Tag Archives: Stratford upon Avon

Homeless not Hopeless

STREETS APART

Stratford Play House, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 6th April 2019

 

First off, it’s very pleasing to see new work being created and produced in a town that thrives on centuries-old drama.   This brand-new piece by local playwright Jackie Lines depicts what life is like for an increasing number of vulnerable people who, through no choice of their own, wind up on the streets.  Passers-by give examples of the abuse faced by homeless people and illustrate the negative attitudes and common misconceptions about them.  It’s an effective start.

The play tells of the efforts of a group of volunteers in a centre as they strive, with limited resources, to make life better for the homeless.  We meet a range of characters from the streets, such as ex-army, PTSD sufferer Neil (a powerful Graham Tyrer) who declaims poetry and rants through mental illness, like a latter-day Vladimir or Estragon.  There’s Mick, a former plumber who lost everything after a life-changing injury that led to an addiction to opiates, played by Mark Spriggs with intensity, strength and vulnerability.  The inclusion of a couple of original poems by Spriggs enriches the show.

Largely, the story concerns the fate of young couple Tom (Tom Purchase-Rathbone) and Susan (Emma Beasley) who have found each other on the streets, having each come from horrendous childhood backgrounds.  At first, they are cautious about accepting help from the centre, but gradually, they blossom and thrive, although there are some setbacks along the way.  Mick, who, despite the intercession of bleeding heart Sandra (Rachel Alcock) declines help, does not end so happily: there is some kind of moral message here.  If you accept help, you’ll be fine; if you don’t, you won’t.

Among an effective cast, Zoe Rashwan’s forthright Carol stands out and the drama is leavened by comic relief from Gill Hines as doddering volunteer Edna.  Chris Musson (appearing as guitarist Barry) brings original music, along with Chris Callaghan’s Eddie, as volunteers running song-writing sessions to give the homeless a voice.

As the volunteers, we have Stacey Warner as Anna, Barry Purchase-Rathbone as Greg, and Karen Welsh as Diane – whose elegant exterior masks a tale of injustice and loss that put her on the streets for a time.  The play shows that there are ways out of homelessness, and not all of them are tragic!

In terms of drama, I would like to see more direct conflict, perhaps involving the kind of authority figures whose policies exacerbate the problem.  Certainly, these people need to be in the audience of a show like this.  Director Greg Cole handles the slice-of-life tone, with scenes coming over as credible and authentic, although there are some staging issues.  In-the-round is more intimate, yes, and democratic, which is fitting, but cast members need to ‘share their backs’ so everyone gets a fair look at them!

By and large, the production is an awareness-raising, thought-provoking, conscience-pricking success, depicting the precariousness of life in society today and emphasising the humanity we all share with the homeless.

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TB or not TB

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN

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

 

Martin McDonagh is one of the finest stage- and screenwriters currently working.  This production of his play from 1996 clearly demonstrates his use of Irish settings, idioms and characters, mining the same comedic vein as Father Ted and Stones in His Pockets.   On the craggy island of the title, news comes of a Hollywood film crew on a neighbouring island, seeking locals to appear on celluloid.  It’s big news for a community used to hearing word of geese and cats and sheep with no ears.  ‘Cripple Billy’ is especially keen, forging a letter from the doctor in order to cajole a boatman to take him across the sea…

As the action unfolds against the backdrop of a gorgeous set by Chris Jackson and Martin Tottle, we meet a host of colourful characters.  Seemingly hostile to each other, if the insults they hurl at each other and their coarse language is anything to go by, the community has been keeping a secret from Billy his entire life.  It seems the worse they say to each other, the more they care.

