Tag Archives: Stratford upon Avon

Nursing a Grudge

SNAKE IN THE GRASS

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 1st November, 2019

 

Two estranged sisters are reunited in the neglected garden of their family home, following the death of their abusive father.  The elder, Annabel, hasn’t been back for decades, but stands to inherit the lot.  It fell to the younger sister, Miriam, to care for the old bastard, with the help of a hired nurse, whom Miriam has recently sacked.  The nurse, Alice, confronts Annabel, claiming to have evidence that Miriam had a direct hand in the death of her father.  Blackmail rears its ugly head and Annabel finds herself in a situation where she is forced to protect her sister…  So begins Alan Ayckbourn’s taut little thriller, a tale of coercion, bitterness, resentment, and murder.  More celebrated for his comedies, Ayckbourn shows here a different string to his bow.  The premise, the intrigue, and the subsequent twists and turns are Hitchcock-worthy.  A deceptively simple three-hander, the play offers plum parts for older women to get their teeth into. moustache of epic proportions.

Rachel Alcock plays hard-faced Annabel, who barely lightens up at all and remains rather severe throughout.  It is the character’s defence mechanism, I suppose, given the tribulations of her life, but I would like to see her reveal a more vulnerable and sympathetic side – especially during her lengthy speech about her failed marriage.

Alex Kapila turns in a compelling performance as the disturbed Miriam, displaying emotional immaturity one minute and inner fire the next.  As the power shifts around the trio, we’re forever changing our minds about who exactly is the victim here.

Completing the trio is Barbara Treen, pitch perfect as the sinister blackmailer.  Ayckbourn’s superlative writing is in good hands with these three, and director Lynda Lewis navigates the highs and lows, the lights and shades of the dialogue to great effect.  The physical action needs to be tighter; the actors need more confidence in their moves, and I think the climactic scene in the middle of the night can afford to be darker, so that almost all of the lighting comes from the two handheld lanterns.  This would augment the eeriness and the unsettling nature of proceedings.

There are more scares to be had if the director pushed the envelope just a little farther.  Still, this is a solid and entertaining production of a dark and clever play, and it’s well worth an evening of your time.

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The upper hand: Alice (Barbara Treen) comes between sisters Miriam (Alex Kapila) and Annabel (Rachel Alcock)

 


A Reign of Two Halves

KING JOHN

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th October, 2019

 

There’s an undeniably 1960s vibe to Eleanor Rhode’s production of this lesser-known history play.  Max Johns’s design puts the characters in sharp suits and polo-neck sweaters, dandy two-pieces, and East End gangster-ish fur coats.  This is the world of One Man, Two Guvnors with a touch of the Krays.  Will Gregory’s original compositions do much to enforce the period, with arrangements that are reminiscent of Quincy Jones (think Austin Powers theme!) and classics like Green Onions.  So, it all looks great and sounds great, and they have the dance moves down pat.  But…

The first half heightens the humour.  Rhode delivers up a black comedy with a couple of rather gruesome touches.  In the title role we have Rosie Sheehy, a principal boy (evoking fond memories of Pippa Nixon’s female Bastard in a previous production).  The gender-blind casting emphasises the youthfulness of the King and later, his unmanliness.  John is a weak king, but Sheehy’s portrayal of that weakness is strong – if you see what I mean.  Dressed in pyjamas and velvet suits, this John is a slightly Bohemian, somewhat cocky playboy, a 60s rock-star/poet/playboy.

Sheehy is surrounded by other strong performers, notable among whom are the excellent Bridgitta Roy as Queen Elinor,  John’s authoritative mother; Zara Ramm impresses in a brief appearance as Lady Faulconbridge; Tom McCall’s faithful Hubert’s loyalty is not without its sinister side; and Brian Martin’s Lewis the Dauphin would not be out of place, torturing narks in a lock-up.  Michael Abubakar’s Bastard (Scottish accent, red brothel-creepers) is indeed a cheeky bastard, but he seems a little side-lined at times.

The role of little prince Arthur is quite a large part for a child actor, and tonight it’s the turn of Ethan Phillips to elicit our sympathies.  He does a grand job, togged up like our own Prince George, and I like Rhode’s idea of having him appear ghost-like, rather than as a corpse.  In fact, it is through his Arthur that we come to regard John as a villain – not quite of Richard III proportions, but even so.  Incidentally, John’s protestant rant against Catholicism puts him ahead of his time (or hearkens back to Henry VIII, depending on your perspective!).  Katherine Pearce’s Cardinal Pandulph is a camp delight if a little one-note – but then, I suppose that represents the unwavering nature of the Church.

To my mind, it is Charlotte Randle’s passionate Lady Constance, righteous in her grief, who gives the pivotal performance of the production, growing from annoying guest who won’t shut up about it, to a genuinely moving portrayal of emotional disturbance.  After her hair-tearing scene, the production is never quite the same again.

