Tonight At 8:30 (part 1) – July 2006

Experience: 1/10

By Noel Coward

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 27th July 2006

What a disappointment. I had hoped for better from Noel Coward, but sadly, this show proves that he could also write stinkers. These one act plays may have been popular in their day, although I suspect the popularity was Noel and Gertie’s rather than the writing, but they creak like rotting hulks now, with very few good points to commend them. The actors did their best, but they couldn’t resurrect the long-dead. Such is life.

Red Peppers was the opener. If I haven’t seen this actual playlet, I’ve certainly seen at least one like it – the faded ‘stars’ of music hall doing their inherited act round the country’s theatres, bitching about everyone else, falling out between themselves, then uniting against a common enemy – the musical director. Nothing new, very little humour worth mentioning, and peculiarly staged. The play’s stage was at the back, and we saw the performance from behind, which was fine. But at the end, when they’re back on stage again, they have to compete not only with a musical director going like the clappers, but also with Susan Wooldridge’s character struggling to get out of the hamper she’s fallen into in the dressing room, followed by the stage hand who lands in there after getting her out – he ends up playing the ukulele. What were we supposed to be watching? It completely undercut the final scene, and the whole thing fizzled out in a very disappointing way.

On top of this, the leading lady, Josefina Gabrielle, had some difficulties with her accent and her delivery. She seems to have spent a lot of her career doing musicals, presumably miked up. This may explain why her delivery lacked the clarity of the other actors’. While I expect to lose a few lines in a multi-directional auditorium, I found her very difficult to hear at all, throughout the plays.

The Astonished Heart filled a long hour before the second interval. Had I known it would be so long I would have ‘refreshed’ myself during the first! This was pretty basic stuff – a husband being unfaithful to his wife, can’t handle rejection by his lover, throws himself out of a window (and as a doctor you would have thought he’d have other methods available which would have spared us so much suffering), and dies after an offstage meeting with the ex-lover. Not the stuff of legend.

The accents were so terribly, terribly cut-glass that it was almost a parody. Mostly of the play consisted of long flashbacks in which the wife was terribly noble, the husband was terribly passionate, and the lover kept threatening to leave him and then hung around so he could grab her for the umpteenth time and cry “Don’t leave me”. I can only assume Noel and Gertie did something amazing with this piece – this cast, bless ‘em, just couldn’t make it enjoyable.

Finally, Family Album at least gave us a few laughs. After their father’s funeral, the family gather to drink sherry and reminisce. Unfortunately, this piece included various songs, which meant having an incongruous piano player on stage at all times, completely ignored by the rest of the cast. Fortunately, we finally got to see less of Josefina and much more of Susan Wooldridge, who is an excellent actress, especially at comedy. Her revelations of their father’s last  will leaving everything to his numerous lovers, a will which was ash before his body was cold, was a lovely scene. It was matched by the inability of the extremely old and deaf butler to hear any enquiries about his witnessing of said will. Beautifully done.

The gathering of the supposedly disinterested family members round the trunk that contains goodness knows what was also well done, but overall this piece, and the whole evening, would have benefited from serious pruning, and in one case from a much better performance. I have very low expectations for part two, which may mean I enjoy it a lot more. Wait and see.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

Marlon Brando’s Corset

Experience: 6/10

By Guy Jones

Directed by Ed Curtis

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 24th July 2006

This was good fun. A spoof on celebrity and what it does to people who crave fame, it turned into a black comedy with murder, dismemberment and cover-ups.

Les Dennis plays the harassed writer of a medical soap opera (“Voted number one medical soap by Which Medical Soap Magazine!”). Some changes he’s making don’t please all of the cast, but one actor is particularly interested in what else he’s writing. And then the writer turns up dead, in a chair, whacked on the side of the head. And all in the first half.

Turns out he was writing an exposé on the leading man’s sexuality, outing him as gay. He needed the money to pay off some serious gambling debts, as the heavies were due to kneecap him the following day. The cast then end up sort of working together to cut up the body, and take various bits to remote locations, to burn and bury them (and not to throw them into the sea as one chap wants to do!), and all with the connivance, not to mention forceful persuasion of the show’s director (Mike McShane). With five bags’ worth to dispose of, each actor should have dealt with at least one, but the blonde floozy did her helpless female number till the good-hearted mug took hers as well. He and the sensible woman did theirs OK, but the leading man, cause of all their troubles, flunked it, and the next morning, with the police due to arrive, he finally admits the bag, with the head still in it, is behind the sofa! Just then the heavies turn up to collect the money, and a solution is found. All is well, and the final scene shows us the resulting careers of the various actors.

