dobson as the tough-talking Professor, effortlessly exuding his dominance and high status; Casey McKernan amuses as Elle’s cocksure ex Warner; Ian Meikle endears himself as mild-mannered love interest Emmett; Katie Merrygold is stonkingly good as Elle’s new BFF, Paulette Buonufonte; and Oliver Payne makes a scene-stealing appearance as delivery man Kyle.
It doesn’t matter what the cast does though, because any time a dog is brought on, it immediately upstages everyone else! And I can’t help wondering if the situation is stressful for the animals.
The chorus is great, filling the space with energy and performing Julie Bedlow-Howard’s lively choreography. In particular, a cheerleading number is splendid.
The singing too is all the more impressive when you realise the singers can’t see musical director James Suckling and the band, who are walled up behind the backdrop!
Unfortunately, there are missed lighting and sound cues, and this is not opening night where you can excuse a few hitches. Microphone coverage is patchy. It feels like the show could have done with at least one more technical rehearsal to make these elements of the production as sharp as the rest of it.