Tag Archives: The Swan Theatre

One Man, Two Governments

THE HYPOCRITE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 12th April, 2017

 

Working in collaboration with Hull Truck Theatre, the RSC brings us this new play from writer Richard Bean – of One Man, Two Guvnors renown.  It’s the eve of the Civil War and the country is already divided.  In Beverley, Sir John Hotham is torn.  Should he support the King or Parliament?  He flipflops between sides, playing each against the other, until his equivocations overtake him and he is arrested and – well, spoiler alert: the play begins with his execution.  Knowing Hotham’s fate from the off removes suspense but his path to the chopping block is a twisted and entertaining one.

As the double-dealing Hotham, Mark Addy gives a star turn, brimming with Northern bluster and human failings, like a Tory jumping ship from Leave to Remain and back again.  This is One Man, Two Guvnors in period costume.  Caroline Quentin is his cooler-headed wife (the latest in a long line) but nonetheless funny.  Sarah Middleton is a scream as their daughter, Frances, a giddy, histrionic young girl tearing around and even rolling into the laps of the front row.  In contrast, her brother Durand (Pierro Niel-Mee) is straight-laced and academic – until his own ardour is aroused, of course.  Canny servant Connie (Laura Elsworthy) and decrepit old pantaloon Drudge (an unrecognisable Danielle Bird) complete the household, embodying dry wit and physical clowning respectively.

There is a double act of young suitors in the shape of James, Duke of York (Jordan Metcalfe) and Prince Rupert of the Rhein (Rowan Polonski) who, for reasons of plot, dress as lady fishmongers.  Both Metcalfe and Polonski are appealing presences and very funny.  Also good fun is Ben Goffe as King Charles himself, mounted on a hobby horse – Goffe also makes an impression as the ghostly figure of a young girl murdered for breaking a vase.

Bean populates his five-act comedy with stock characters, making a farce of historical events and peppering the dialogue with sharp relevance.  Hypocrites who seek to further their own ends at the expense of integrity – they should meet Hotham’s fate!   The religious and the spiritual also come in for a lambasting.  The puritanical Pelham (Neil D’Souza) and the hedonist Saltmarsh (Matt Sutton) are held up as excessive figures – the comedy arises from the exposure of weakness and appetites common to humans and both celebrates and mocks our foibles.

Director Phillip Breen pays attention to fine detail as well as broad comic playing.  At times the action is chaotic – or seemingly so, as choreographed chases and fights break out.  The acts are separated by rousing songs (by Grant Olding) performed live and on stage.  Phill Ward is in excellent voice with his stirring agit-prop anthems that bring to mind the songs of recent folk-rock group The Levellers.

The show is consistently funny in a theatrically traditional way but it is more than a farcical reconstruction; it speaks to us directly.  We are today in a divided country.  We are caught up in epoch-changing political events – we can only hope that, unlike Hotham, we don’t lose our heads about it.

Hypocrite pete le may

Mark Addy as Hotham (Photo: Pete Le May)

 


Broad Strokes

THE SEVEN ACTS OF MERCY

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd December, 2016

 

Anders Lustgarten’s new play is a powerful and thought-provoking piece set in two seemingly disparate time periods.  Naples 1606 and Bootle 2016 take their turns on the stage.  In the former, we meet painter and outlaw Caravaggio; the latter introduces us to Leon Carragher and his grandson Mickey.  While Caravaggio seeks to restore ‘dignity to the poor’ by using them as life models for his great works, Leon strives to pass on his old-school socialist values through art appreciation discussions with young Mickey.  The painting that gives the play its title becomes a list of socialist principles, i.e. the decency of human beings.  With Leon ailing fast, Mickey embarks on a photography project with his mobile phone, to show his granddad there is still decency left in people, despite appearances to the contrary in this self-serving, selfish society, where compassion is seen as a political act.