We meet Eileen (Niki Baldwin) and Kate Osbourne (Viv Tomlinson), Billy’s adoptive aunties, who run a ramshackle shop that appears to stock little else but tins of peas.  Baldwin and Tomlinson are a fine double act, gossiping about local affairs, but also as characters in their own right, each handling stress in their own way: the one stuffing herself with sweets, the other talking to stones.  Paul Tomlinson’s Johnnypateenmike O’Dougal is a superb piece of character acting among an excellent cast.  Sophie Mobberley’s Slippy Helen is fierce and feisty, oozing violence and sociopathy, while Thomas Hodge as Helen’s brother Bartley is convincingly simple, his one-track mind fixated on telescopes.  Graham Buckingham Underhill makes a strong impression as boatman Babbybobby Bennett.  Dorothy Barlow gives an hilarious turn as Mammy O’Dougal, and there is credible support from David Derrington as Doctor McSharry.

The accents ring true, never veering into ‘Oirish’ parody, diddle-de-dee, and director Vanessa Comer gets the overall tone and pacing just right.  It’s a genuine pleasure to see this consistently funny piece presented so excellently.  It’s a play about community and fake news, gossip, rumour and the truth.  While we enjoy the shenanigans of the community, our sympathies hinge on the central performance by Nathan Brown as Billy.  Today we would never address a person with disabilities so bluntly, and it’s not just a matter of political correctness making us mealy-mouthed.  McDonagh shows us that the disabled have hopes and dreams of their own and a desire to be loved just like anyone else, and they make mistakes just like everyone else.  Brown arouses our compassion for Billy’s predicament rather than his condition.  The truth emerges about Billy’s past and his current tuberculosis diagnosis, packing a poignant punch.  It’s superbly done.

Thoroughly entertaining, this black comedy is a joy from start to finish.  As one of the characters observes, we know we shouldn’t be laughing, but we do.  It’s one of the best productions I’ve seen at the Bear Pit – and that’s saying something!

Bear Pit Theatre. THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN.Director: Vanessa Comer

Who is taking whom for a ride? Babbybobby Bennett (Graham Buckingham Underhill) and Cripple Billy Claven (Nathan Brown) Photo: Patrick Baldwin

 


As You Lump It

AS YOU LIKE IT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 27th February, 2019

 

The plot of this rom-com from Shakespeare is bunched up at either end of the play.  A lot happens in the opening scenes – even a wrestling match – but when characters become exiled from the dukedom, the story line goes for a meander through the Forest of Arden, branching out into subplots about various pairs of lovers, until our protagonist Rosalind, seems to realise we’ve reached Act V and decides to pull all the threads together for a resolution.

The opening scenes are fine, with Anthony Byrne’s menacing, paranoid Duke Frederick ruling the roost.  David Ajao is an embittered and angry Orlando, disenfranchised by his weaselly brother Oliver (an excellent Leo Wan) but Orlando softens when the surprise of his victory (sorry if that’s a spoiler) against the Duke’s in-house wrestler Charles, is topped by his surprise falling in love with Rosalind at first sight.  Graeme Brookes’s Charles is more of a besuited bouncer – Frederick runs his realm like some kind of underworld boss, and Emily Johnstone is also good fun as Le Beau, tottering across the grass in her high heels and Krystle Carrington hairdo.

Lucy Phelps is a hugely appealing Rosalind, but I find Sophie Khan Levy even more so as her good-time gal cousin, Celia.  And so, I am liking this As You Like It

Then we get to the forest.

In a startling moment, director Kimberley Sykes flips the production on its head – much as the characters’ lives are turned upside down – and, taking the words of Jaques as a game plan, shows us that all the world is indeed a stage.  Sykes’s Arden is a bare stage with costume rails wheeled on, where lighting cues can be summoned by characters at the click of a finger.  It’s a bold move, and a valid one, except I am no longer with the characters on their journey.  I am, like Celia, Aliena-ted, and kept at a distance.  It’s a case of the concept working against the content.  With new characters coming and going as the subplot rattles along, I lack the attachment and investment one feels in say, a Much Ado, or a Twelfth Night.  Shakespeare gives us love in many facets in these scenes, but I find myself not caring.

