Tag Archives: Timothy Bird

Train of Thought

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 11th September, 2017

 

With delicious irony, the fates delay the curtain up on this play centring around trains.  Ha, ha, universe!

But when this production from Exeter Northcott Theatre does get under way, it’s full steam ahead for a lovely piece of theatre.

When their father leaves them under mysterious circumstances, siblings Roberta, Phyllis and Peter move from London with their mother to a quaint but humble country cottage near to a railway.  As a distraction from their newfound poverty, the children take to waving at passengers on the trains, notably an ‘Old Gentleman’ who proves to be crucial to later plot developments.  They also strike up friendship with stationmaster Perks and his eldest son, John.

On the surface, the show drips with Brexiteer nostalgia for an England that never existed.  A closer look reveals this to be a place where people are nasty and suspicious when a foreigner in need enters their midst – but not E. Nesbit’s heroic children, whose only impulse is to help the poor man.  It’s a place where people worry about the expense of seeing the doctor – he runs some kind of private health insurance club the locals chip in to.

Against the backdrop of this society, the three kids learn that sharing is best, that people have pride and there is a difference between gifts and handouts.  I am gobsmacked; I had no idea the story was so political.  Dave Simpson’s adaptation of the classic novel does not shy away from the author’s socialist leanings.

As Roberta, the eldest, Millie Turner captures the essence of a girl between youth and maturity, while as her siblings Peter and Phyllis, Vinay Lad and Katherine Carlton are spirited in their immaturity.  The kids squabble but never lose their sense of decency and fair play.

The immensely likeable Stewart Wright narrates as the avuncular Perks; Callum Goulden does a nice comic turn as his tearaway offspring.  Will Richards makes a striking Russian, expressive before he even utters a word in any language, while Andrew Joshi’s increasingly knackered doctor provides much of the broader humour.  Joy Brook shines as the authoritative, firm but fair mother, all stiff upper lip and sacrifice for the sake of her children while espousing their Russian houseguest’s revolutionary ideals.

Timothy Bird’s set, costume and video designs not only evoke the Edwardian setting but add layers of artificiality, blending practical effects (a cut-out carriage is a hoot!) with projected animations, reminding us that this seemingly cosy place is not real.  Director Paul Jepson ensures the energy of his performers is not overshadowed by the impressive technical features of the production, and adds effective bits of business to keep the actors to the fore: a slow-motion moment during Perks’s birthday party, for example – there is some lovely character playing by Andrea Davy as Perks’s wife.

The iconic moments are all here.  Averting a rail disaster by ripping up Roberta’s red petticoat and waving it like mad.  The touching reunion… Misty-eyed?  Me?  Must just be a bit of steam in my eye.

All right, I admit it, I am touched right in the feels and the needle on my nostalgia dial is in the red, but most of all I am struck that this tale from a more innocent age over a century ago speaks so strongly to us today and has such currency.  There is a lot to be said for Englishness, for doing what is right, for supporting the underdog; just as there is a lot to be said against the nasty, narrow-minded, inward-looking, xenophobic attitudes of many English people today!  In 2017!  As if world events since the book first appeared mean nothing.

How much underwear do I have to tear up and wave around to stop this country going off the rails?

Mille-Turner-Vinay-Lad-Katherine-Carlton-in-The-Railway-Children_Photo-Mark-Dawson-Photography

Millie Turner, Vinay Lad and Katherine Carlton (Photo: Mark Dawson)

 

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Oh, Bee-hive!

THE HONEY MAN

The Door, The REP, Birmingham, Saturday 21st February, 2015

 

Tyrone Huggins writes and stars as the eponymous beekeeper in his new play that covers a lot of old ground but also a lot of new.

The set-up is the unlikely friendship that develops between an old man and a teenage girl. They couldn’t be more opposite. He is elderly, wise and cut off from modern life, clinging to herbalism and attuned to nature. She is young, brash, plugged into the internet, and complaining about everything. It could be a sit-com scenario.

Honey Man is concerned; his bees are dying. The girl, Misty, is pissed off because her parents have split up and she might have to move out of the ancestral pile and go and live in a flat. Ah, diddums.

While we warm to Huggins immediately as he potters around, Beatrice Allen’s poor little rich girl is harder to swallow. Of course, as the character learns more about life and matures a bit, the hard edges are worn away, and we see how far she has come. She turns out to be not such of a bad egg after all. Who would have thought?

What the play does best is point up concerns that extend beyond the two characters. The mysterious death of the bees is a global problem, here standing as a reminder that we should heed the signs that are there in nature. We ignore these warnings at our peril.   Misty’s recruitment to the cause, after she has weathered personal problems and taken her GCSEs, natch, may be too late. She is able to revive Honey Man after a nasty attack of bee stings, learning a natural remedy as she does so, bringing him back from the brink – but is it too late for her generation to do the same for the planet after the current generation has done so much to ruin it?

The focus of the play shifts from the future to the past. It turns out the two have links in the past. Misty gives guided tours of her stately home for pocket money but she hasn’t noticed there’s a black boy in the painting she spouts about so much. It takes Honey Man to point him out on a visit to her house for her birthday (I told you it was unlikely). And so the closing message is that those who have been painted out of history deserve to be seen, or else we don’t get the full picture.

Huggins packs a lot into his amusing and interesting script but some of the scenes seem too contrived. His performance is endearing and Beatrice Allen too does a good job, despite being hampered by some of her dialogue. Her ‘teen speak’ sounds totes awks in her rich girl voice. Imagine the cast of Made In Chelsea quoting rap lyrics.

Timothy Bird’s set design charmingly combines Honey Man’s ramshackle cottage with Misty’s aristocrat splendour, making excellent use of projected animations and a multi-purpose piece of scenery that serves as doors, bed, wardrobe and screen. The oil painting backdrop and the broken pieces of gilded frame make sense by the end, when we are drawn into the family portrait from the past. Emma Bernard directs, keeping us focussed when the script is a little muddied – a flashback scene is stilted and formal, the language a little too mannered but on the whole works well to differentiate between the past and the present.

All in all, The Honey Man satisfies without overdoing the sweetness. Straightforward in both form and content, it is nevertheless an engaging piece with a lot of warmth and a few things to say.

honey man