A strong link between the two eras is Caravaggio’s thick Merseyside accent.  Patrick O’Kane is electrifying as the intense and passionate painter, a common man made great through talent, hard work and opportunity.  He finds a kindred spirit in the form of a life model, Lavinia (a fiery Allison McKenzie), who is forced to abandon her artistic ambitions and be a prostitute.

Edmund Kingsley provides contrast as the well-spoken Marchese, a decent if condescending figure, and the extremely good-looking James Corrigan brings a touch of oomph as Vincenzo, one of Caravaggio’s pickups.

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Patrick O’Kane as Caravaggio (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

As Leon, Tom Georgeson exudes strength and weakness, often in the same breath, as old socialism dies out.  His values have skipped a generation (Don’t we know it!), as evinced by his property developer-cum-gangster son Lee (Gyuri Sarossy) – Hope lies within the upcoming generation, represented here by Mickey (TJ Jones).  Their Bootle is tough.  Ruthless government policies enable the ruthless to prey on the vulnerable.  The cold cruelty of the bedroom tax and its consequences could not be made plainer.   The play wears its relevance on its sleeve, lain on like the thickest impasto – and it could not be more timely.  Also apparent is the pride of the poor: having to go to a food bank is a demeaning process.  Gangsters Razor (Patrick Knowles) and Prime (Leon Lopez) are darkly funny, menacing and violent – as though a couple of Pinter’s hard men have moved to the north west.   They are the ones with power, nasty, cruel and vicious, enabling the will of the unseen big boys to be enforced.

Director Erica Whyman uses contrasts of dark and light, noise and silence, like the painter used chiaroscuro.  Charles Balfour’s lighting design certainly replicates the painter’s dramatic lighting – Surely, Caravaggio invented staged lighting long before the theatre had the technology to bring it about!

The scenes are intense and gripping but there is also warmth, humour and humanity here.  As Lavinia comments on Caravaggio’s work-in-progress, the individual scenes are great, but the whole lacks a unifying feature.   It is only at the end, when Mickey’s latter-day Seven Acts is finished and Granddad is wheezing his last, that the two worlds come together.  Caravaggio has passed on his baton at last.  What are we to do with it?  As Leon observes, you have to be strong to be kind.

We must be strong.

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Tom Georgeson and TJ Jones (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


New Bromantics

THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 31st August, 2016

 

Shakespeare’s final play, written in collaboration with John Fletcher, lifts its plot from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale.  It’s a story of friendship – the friendship between cousins Palamon and Arcite and the wedge driven between them by their infatuation/obsession over Emilia, a woman they only view from afar.  The cousins are prisoners of war and, as Mel Brooks might have put it, prisoners of love.  Fate holds different things in store: Arcite is banished, Palamon, with the help of the jailer’s love-struck daughter, escapes…

It’s a satisfyingly sensational plot, performed with vigour here.  At times, the speeches can be rather dense and impenetrable but the energy of the cast, especially from Palamon (James Corrigan) and Arcite (Jamie Wilkes) helps us to keep focussed.  Corrigan is a charming, petulant presence, while Wilkes’s Arcite is arch – the affection between the two convinces both in the lauding of each other’s virtues and the bickering when they fall out.  Chivalric values are held up for ridicule as much as admiration.  Within this world, where the gods answer prayers directly, we may understand characters’ motivations absolutely.

As Jailer’s Daughter, a thankless role that doesn’t even get a name, Danusia Samal stands out.  She has three lengthy monologues that track her decline from lovesick young girl to Ophelia-style mad wench.  Samal both appeals and convinces, emotions undimmed by the sometimes heavy-handed writing.