Rhode gives us lots of fun ideas to make the action accessible, even if we’re not always entirely sure who everyone is.  In the second half, the comedy is elbowed in favour of the darkness and the politicising, a tonal mismatch that doesn’t quite gel.  Perhaps the inclusion of more medieval motifs would marry the two sections, as characters get medieval with each other.  This is very much a game of two halves.

I find I have no sympathy for John’s messy demise in a tin bath.  Instead, it’s a relief to be rid of a weak leader.  The play points out – as if we aren’t painfully aware these days – that weakness at the top brings chaos everywhere.

King John production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Steve Tanner _c_ RSC_295649

Rosie Sheehy as King John (Photo: Steve Tanner (c) RSC)

 

 


Ah, Vienna…

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 7th August, 2019

 

Some people label this a ‘problem play’ and I have a problem with that.  What it is is a dark comedy that deals with issues of morality.  Here, director Gregory Doran has for the most part a light touch, so the comedy has the upper hand over the darkness.  It’s definitely a production of two halves, the first setting out the stall so the circumstances of Isabella’s dilemma are established.

In what is basically the first-ever episode of Undercover Boss, the Duke leaves town, putting pasty-faced Slytherin alumnus Angelo in charge, but comes back disguised as a friar to observe how things turn out.  Angelo instigates draconian laws to punish the immoral.  Pretty soon, Claudio is condemned to death for impregnating his fiancée, and his sister Isabella, a novice nun, is called in to plead for clemency.  Angelo takes a fancy to the novice, in a Captain Von Trapp meets Maria kind of way and makes an indecent proposal.  If Isabella will sleep with Angelo, he will pardon her brother.  Which was will Isabella jump?  It takes the machinations of the Duke-in-disguise to bring about a resolution and expose the hypocrisy at the top of Viennese society.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design establishes the show’s Viennese credentials from the off; it’s the Vienna of Strauss.  There are waltzes – everything but Viennese whirls, dancing horses and Midge Ure.  The set is sparse, with projections to establish locations and mirrored panels across the back wall, reflecting the audience back at itself – a mirror to society, get it?

More familiar to me for tragic, heroic roles, Antony Byrne is having a lot of fun as the Duke, throwing his weight around and keeping us in on the joke.  The Duke’s plotting may seem a little cruel, especially when he makes Isabella believe her brother has already been beheaded, but then this is a play about men’s treatment of women.  Doran gives us a delicious final image, when it dawns on Isabella that having escaped the clutches of one man who wanted her against her will, she is in the grasp of another, and never mind what she wants out of life.

As Isabella, Lucy Phelps is the emotional heart of the piece and gives a powerful, compelling and likeable performance.  I have seen Isabellas too up themselves to be sympathetic but here Phelps pitches everything right.  Sandy Grierson’s Angelo starts as a cold fish, struggling to repress his baser urges before being exposed as a massive hypocrite worthy of any Tory cabinet.

James Cooney makes an appealing Claudio, while David Ajao’s West Indian accent augments the comedic aspects of Pompey the pimp-turned-executioner’s assistant.  Amanda Harris gives sterling character work as the Provost, and, in their brief appearances, Graeme Brookes and Michael Patrick make strong impressions respectively as Mistress Overdone, the local madam, and Constable Elbow, a kind of prototype Dogberry, complete with malapropisms.  Claire Price is an earnest Escalus and Patrick Brennan a creepy Abhorson the executioner, but for me the man of the match is Joseph Arkley as the dapper Lucio, who is positively hilarious throughout.

Paul Englishby’s score is sumptuous and the second half begins with a plaintive song sung sweetly and with emotion by Hannah Azuonye that is brought to an end much too soon!   I could do with more of this!

The second half lets broad comedy take the lead and the action moves on apace, with enjoyable appearances from Graeme Brookes’s Black Country Barnardine, and the contrivances of the plot keep on the right side of credible (just about).

More fun than I was expecting, this is a Measure that speaks to us today.  Strict, moralistic statutes only lead to increased hypocrisy and division between lawmakers who break their own laws and the rest of us who fall foul of prohibition just for being human.

Measure for Measure production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Helen Maybanks _c_ RSC_286285

Antony Byrne as the Duke/Friar (Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC)


Wolf at the Door

CROOKED DANCES

The Other Place, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 27th June, 2019

 

This captivating new work from playwright Robin French tells the story of ambitious journalist Katy and cocky photographer Nick as they travel across France to interview a reclusive concert pianist in her country retreat.  It starts as a comedy, sparkling with social commentary and feels very ‘now’.  Director Elizabeth Freestone has the actors facing front as the characters ride on the Eurostar, affording us a kind of split screen view – a simple idea that effectively exposes character.  This is a production brimming with ideas, some more simple than others, but most of them are brilliantly effective.