Sandy Grierson is striking as Touchstone the fool, like a glam-rock Max Wall with a touch of Billy Connolly, but his love scenes are too aggressive.  He practically bullies lonely goatherd Audrey into a relationship (via the medium of British Sign Language, which adds another layer of humour to the scene).  Gender-swapped Jaques (Sophie Stanton) wanders about aimlessly, and I like the fluidity of Phoebe (Laura Elsworthy – very funny) who has set her sights on Rosalind as a boy, while being pursued by bright-eyed Silvia (Amelia Donkor) her earnest same-sex suitor…

At the moment when Rosalind effects a resolution, the scene is dominated by the arrival of a massive puppet, altogether too distracting I find.  In her epilogue, Rosalind invites us to ‘like as much of this play as please you’.  Unfortunately, the parts I do like are overshadowed by those I don’t.

As You Like It production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Topher McGrillis _c_ RSC_273380

Sophie Khan Levy and Lucy Phelps as Celia and Rosalind before they are ‘turfed out’ (Photo: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC)


Lest We Forget…

VISITORS

The Bear Pit, Wednesday 13th February, 2019

 

Barney Norris’s four-hander is ostensibly about dementia’s relentless campaign to rob us of our loved ones.  Farmer’s wife Edie drifts into memories, spending most of her time in Memory Lane, while her husband Arthur does his best to keep going and support her.  The couple take in young Kate, on some kind of house-share programme, to help around the place, while their middle-aged son Stephen faces marital difficulties of his own.  The play depicts Edie’s decline pretty accurately, but it’s also about communication problems between parents and children, drawing parallels between Edie’s disease and Stephen’s unease.

In the central role of Edie, Judith Grundy gives a powerful performance.  It tugs at the heartstrings to see her floundering in fear and bewilderment.  In an otherwise naturalistic piece, Edie’s reminiscences are curiously lyrical and feel over-written, but Grundy takes us with her every step of the way.

Kevin Hand depicts Arthur’s abiding affection for Edie with humour and a twinkle in his eye.  It’s an unsentimental piece and Hand is pitch perfect.  Barry Purchase-Rathbone delivers Stephen’s awkward joke-telling and selfishness, while Zoe Mortimer’s Kate is intelligent and assertive, although it does feel that Kate is largely included so Edie can have someone to forget.

Inevitably, perhaps, it’s a rather sedentary piece.  Getting out of chairs is problematic so there is a lot of sitting around and talking.  Director Tony Homer makes sure the conversations are animated, and the close confines of the Bear Pit space allow for detailed and expressive performances from this strong quartet.

Ultimately, for me, it’s a case of not liking the play but admiring the production.  For all its moments of humour, it’s a bit of a downer.  Those familiar with the ravages of dementia on loved ones will recognise Edie’s symptoms.  Others will be made more aware of how the disease throws lives into disarray.  Raising awareness is a good thing but more should be said – shouted! – about the devastating cuts to vital support services and the deliberate underfunding of the NHS by this cruel and vicious government.  With an ever-aging population, more and more people are going to need help; most won’t have a farm like Arthur and Edie they can sell to fund their care.

SamAllard_TBP_Visitors_Dress_100219_0089-999x450

Judith Grundy, Kevin Hand and a standard lamp (Photo: Sam Allard)

 

 


Timely in Athens

TIMON OF ATHENS

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 2nd January, 2019

 

Simon Godwin’s new production of the rarely-presented ‘problem play’ is an accessible fable, due to some judicious cutting and reframing of scenes, and simple staging.  It’s a game of two halves: the first is all gold and opulence, as though Timon’s interior designer was King Midas – even the flower arrangement is gold – with the stage dominated by a long banqueting table around which Timon entertains her guests, lavishing gift upon gift upon them, as suits her whim; the second half is dirt and darkness, with Timon now living rough in the woods, spurning all comers and railing against the world, like a mini King Lear.