There is much to enjoy in Blanche McIntyre’s production of this seldom-staged story.  A Bacchanalian morris dance, complete with phallic hobbyhorses, fight scenes (directed by Kate Waters), and live medieval-modern music composed by Tim Sutton.   Palamon and Arcite climb the bars of their prison like apes in cages – the central relationship of the titular two underpins the entire production. The jarring note for me is the costume design.  Anna Fleischle gives us era-less clothing rather than evoking classical Greece.  Some of the choices are bizarre to say the least.  Amazonian Hippolyta looks like she’s off to New Romantic night at the student union.  In one scene she brings on a chainsaw but doesn’t use it.  The Jailer’s suit makes him look like a weary supply teacher, and Emilia’s twin buns and white shift bring to mind Princess Leia.  There is something performing-artsy about the designs that doesn’t match the quality and commitment of the actors.

But the dramatic storyline engages and the play’s teasing of same-sex relationships vs love and marriage make it seem very ‘now’.  The strongest, starkest message comes from the ebullient Gyuri Sarossy’s Theseus at the end, driven at last to compassion by the unfolding of events: For what we lack we laugh, for what we have, are sorry.

Ain’t that the truth?!

kinsmen

Cousins in bondage: Jamie Wilkes (Arcite) and James Corrigan (Palamon) Photograph: Donald Cooper

 

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Dirty rotten scoundrels

THE ALCHEMIST

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th June, 2016

 

Ben Jonson’s 1610 comedy owes much to the works of Roman comic playwright, Plautus: the scheming servant using his master’s house for illicit purposes, the characters typified by flaws, fast action and comeuppances – all are here in breath-taking form.

Face (Ken Nwosu) takes advantage of Lovewit’s absence to house a couple of partners-in-crime, namely Subtle (Mark Lockyer) and Dol Common (Siobhan McSweeney).  The former is the titular ‘alchemist’, conjuring jargon and nonsense with which to con their victims into believing that, for the right price, he can supply them with the philosopher’s stone, which Harry Potter fans will know has the power to turn base metals into gold.  The latter is called upon to playact a range of parts to support the cons, including a hilarious sequence involving a fairy queen spinning above the stage.  All three are excellent, displaying the energy and versatility of the hustlers as well as the underlying tensions between them.  Their ‘venture tripartite’ is as volatile as any of Subtle’s concoctions.

They are strongly supported by a range of victims, including a swaggering Joshua McCord as Dapper who wants supernatural assistance for his gambling, a dopy Richard Leeming as tobacconist Abel Drugger who wants the Jacobean equivalent of feng shui to ensure success for his business, and a bombastic Ian Redford as the hedonistic Sir Epicure Mammon who desires nothing less than the mythical stone – and to get his leg over where he may.  John Cummins makes a zealous Ananias, and there is plenty of ridiculous posturing from Tom McCall’s Castril and Tim Samuels’s Surly, in disguise as a Spanish popinjay.

The action is fast, furious and farcical, aided and abetted by some judicious cuts to the text (courtesy of Stephen Jeffreys) and the whole enterprise is pervaded by a sense of fun.  Polly Findlay directs her company assuredly, keeping them on the right side of exaggeration and timing the surprises to perfection.  Long before the time Lovewit (a charming Hywel Morgan) returns and commandeers the proceeds of his butler’s schemes, we are won over by Face, thanks to an agreeable performance by Ken Nwosu, and are glad he (spoiler alert) gets away with it.

At the end, Nwosu strips off his period livery to reveal a Ramones T-shirt and jeans.  He tots up the takings of the evening’s full house and is pleased.  We have all been ‘gulled’ by yet another disguise, or Face, and we thank him for it.  Human nature has no changed a   bit.  Fools and their money are still parted, but tonight we have got the better end of the deal.

The Alchemist

Cheeky Face (Ken Nwosu) – Photo: Helen Maybanks.

 

 


Quest for Laughs

DON QUIXOTE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 13th April, 2016

 

Not only did Shakespeare pop his clogs 400 years ago this year but so did Cervantes, author of the original novel on which this play – and modern fiction! – is based.  To commemorate the Spaniard’s deathiversary the RSC has mounted this fiery steed of a production, a new adaptation by James Fenton.