At the retreat, a cottage in the woods, things are not what they seem.  The pianist is cagey, abrupt and mercurial.  French draws us into the mystery, offering metaphysical speculations before bringing us to the edge of our seats with shocks and surprises.  Freestone handles these gear changes splendidly, marrying the naturalism of her actors with video effects and the otherworldly music of Erik Satie.

Jeany Spark is spot on as the driven journalist, snooping around in drawers and handbags at every opportunity.  We both like and dislike her at the same time; above all, we understand her.  Olly Mott is a real treat as laddish photographer Nick, complete with that modern London accent that has cropped up in recent years.  It’s a very funny performance but played with utter credibility.

Ben Onwukwe charms as long-suffering manager Denis, a faithful retainer and exasperated host.  But the show belongs to Ruth Lass and her portrayal of the enigmatic pianist Silvia de Zingaro.  Forthright and formidable, she weaves a spell, playing Satie live on the set’s grand piano and recounting the composer’s strange personal history.  Suddenly we are in horror movie territory, isolated in the woods, with wolves on the prowl… Here French leads us up the garden path somewhat: Satie dabbled in the occult and so does Silvia.  Something happens and this snappy comedy flips into a provocative chiller.  Our intellectual response to the material becomes a more emotional, visceral one.

An engaging, entertaining and exciting new work expertly executed.  I was enthralled.

285364_Crooked Dances production photos 2019_2019

Ruth Lass (Photo: Ellie Kurtz (c) RSC)

 


Pillow Talk

THE PILLOWMAN

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 25th June, 2019

 

Martin McDonagh’s 2003 play is given a fresh revival in this Bear Pit production directed with great care by Steve Farr.  One of the first things I notice is the gender-swapping of a couple of characters, and this is more than a nod to equal opportunities or the prevailing fashion in contemporary theatre.  Farr chooses to make female the play’s most violent characters: a brutal police officer and a mentally stunted killer, thereby bringing a new dynamic to key scenes.  It works brilliantly.  And so, Hannah McBride’s tough-talking, volatile Ariel can be mock-seductive in her interrogation of the suspect Katurian, and the scene drips with menace; and there is something more sinister about Emma Beasley’s childlike Michaela and her homicidal re-enactments of her brother’s macabre short stories.  It is these stories that have brought the writer Katurian to the attention of the police because of the similarities between the gruesome narratives and a recent spate of child murders…

The action unfolds in the interrogation room of the police headquarters in a totalitarian state, somewhere vaguely Eastern European maybe… Farr creates tense atmosphere on an almost bare stage by eliciting compelling performances from his superlative cast, wringing just as much menace and tension from the silences between outbursts as from the outbursts themselves.  As with other works by McDonagh, the language is strong, the humour a deep shade of black, and the subject matter exceedingly dark.  We laugh to relieve the horrors McDonagh makes us contemplate, and Farr, wisely, works on our imaginations rather than overusing schlocky stage effects.

Equally as strong as the women in the cast are the blokes.  Graham Tyrer is pitch perfect as Detective Tupolski, the putative ‘good cop’ while Alexander Simkin shines as troubled writer Katurian, blending fear with indignation, vulnerability with inner strength.  Special mention must be made of Annabel Peet’s onscreen appearance as ‘Little Jesus’ in a pre-recorded visualisation of one of Katurian’s twisted tales.

It’s gripping stuff, intriguing and hilarious, a dark mystery with absurdist elements.  It’s about stories and storytelling, the stories we tell to protect ourselves, to protect our loved ones, the stories that carry our understanding of an often senseless world.  The explicit horrors within Katurian’s tales are matched by the implicit horrors of the unnamed totalitarian state, where the police have powers to bypass the judicial system.  Also, this production contains some of the most disturbing noises off this reviewer has ever heard.

It’s yet another top-quality production at the Bear Pit, following the great success of The Cripple of Inishmaan back in March.  Perhaps McDonagh should be sponsoring these endeavours!

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Alexander Simkin as Katurian


Venice not v nice

VENICE PRESERVED

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 24th June, 2019

 

Thomas Otway’s play from 1682 is revived in stylish form for the RSC by director Prasanna Puwanarajah, who sets the piece in a 1980s noir-cum-comic book setting of darkness and drains, of pulsating music, with nudges to Blade Runner – and there’s even a character who looks like Grace Jones.  Here, as in Otway’s original where he was critiquing the government of the day, this is not about Venice then or now.  It’s a veiled comment on our present (woeful) government – and in this respect it works quite well.