In the title role, the formidable Kathryn Hunter gives a compelling performance.  Her Lady Timon is a silent-movie diva, every expression writ large on her face, every gesture stylised and mannered – although she is far from silent.  She spouts some of Shakespeare’s most acidic, misanthropic lines with relish.  Hunter’s performance style sets her character apart from the others, as befits the action of the play.  She is supported by a strong ensemble who breathe life and credibility into shallow, one-note characters.  (The blame for any shortcomings in the text is usually laid at the door of Shakespeare’s collaborator, Thomas Middleton!)

Chief among the supporting roles is Patrick Drury’s Flavius, Timon’s faithful steward.  In one of the piece’s most touching scenes, he shares the contents of his purse with his fellow, newly-unemployed servants.  It is the servants who display the best aspects of humanity: Salman Akhtar’s Lucilius, Rosy McEwen’s Flaminia, and Riad Richie’s Servilius.

Lady Timon’s guests, moochers and hangers-on display the worst aspects, leaching away at the good lady’s generosity until the well runs dry.  We see through them at once. Ralph Davis’s poet and Sagar I M Arya’s painter, might be excused for seeking the patronage of a wealthy woman, but Lucia (Imogen Slaughter), Lucullus (David Sturzaner) and Sempronius (James Clyde) soon prove themselves to be fair-weather friends.  These moments, with Godwin cross-cutting between scenes of refusal, are handled with humour – there are plenty of laughs to be had throughout, as we are invited to examine the scenario from a distance rather than empathise with the personas.

A dissonant voice comes from the mighty Nia Gwynne’s sarcastic philosopher, Apemantus, and not just because of the Welsh accent.  Gwynne and Hunter share the finest scene of the piece in which Apemantus and Timon trade eloquently vicious insults, descend into name-calling and end up displaying the play’s strongest instance of fellow-feeling.  It is powerful stuff.

With its up-to-date references (Alcibiades’s mob are sporting the latest Paris fashion, the ubiquitous yellow vest) and a strongly Grecian feel (Michael Bruce’s jaunty, stirring score), there are parallels being drawn with certain countries in the European Union, but I am tempted to consider the production is a more direct meditation on our own situation.  The first half is a Leaver’s vision of the EU, with all and sundry happy to bleed us (Timon) dry, while the second act is a Remainer’s nightmare of the UK post-Brexit: alone, hateful and bitter, scrabbling in the dirt for sustenance!

What I can’t help thinking is that Will must have had his father in mind during the writing of this play.  John Shakespeare spent his latter years as a recluse, hiding from his creditors; perhaps there is something of his nature in Timon’s bitter barbs.

An amusing, provocative production, rich with ideas and excellently presented, this is a timely Timon that reminds us that human nature is immutable and inequality is still very much with us.

Timon of Athens production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Simon Annand _c_ RSC_269096

Lady Bountiful: Kathryn Hunter as Timon, with Patrick Drury as Flavius and Nia Gwynne as Apemantus (Photo: Simon Annand)

 

 

 

 


Ebenezer Good

EBENEZER’S CHRISTMAS CAROL

Tudor World, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 5th December, 2018

 

The most famous ghost story of all time comes to the most haunted house in the country in this enchanting, one-man version of Charles Dickens’s perennial favourite.  It’s a promenade piece and an intimate one, with a cap on audience members to a dozen per performance; we are led through the building by our host and narrator, Ebenezer Crouch, who blends friendliness with otherworldliness.

“Marley was dead to begin with,” Crouch begins at the entrance to the museum, a kind of cold opener, before the more mundane advisories about the uneven floors and low ceilings within.  He shepherds us into the ticket office/gift shop, which serves as Scrooge’s office, where the story begins and ends.  Illuminated only by the dim light of the lantern he carries, Crouch is at once an engaging narrator, embodying Dickens’s characters and switching between them in the span of a breath.  Each one, the major players and the walk-ons, appears fully formed, vocally and physically.  We cannot help but be captivated from the get-go.