Elderly and infirm, Don Quixote decides to put in to practice what has been his lifetime’s study, namely the chivalric code of the knights of old.  It’s never too late to reinvent yourself, it appears.  Off he goes, from adventure to adventure, but when reality clashes with his ideals, we are amused but he is undaunted; his code of conduct will not allow him to complain or be deterred by setbacks.  And so the will of the old man gradually begins to impose itself on the world – in particular his upholstered squire, Sancho Panza.  The story becomes a lesson in how to handle those with dementia, meeting them in their misperceptions – up to a point.

It is riotously funny and performed with theatrical brio, you have no option but to enjoy it from the off.  As Sancho Panza, Rufus Hound warms us up with a bit of ad lib banter – this is not so much audience participation as audience involvement.  Willingly, we follow Sancho and his knight on their journey, buying into the artifice of the conventions in play and relishing the inventiveness of the enterprise as well as the gusto of the performers.  Hound is practically perfect for this.

As the unsinkable Quixote, David Threlfall gives a Lear-worthy portrayal, in a physically demanding role – he gets beaten repeatedly, snatched up into the air by the sails of a windmill, and generally runs around in an apparently tireless fashion.  Above all though – and I don’t just mean when he’s on the windmill – he engages us with the old man’s world-view.  How romantic and exciting the mundane becomes through his eyes, when two flocks of sheep become opposing armies and when windmills become marauding giants.

The rest of the cast dash around in multiple roles.  Richard Leeming makes an impression as a dozy boy servant (and later as Quixote’s horse); Nicholas Lumley delights as the Priest appropriating mucky literature; Gabriel Fleary gives a hilarious turn as the Biscayan, strutting and fretting before a fight; Natey Jones’s sowgelder, Timothy Speyer and Will Bliss as barbers… Everyone gets their turn.  I could append the cast list and have done with it.

There are songs throughout, plenty of Spanish guitar, to add flavour.  The period comes across through the costumes – there is very little in the way of set apart from what the cast brings on and takes off.  Inventive use is made of trapdoors throughout.  Johanna Town’s lighting gives us Spanish sunshine as well as evoking the changing locations and moods of this episodic narrative.  Angus Jackson’s direction keeps the action flowing at speed, with more reflective moments during which his two leading men are nothing short of a joy to behold.

The icing on this delightful cake comes in the form of babies, sheep, and a lion, from puppet-master Toby Olie and Laura Cubitt.  Irresistible.

There are moments when a Pythonesque sensibility comes to the fore, and we venture into Holy Grail territory but then you have to remember how influential Cervantes is.  The windmill has turned full circle.

An unadulterated pleasure from start to finish, this new Don Quixote is the must-see of the RSC’s current season.

Don Quixote RSC

David Threlfall and Rufus Hound (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

 


Pact with Ideas

DOCTOR FAUSTUS

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 14th March, 2016

 

Two men approach each other, mirroring each other’s actions. They each strike a match – the man holding the match that burns out the first will play Faustus in this evening’s production, the other will be Mephistopheles. Tonight it’s Sandy Grierson who gets his fingers burned and so his Faustus will play with fire.   This is the opening gimmick in Maria Aberg’s eccentric production of Christopher Marlowe’s play about sin and damnation.

Duality runs through it. The cast is either dressed in black or in white. Male and female actors swap parts (I mean roles!) – Eleanor Wyld appears as Lucifer, a kind of Debbie Harry figure in a John Travolta white suit. She introduces a cabaret, the Seven Deadly Sins on parade as drag queens and sideshow freaks. It’s hard to see why Faustus or anyone would be tempted to commit any of them.

The production is packed with ideas, most of them effective. The summoning of Mephistopheles is creepily atmospheric and tense. Once Faustus makes his pact, we’re waiting for his allotted 24 years to elapse so we can see his downfall. The problem lies in those 24 years. Given that Faustus has bargained away his eternal soul, he doesn’t seem to have much fun. Invisible, he knocks the Pope’s dinner around a bit. His only real enjoyment is when he revels in his (temporary) immortality. He has a pretty colourless time of it.

