Tag Archives: The Original Theatre Company

This Charming Man

NIGHT MUST FALL

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 28th September, 2016

 

The Original Theatre company, purveyors of classic plays, now brings us Emlyn Williams’s 1935 thriller, in their solid and dependable – and entertaining! – fashion.  Directed by Luke Sheppard, the production is not short on tension and suspense, even if you know who the murderer is – or perhaps especially because of this knowledge.  Sheppard also brings out the humour of Williams’s script via an ensemble of superlative character actors.

Gwen Taylor stars as the irascible Mrs Bramson, a grumpy curmudgeon who has to pay people to spend time with her.  This includes her niece as well as the domestic staff.  Taylor brings energy to this hypochondriac harridan and we enjoy seeing her taken in when psychopathic Dan plays to her vanities.

Niamh McGrady is bookish niece Olivia, the voice of reason in the piece, although she is seduced by the dark side into acts of moral ambivalence.  Alasdair Buchan’s Hubert, a hapless suitor, is all plus fours and bluff bonhomie, while Daragh O’Malley’s Inspector Belsize has an easy powerfulness to his presence.  Anne Odeke is good fun as Nurse Libby in her brief appearances, while Melissa Vaughan’s housemaid Dora, a girl ‘in trouble’ thanks to the aforementioned psycho, is chirpily melodramatic.  Most enjoyable though is Mandi Symonds as housekeeper/cook Mrs Terence, an hilarious counterpart to Taylor’s old battle-ax.

It is Will Featherstone who commands the attention as the enigmatic and charming chancer, Dan who, having got Dora up the duff, insinuates himself into the household as a companion/carer for the old woman.  On the surface, Dan is a lively, funny presence but Olivia’s suspicions are aroused at once.  Featherstone gives us charm and an undercurrent of threat, breaking out into flashes of insanity and derangement.  It’s a compelling portrayal of a psychopathic character – pre-Hitchcock, it has to be noted – and also Williams’s script seems to be a precursor of the comedy of menace of Harold Pinter, with its naturalistic turns of phrase and its violent outbursts.

The production grips, amuses and thrills, showing the play still works like a charm and with its theme of our fascination with murder, it is still current, both admonishing the audience’s appetite for such subject matter and giving us exactly what we want.

'Night Must Fall' Tour

Will Featherstone as Dan (Photo: Alastair Muir)

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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)


Four’s Company

INVINCIBLE

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 18th May, 2016

 

If Alan Ayckbourn ever took amphetamines he might come up with a play like Torben Betts’s Invincible.  While Ayckbourn lets his middle-class monsters reveal themselves through the action, those written by Betts arrive on stage raging and ranting at each other.  We see them for what they are right away.

Idealist couple Oliver and Emily have moved from London to be among ‘real people’ oop North, in a self-serving, patronising way.  She is worse than he is in her adherence to her principles, almost to the point of militancy.  Her left-wing views, most of them not abhorrent in themselves, are savagely satirised.  She is the hard-nosed ideologue, and he is the weak streak of piss, hopelessly socially awkward.  To further their ends, they have invited the local couple from next door around for the evening.  Their evening soon descends into a nightmarish comedy of manners that makes us cringe and laugh in equal measure.  Alan is an overweight, overbearing football bore; wife Dawn is something of a trophy, stunning looking even after having ‘knocked out’ three children.

But there is much more to this play than social satire and slanging matches.  Betts sets up the characters as laughing stocks and we laugh at them over and over, but then cleverly he shows us the pain behind each of their facades.  We learn why Oliver and Emily don’t drink, why her abstract painting is about grief… We glimpse Alan’s insecurity and Dawn’s fears for her soldier son.  And so we move from laughing at them to feeling for them – the play reminds us that beyond our judgmental preconceptions of people, everyone has their own private pain.

Emily Bowker is both fearsome and devastatingly vulnerable as firebrand Emily, while Alastair Whatley proves he is perfect for Whitehall fodder or middle-class sitcom.  Graeme Brooks’s Alan is hilariously boring and surprisingly sensitive, while Kerry Bennett’s glamorous Dawn falls apart before our very eyes.

Christopher Harper’s direction maintains a breakneck speed.  This is a loud and brash production that knocks the wind out of you with the savagery of its humour and the emotional intensity of the characters’ circumstances, superbly portrayed by a remarkable quartet.

Hilarious and devastating, Invincible is another jewel in the crown of The Original Theatre Company, best known for powerful productions of historical drama.  It is great to see them branching out into contemporary comedy.

invincible

When worlds collide: Alastair Whatley and Graeme Brooks


Sights and Sounds of the 60s

THE PRIVATE EAR, THE PUBLIC EYE

Malvern Theatres, Wednesday 25th September, 2013

Peter Shaffer, best known as the writer of Amadeus and Equus, penned this brace of one-act plays at the outset of the Swinging 60s.  The inestimable Original Theatre Company follow their barnstorming production of Birdsong with this radical change of pace, and what we get is a couple of hours of well-presented comedy-drama that bear up rather well after 50 years.

The Private Ear

Ted (Rupert Hill) dances into best mate Bob’s bedsit to do his friend a favour: Bob has a girl coming around for a meal and Ted has been enlisted as chef – well, someone’s got to open the cans of soup and marrowfat peas.  Ted is a man of the age, with his polo neck sweater and his sharp suit.  He is all patter and obviously does very well with ‘the birds’ and their ‘bristols’.  Rupert Hill gets Ted’s energy just right and when he confesses to being a Tory, we are not surprised.  What’s dismaying is how current his deplorable views are (strongly anti-union, for example) and what is very telling is how he tempers his views in order to impress Doreen (the ‘bird’) – to win her vote, you could say.  By contrast, Bob is skinny and socially awkward.  We first see him in his vest and pants and dressing-gown as he frets about his impending date.  Steven Blakeley keeps Bob on the right side of tolerability, letting his passion for classical music override his gawkiness.  His scenes with Siobhan O’Kelly’s Doreen are delightful and it is here amid moments of physical comedy, Shaffer surprises us with Bob’s heartfelt exposition on the human condition, that we weren’t made to look at entries in ledgers all day, were not built for the repetitive nature of our jobs.

The Public Eye

Before our very eyes, both Blakeley and the set are transformed before the second play can get under way.  At this moment our appreciation of Hayley Grindle’s design is doubled.  It’s an ingenious transition that reminds us of the artifice of what is going on.  Blakeley becomes private detective Julian Cristoforou, a sort of Inspector Clouseau figure in appearance.  He has been hired by Charles Sidley (Jasper Britton) to follow Mrs Sidley (Siobhan O’Kelly) whom he suspects of having an affair.  Cristoforou appears at Sidley’s office to give his report.  What unfolds is slightly absurd and bordering on the farcical.  While Blakeley and O’Kelly are equally good, this piece is dominated by Jasper Britton’s well-observed Sidley, with his double takes and blustering – the comic timing is perfect.  Director Alastair Whatley keeps energy levels high so that Shaffer’s pieces, which alone might seem little more than extended comic sketches, presented together give us a look back at the views and social mores of a different time, attitudes that are alien and familiar in equal measure.  There are subtle links between the two pieces, helping to unify the evening. All four actors give well-honed characterisations but for me it is Britton’s Sidley that stands out, as a man forced to change his ways in order to save his marriage.  The double bill is worth seeing for the quality of its performances and presentation but also for hints at the greatness this playwright was to go on and create.

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