Crouch beckons us through the various sections of the Tudor barn, a surprisingly fitting backdrop to the Victorian tale, and never mind the anachronisms.  Cast into shadow, the mannequins and furnishings of the exhibits add to the overall spookiness of the event.

We traipse after Crouch from room to room, and these moments are the only instances when the pacing can flag, as we reassemble in each shady spot.  There is enough atmosphere in the building after dark to keep us in the mood.

Crouch is a consummate storyteller and actor, summoning out of Dickens’s prose a range of atmospheric scenes, running the gamut of human emotion.  Now matter how familiar you might be with the story and its countless incarnations, Crouch’s retelling renders it fresh, proving you don’t need special effects.  You don’t even need music or a change of costume, when all you’ve got it is the words of Dickens (a man who knew how to read aloud) and the spellbinding talents of a skilful storyteller.

Devised and performed by Paul Norton, this is a Christmas cracker.  Bone-chilling and heart-warming, this version reaffirms what Dickens knew: that Christmas is a time to remember the common humanity we share.  Sadly, in Tory Britain, the message is ever more pertinent.

This is the must-see show of the season, but you’ll have to be quick to grab your tickets.  The run is strictly limited and audience capacity is, by necessity, restricted.  Call Tudor World on 01789 298070 and give yourself a Christmas present.

Ebenezer Christmas Carol Portrait No Tex

 


Troying Times

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 8th November, 2018

 

Gregory Doran sets his production of Shakespeare’s Trojan War story in a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-type world – although we have to wait a considerable while for the action and excitement associated with the genre when we finally get to climactic scenes of armed combat.

Here, leather-and-denim-clad women are as likely to be butch warriors as the men, and so we get Suzanne Bertish’s shock-haired Agamemnon, Amanda Harris’s fiery Aeneas, and the mighty Adjoa Andoh’s wily Ulysses.  There is a humorous tone to the piece that Doran tends to emphasise, as Shakespeare satirises the supposedly heroic figures, but the production’s Achilles heel, if you will, is its lack of emotional attachment.  It looks great and sounds great but it does not grip or move.

Gavin Fowler makes an appealing Troilus, comical in his awkwardness and initially more of a lover than a fighter.  Amber James is fantastic as a stately Cressida, using a cool wit as a shield.  When she blurts out her love for Troilus, she immediately backpedals, unwilling to allow herself to experience or display her true emotions.  Even though the play is named for them, they are merely two characters among a host of many, and their story feels undeveloped.  As the go-between who, um, goes between them, Oliver Ford Davies is tremendously enjoyable as the doddering, overly attentive Pandarus.

Andy Apollo (yes, really) is an Adonis of an Achilles, striding and posing about the place with James Cooney’s sweet and boyish Patroclus at his side.  This pair of lovers is perhaps more tragic than the titular couple; when Patroclus is struck down, it provides a rare moment of empathy from us.

Andrew Langtree’s Menelaus would not be out of place in an Asterix book, while Sheila Reid’s grubby Thersites is like a dystopian Wee Jimmy Krankie (if that’s not a tautology).  Theo Ogundipe is a delight as thick-headed Ajax.

Original music by virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie evokes the clatter and clang of battles we don’t get to see.  There are many things to admire and enjoy but as a whole, these things don’t amount to a hill of beans.  Shakespeare’s genre-defying play is notoriously difficult to pin down.  Doran’s funny, orotund and noisy production lacks depth.  It’s Troy without weight.  By the end of this loud but empty spectacle, I yearn for Tina Turner to come on and belt out We Don’t Need Another Hero.  It would be apt at least.

Troilus and Cressida production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Helen Maybanks _c_ RSC _265416

Brought to heel: Andy Apollo as Achilles (Photo: Helen Maybanks)