Tag Archives: Vanessa Schofield

A Little Learning

THE SISTERHOOD

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 2nd February, 2016

 

Moliere’s Les Femmes Savantes is updated here by Ranjit Bolt – I say ‘updated’, the action is set firmly in the 1980s, yet this biting satire still has much to say to us today. Written in verse, the dialogue is heightened for comic rather than poetic effect. The production does not hide its artificiality – sparing use is made of asides, but it’s clear the situations and the characters are fashioned in such a way to make a point.

We are in the house of Chrysale (Peter Temple) an easy-going fellow, whose wife rules the roost. She is power-dressing Philaminte (Julia Watson), a formidable matriarch with a thirst for knowledge. She is the fly in the ointment – her domineering attitude will not allow younger daughter Henriette ( a winsome Vanessa Schofield) to wed poor but honest Clitandre (Joshua Miles), preferring to marry her off instead to pretentious poet Trissotin (a preening, beret-wearing Paul Trussell) in order to satisfy her own intellectual pretensions. Trissotin is truly awful as a poet, declaiming his verses as he strides along the coffee table. Clitandre is by contrast a less meaty role but Joshua Miles gives him the backbone he needs to stand up for what he wants.

Meanwhile, deluded cougar Belise (a sultry Joanna Roth) wants to get her claws into Clitandre, add to the mix Miriam Edwards as cheeky housemaid Martine, and hilarity ensues.

The play is in favour of the education of women, to be sure, but to me it is more about the sacrificing of femininity in order to succeed in a man’s world. There is something Thatcheresque about Philaminte – all the writers she admires are male, incidentally. Her maternal instincts are subdued in favour of pseudo-intellectualism, almost to the destruction of her marriage and family.

It’s fast and funny, comical and clever. Bolt’s adaptation keeps the spirit, shape and meaning of the Moliere original while making the references relatable to those of us who survived the 1980s, and it’s performed by a flawless ensemble who heighten their playing just enough to accommodate the verse. Funniest of this funny bunch though is Katherine Manners as elder daughter Armande, whose shoulder-padded blazer is at odds with her tartan mini-skirt, as she seeks to suppress her sexuality in favour of ‘higher’ things. There is strong support from Paul Hamilton as Artiste and Valentine Hanson as rival poet Vadius.

Libby Watson’s stylish set is elegant in its simplicity, dominated by bookcases just as the household is dominated by Philaminte’s book-learning. Mike Robertson’s lighting washes the set in acidic colours – director Hamish Glen gives us dumbshows during transitions between acts to a soundtrack of 80s hits.

It all adds up to a delicious evening of comedy and social commentary. It’s like finding a snake in a box of chocolates and being pleased to see it.

sisterhood 2

Plain speaking. Brummie maid Martine (Miriam Edwards) tells it like it is.

 

 

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Having It Large

THE BORROWERS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 29th November, 2014

 

Artistic Director Theresa Heskins is not shy of setting herself challenges. Following last year’s triumphant 101 Dalmatians, she has raided the bookshelf of childhood once again, turning her attention and invention to Mary Norton’s classic novels – a story I remember dimly but fondly from back when I was *this tall*.

It begins with Pod (Nicholas Tizzard) dropping in, like a spider, or like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible. He is ‘borrowing’, a euphemism for stealing items to take back to his little family under the floorboards. Within minutes, the conventions of the production are laid bare. Ingenious dual-staging using puppetry and miniatures shows us, like a split-screen, both the ‘human bean’ sized world and the Borrowers’ scaled-up home. Heskins’s imaginative staging is more than ably supported by the work of the theatre’s own workshop. Laura Clarkson’s set is the star of the show, and with every scene there is a more marvellous prop. A cheese grater is greater than a bed; an enormous boot splits open so we may see the family in their new home… They are ousted from their big house by the villainous and horrible Mrs Driver – a larger than life performance from Polly Lister, summoning a cat and a rat-catcher to rid the house of people she regards as vermin.

And here is where the show points out something I as a little boy did not realise. There are parallels here with the treatment of the Jews prior to and during the Second World War. The Borrowers’ neighbours and relatives are all gone but no one is sure where. Are they still alive? Have they been eaten? The point is underscored, literally, by an original score by musical director James Atherton, who uses more than a hint of ‘Jewishness’ in the music, played live by the composer himself, with the accompaniment of various cast members.

The story puts us very much on the side of the underdog and the oppressed. The best side to be on given the current political climate. It’s a chilling reminder and, sadly, one that is still needed in this time of increasing intolerance and inequality. The Borrowers represent anyone on the fringes of society, the dispossessed and the disappeared. One can all too easily imagine a post-UKIP, apocalyptic society where ‘others’ are hounded out of their homes.

But hey, don’t let that bring you down. This is a highly enjoyable fantasy adventure that evokes a sense of wonder in terms of content and form. At the heart of the ensemble is Vanessa Schofield’s Arrietty, a wide-eyed and inquisitive young girl, who yearns to see the world beyond the floorboards. Schofield embodies youthful enthusiasm and curiosity – no more so than when she teams up with Spiller, an almost feral Borrower, played by man of rubber, the always excellent Michael Hugo. Tizzard’s pragmatic Pod is married to Homily (Shelley Atkinson) who provides many of the laughs with her ‘kvetching’, you might call it. What comes across is the humanity of these tiny characters, the love and warmth of the family unit, striving to survive and to stay together despite terrible hardships and grave danger: there is a tense encounter with a humongous bird, for example, and when you see the tiny puppets walking across the vast expanse of the open stage, you see how vulnerable they are and how, like animals, they spend most of their lives in a state of fear and the struggle for survival – and you wonder how you yourself might cope if all the comforts and trappings of civilisation, hearth and home were stripped away.

Thought-provoking, thrilling and heart-warming, The Borrowers is a timely assertion of the humanity we have in common with everyone in society. And that’s a Christmas message I can get behind.

Michael Hugo as Spiller and Vanessa Schofield as Arrietty

Michael Hugo as Spiller and Vanessa Schofield as Arrietty