Oliver Ryan’s Mephistopheles is subtly inhuman but when he’s standing next to Grierson’s Faustus all I can think of is the Pet Shop Boys. Much of Marlowe’s verse is garbled or lost in the percussive music (composed by Orlando Gough) – although the famous Helen of Troy speech (Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?) is handled well, with a rag doll performance from Jade Croot. The music, played live, is responsible for creating most of the show’s atmosphere and keeping things lively – I just wanted it to be more fun. There are moments of dark humour – Mephistopheles is a devil with a Stanley knife, but overall the tone is curiously vibrant but dour.

We ought to feel that Faustus’s pact is an attractive option before we learn, as he does, that it’s not worth it. By the time his final hour approaches and he pleads with Time to stand still, I don’t feel he has been on enough of a journey to have any real sense of tragedy. He needs more peaks before he sinks into his final trough.

Doctor Faustus

Faustus meets his match. Oliver Ryan and Sandy Grierson (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

 

 

 


Laughs For Laughs

LOVE FOR LOVE

The Swan theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 11th November, 2015

 

The plot of William Congreve’s comedy of 1694 is almost incidental in this exuberant, vibrant new production, directed by Selina Cadell. What takes precedence is the presentation. The show revels in its own theatricality from start to finish. What, in Brecht, would work to alienate us, here engages us. The very artificiality of it all infuses the ‘world’ of the play. It’s a right old giggle.

Tom Turner’s Valentine, the romantic lead, is languidly camp, until his ‘mad’ scenes when he is manically camp. There is an assurance here in the comic playing. In fact, the entire company play their parts like virtuoso performers: the timing, the reactions, the archness of it all, operate like well-oiled clockwork animating an intricate machine whose sole purpose is to delight. Carl Prekopp makes an energetic Jeremy, Valentine’s servant, Robert Cavanah is an urbane Scandal, while Jonathan Broadbent’s Tattle is a flamboyant, pouting fop. There is no one in this play who is not funny. Nicholas Le Prevost as Valentine’s unreasonable father Sir Sampson is marvellously embittered.  Daniel Easton’s bumptious Ben, Valentine’s sailor brother, is a hoot (There is some spirited choreography of a sailors’ hornpipe by Stuart Sweeting.)  As Congreve’s play is influenced by stock character types, so Selina Cadell’s production is informed by the workings and business of the Commedia dell’Arte.

As Angelica, Justine Mitchell displays some excellent melodramatic posturing, which she punctures in her asides – the audience, especially the front rows, is very much included, as prop holders, costume minders, and butts of pointed remarks. Jenny Rainsford’s Miss Prue is broadly played, in contrast to Angelica’s cultured poise. Congreve provides a wealth of funny roles for women. Hermione Gulliford plays the scheming Mrs Foresight to the hilt. It is one of those pieces where we deplore the characters while revelling in their transgressions and admiring the hell out of the actors.

An underused Michael Fenton-Stevens bears the brunt of the satirical jibes against the legal profession, while Michael Thomas’s superstitious Foresight represents an attack on those credulous enough to give credence to astrology. We can still recognise these targets from society today.

Rosalind Ebbutt’s vivacious costumes and Tom Piper’s toy theatre set convey the period and add considerably to the fun. There is a consort of musicians in a corner, underscoring the silliness, and sound effects and props contribute running jokes. It all makes for relentless fun – so much so that by the end, when all the plots have been resolved, we are not touched by the denouement.   There is so much laughter here there is no room for sentiment and that is perhaps this production’s only shortcoming, yet there is a moment of stunning beauty thanks to the countertenor singing of Jonathan Christie.

I have a lot of love for Love For Love.

Legend! Nicholas Le Prevost as Sir Sampson Legend (Photo: Ellie Kurtz)

Legend! Nicholas Le Prevost as Sir Sampson Legend (Photo: Ellie Kurtz)