Central to the action is married couple Jaffeir (NOT the villain in Aladdin) and Belvidera (NOT a guest house in Southport) whose relationship is sorely tested when he loses his money and they have to turn to her estranged father, Senator Pruili (an underused Les Dennis).  Jaffeir is drawn into a group of revolutionaries by his bezzie mate Pierre (a cocksure and pragmatic Stephen Fewell) putting his wife up as collateral to prove his allegiance to their murderous cause.  Belvidera doesn’t take too kindly to being offered up as a hostage and narrowly escapes rape by the swaggering Renault (Steve Nicolson) a man so rebellious he brazenly sports an alarming mullet.

As Jaffeir, Michael Grady-Hall brings passion and intensity, torn between his love and his friend.  Grady-Hall is always great value, bringing out the depths of the role.  Equally, Jodie McNee is compelling as tragic-but-dignified Belvidera, although I spend a lot of time wondering why she’s the only one with a strong Liverpudlian accent…  Puwanarajah has his cast express emotion in broad strokes: there is a lot of falling to one’s knees, a lot of menacing each other with daggers, and while this makes for exciting viewing I find that, coupled with Otway’s scornful script, I don’t much care for anybody.

Amid the bleak melodrama, there is humour, provided mainly by the marvellous John Hodgkinson’s sleazeball senator Antonio, heavily into S&M and fully aware he can stun opponents into submission by making long speeches.  The satire is ladled on thick as Hodgkinson hops around, his trousers at his ankles, alternating baby talk with oratory and verbiage.

It’s a production of bold moves, in its performance and its presentation.  Belvidera’s cell, demarcated by lighting, looks like she’s being detained in a nightclub.  The V for Vendetta masks sported by the revolutionaries are a bit on the nose.   But I like the darkness of it, the dripping water, the coming-and-going with umbrellas.  And Les Dennis navigating a gear change from hard-hearted gammon to tender, repentant father, is the finest performance of the night.

The message I come away with is that while those who oppose the government are too wrapped up with fighting among themselves, they will never achieve their aim, leaving the sleazeballs in power where they thrive and they flourish.

Venice Preserved

Family fortune: Jodie McNee as Belvidera and Les Dennis as Priuli. Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

 


Romp with Pomp

THE PROVOKED WIFE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 5th June, 2019

 

John Vanbrugh’s comedy from 1697 is given an exuberant revival in this new production for the RSC by Phillip Breen.  A prologue points out that the playwright got his inspiration from us, the audience – and this is all we need to remind us that human nature, and in particular, human foibles have not changed a jot.  Breen sensibly keeps everything in and of the period and because of this, the show works admirably.  Mark Bailey’s set is a theatre, with plush crimson drapes and a pelmet, and footlights around three sides of the stage, setting the action against a backdrop of artifice, while the lavish costumes denote both class and character.

Lady Brute (a magnificent Alexandra Gilbreath) seeks distraction from her loveless marriage to Lord Brute (Jonathan Slinger in excellent form) by plotting with her niece Belinda (the charming Natalie Dew) romantic intrigues involving her suitor Constant (Rufus Hound has never been more dashing).  Constant’s best mate, professed woman-hater Heartfree finds himself enamoured of Belinda – in a masterly comic performance from John Hodgkinson, tossing off Vanbrugh’s sardonic epigrams with effortless bitterness.

A big name draw for this splendid company is TV favourite Caroline Quentin as the monstrously vain and conceited Lady Fanciful.  Quentin is made for this kind of stuff, and gives a hugely enjoyable performance.  Hardly subtle, Vanbrugh names his characters to suit their natures – Quentin’s portrayal is far from one-note and is an absolute joy to behold.

Also appearing, but mainly as a supernumerary is veteran comic Les Dennis, cutting his teeth at the RSC.  I’m assuming he has a more featured role in this play’s companion piece in repertory – but more of that anon.

Released from the confines of their gallery, the musicians feature on stage, coming and going to cover transitions and to accompany the songs – Paddy Cunneen’s  original composition, vibrant, sometimes discordant, enhance the period flavour and the comical nature of proceedings.  Rosalind Steele and Toby Webster are in splendid voice as Pipe and Treble respectively.

After much farcical comings-and-goings, including Lord Brute donning a frock and beating up the night’s watch like Old Mother Riley, the action takes a more dramatic turn, and we appreciate the depths of despair and danger Lady Brute endures.  Gilbreath and Slinger flip from wry comic barbs to horribly tense domestic abuse and it’s gripping stuff.  The plot is resolved with a quick succession of gasp-worthy revelations but the Brutes remain together, a bitter note among the hilarity and happiness.

Expertly presented, this production will get you laughing from the off.  It does run a bit long; this bum on a seat was a bit numb on the seat well before the end.  I advise you to get out and stretch your legs during the interval.  It’s a long haul but it’s more than worth it.

"The Provoked Wife" by John Vanbrugh

Behaving badly: Caroline Quentin as Lady Fanciful (Photo: Pete Le May, c RSC)