Tag Archives: The Crescent Theatre

Austen Powers

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY

The Crescent Theatre, Wednesday 28th June, 2017

 

Jessica Swale’s adaptation of the Jane Austen novel whizzes along at quite a lick, condensing the action without cutting any of the important bits.  What couldn’t be clearer is the chauvinism of the age and the restrictions placed on women: they can’t inherit, they can’t go anywhere alone with a man – both of which are important plot points.  Mrs Dashwood and her daughters are dispossessed after her husband’s death and find themselves in reduced circumstances, swapping the family’s grand home for a little cottage near Exeter.  Suitors come calling, scandals come to light… On the surface, it’s a frothy rom-com but beneath it’s a biting social satire.  The wry wit of Jane Austen powers the exchanges and fuels the dramatic irony of the situations.

Karen Kelly makes a warm-hearted matriarch as Mrs Dashwood – her announcement of her husband’s death is strongly handled.  Naomi Jacobs is suitably restrained and fretful as the serious Elinor; Elinor is the ‘Sense’ of the title, ruled by her head; Marianne the ‘Sensibility’, ruled by her heart and her impulses.  Both are played well but I would like more contrast  between them.  Stephanie Cole’s Marianne who could do with being giddier or at least smiling more, especially from the off.  When reading poetry, she should really go for it.  Charlotte Upton, in a convincing portrayal as little sister Margaret, seems to embody both aspects of heart and head, in her childlike thirst for knowledge and honest reactions to events.

Thomas Leonard looks the part as the dapper Edward Ferrars, but could do with being a little bit more cut-glass in his delivery of Austen’s erudite dialogue.  Jacob Williams makes a pleasant Mr Willoughby, while James Lewis amuses as the sarcastic Mr Palmer.  Jordan Bird offers strong support as faithful servant Thomas but Adam Ragg’s Colonel Brandon is a particularly fine characterisation: the stiff-upper lip, the British reserve, the gentlemanly qualities.  Decency oozes out of him.

The evening belongs to Laura Poyner, superb in both her roles.  Provincial Mrs Jennings’s vulgarity and lust for life is in stark opposition to her snobbish Mrs Dashwood – her Fanny is a joy to behold.  The stage comes alive whenever Poyner is on and most of the cast is able to match her energy and commitment.

James David Knapp’s direction keeps the action clear in this stylish and slick production that should do well on its tour of other venues.  His original music is bittersweet and evocative.  Above all, the play serves as a showcase for the excellent costume team at the Crescent, with flawless and impressive work from Vera Dean, Pat Brown and Olivia Barnes.  Keith Harris’s simple yet elegant set: three period doorways among a landscape of books proves a versatile backdrop.

An enjoyable comedy of manners that brings a classic book to life in an accessible and entertaining way.

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Mrs Dashwood and her daughters. Stephanie Cole, Naomi Jacobs, Karen Kelly, and Charlotte Upton. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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Army Dreamers

SERJEANT MUSGRAVE’S DANCE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 2nd March, 2014

John Arden’s play from the late 1950s is not an easy one.  This ambitious production in the Ron Barber Studio makes more than a good fist of bringing it to life.  From the get-go it is obvious that production values are of a high standard.   Faye Rowse’s impressive set, making use of packing crates and chequerboard tiles, serves as all the locations of the action: pub, graveyard, town square etc, atmospherically lit by James Booth’s design.  Jen Coley’s costumes are spot on, leaving all the colour to the bright red of the soldiers’ tunics.

Director Colin Simmonds (himself a fine actor) elicits solid performances from most of his cast and moments of excellence from some of them.  Nick Tuck is chirpy Private Sparky, one of the few likable characters in the piece, nicely contrasted with the other members of the trio, Gwill Milton and Vinnie Clarke.  These three and their sergeant turn up in a Northern town and are immediately taken to be recruiting officers.  The real purpose of their visit eventually becomes apparent.  Musgrave (a powerful Mark Thompson) stages his own coup de theatre, taking drastic action in a bid to realise his own agenda: to bring an end to all war.  It’s a noble aim but the end doesn’t justify the means.  The play is startlingly relevant given this weekend’s news from the Ukraine but even without that, Musgrave’s argument still stands for British/American troops in places like Afghanistan.  The two-eyes-for-an-eye approach to quashing ‘insurgents’ will only be curtailed if we stand against those who never get hurt in these conflicts, the ruling elite, represented here by establishment figures the Mayor and the Parson.  It’s electrifyingly staged and worth the slow, uphill build-up.

Les Stringer’s Parson looks like Derek Jacobi and sounds like Richard Griffiths, in a neat character study that brings to the fore the detestable hypocrisy of the man.  Similarly effective is Edward Milton’s Mayor, a buffoonish figure keen to execute some kind of social cleansing of his town by shipping the undesirables off to the army, but to my mind, the strongest of the local characters comes in the form of pub landlady Mrs Hitchcock, superbly played by Diane Pritchard.  Barmaid Annie is also strongly depicted, with more than a hint of Ophelia’s madness, by Hannah Kelly.

The show is peppered with folk music motifs – there is some evocative playing; Tim Gardner’s discordant violin is a prime example.  The characters are prone to singing snatches of folk songs at any given moment, which sometimes breaks the naturalism of the performance, reminding us that we are there to think about what the play is about as well as what it makes us feel.

Yet again, the Crescent provides a challenging and provocative production of a difficult play, well worth an evening of anyone’s time.

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Constant – in parts

THE CONSTANT WIFE

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 6th October, 2013

 

Somerset Maugham’s 1926 comedy is brought to sparkling life in Jaz Davison’s lively production.  It tells the story of Constance, the titular wife, whose husband has been having a long-standing affair with one of her best friends.  Everyone around Constance strives to hide the ugly truth from her but, it turns out, she has known all along.  Constance is nobody’s fool.  Red faces all around.  But it is what happens next that takes this comedy of manners into Ibsen territory.  More assured than Ibsen’s Nora, Maugham’s Constance not only turns the tables on her unfaithful spouse but carves out a niche for herself, claiming that the economic independence she has earned for herself is the key to opening up the rest of her life.  She is no more bound to her husband by financial need than she is to convention and, some might say, propriety.

It’s a great-looking production, played in-the-round in the theatre’s Ron Barber Studio with a detailed but unfussy set designed by James Rowland, and a parade of 1920s fashions from costume designer Stewart Snape.  The women are especially well-dressed with fur stoles draped over their shoulders like roadkill – reminders that the play has become a period piece, and that some aspects of society have changed considerably since it first opened.

As Constance, Liz Plumpton cuts an elegant figure.  At first she is a little too imperious and not playful enough but she warms up and becomes delightful, her delivery matching the wit of her dialogue.   The characters fire off Widean epigrams like champagne corks – some of the cast handle this mannered way of speaking with great ease.  Particularly impressive is Jo Hill as Barbara, and Danielle Spittle’s Martha improves as the action unfolds.  Plumpton is ably supported by Roger Saunders as old suitor Bernard and Kate Campbell as treacherous Marie-Louise, but it is her moments with husband John that really stand out.  Colin Simmonds’s performance is a delight from start to finish as the smarmy philanderer in a beautifully detailed and executed characterisation.  And very, very funny.

Jaz Davison’s direction has some stylish touches (like the use of butler James Smith for the transitions) but a little lighter handling of the earlier moments would get the performance fizzing along from the get-go.  It’s a soufflé on which the oven door has been opened too soon, but the cast rally and aerate the confection as soon as they settle in.  From that point on The Constant Wife becomes consistently funny.

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