All of this is interspersed with interviews for a behind the scenes program, letting us see how the actors portray themselves to the public. We also see the missing confrontations between the writer and the cast members that lead up to his death.

This was very televisual, based as it was on the cult of celebrity that only works because of TV. The only real set was the green room, although for interviews, actors would be spotlit to imply a different location. It worked really well, taking the piss out of so many sacred cows, and the performances were excellent. A fun evening, and one I would see again.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

Henry IV part 2 – July 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Barbara Gaines

Company: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th July 2006

This was probably my most eagerly anticipated performance of the season so far. I had enjoyed Part 1 so much, and was really keen to see how they did Part 2. I wasn’t disappointed.

The start was beyond brilliant. One of the actors was got up in a gaudy costume, bright red with black, sparkling like a glitterball, hair slicked back like a lounge lizard, looking pretty devilish. He stood in one of the aisles as the last of the audience were taking their seats and then addressed us all quite informally. After a few funny comments of introduction, he asked if we’d like to hear some gossip, and after one man said “Yes” loudly enough, he informed us that a lady across from him was having an affair. Funnily enough, with the man who’d called out. By this time, he’d glided over to the centre of the stage, and Rumour (for it was he) launched into the introduction. As he described the various tales of the battle that he’d been telling, the characters appeared briefly on stage. Even as Northumberland is receiving the various versions that have been put about, we see Rumour priming the messengers with his stories, except for the last, who brings the truth – Rumour either avoids or misses him, and glides off stage. Wonderful staging.

Again, the story was well told, and I particularly enjoyed Falstaff’s scenes in the country, another area where previous productions had left me wondering why they bothered. This time, Justice Shallow and Silence were not so gaga and were able to give as good as they got, which made Falstaff’s final abandonment all the more poignant. The symmetry with the first play was evident, with amnesty being offered to the rebels and this time accepted, only for them to be betrayed.

The climax is Hal’s rejection of Falstaff, and this came across very well, with the Royal family members being on the top balcony, and Falstaff and his ‘friends’ below.

An excellent production, with very clear readings of both plays, and some brilliant ideas in the staging.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

Henry IV part 1 – July 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Barbara Gaines

Company: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th July 2006

This was great fun. As I watched both of these plays, matinee and evening, I was reminded of Ninagawa’s comments about British actors over-analysing their parts. Here the characters fell into place, especially during the tavern scenes. Instead of Hal and Falstaff’s role-playing having to carry many complex layers of meaningful performance, it was played as more of a jolly romp, with all of the tavern regulars joining in the fun. The extra meanings were still there, but they weren’t allowed to get in the way.

Again, the different accents meant I heard many of the lines more clearly, and some for the first time. The sets were not too detailed – there was a central block which rose or dropped to different levels to create a bed, table, floor or pit, while extra tables and chairs were whisked on and off pretty briskly to create the various scenes. The costumes were quite heavy, and must have been uncomfortable in the heat. They were more medieval romantic, with lots of fur trim, which was a bit of a throwback to old-fashioned Shakespearean productions, but they did the job.

All the performances were excellent. The young man playing Prince Hal apparently had a bad cold, which accounts for his slightly strange accent and occasional loss of power. Apart from that, he had a tendency to twitch and quiver at times of emotional stress, which I felt was unnecessary, but in all other ways he portrayed the character brilliantly. Hotspur’s fiery temperament was very clear, too, along with his tendency to ride roughshod over everyone, even his allies.

The bit parts were noticeably good – a Mistress Quickly from the Bronx was well matched with Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym, all of whom would have fitted right in to New York street life. The poor drawer, Francis, was also much better than average, being not so much stupid as over-eager to please. That ‘comedy’ routine has never worked for me before, but this time I realised it was a forerunner to The Two Ronnies’ wordplay sketches, with Poins getting Francis to say “Anon, anon” in response to Prince Hal’s comments. It still shows an unpleasant side to Hal’s character, but at least this time there was some point to it.

Falstaff’s stealing of Hal’s glory was underplayed here, I thought, and then I checked the text. They played it to the letter. Other productions have made more of the incident, but it’s good to see a cast standing by Will’s version and not trying to over-interpret it. The reading of Falstaff’s papers, listing his copious consumption of sack, was dropped; not sure why, unless the old English monetary references would have been too much.

We’ve decided if we ever get to Chicago, we want to visit this company and see their work again.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

Pizarro – July 2006

Experience: 3/10

By R B Sheridan

Directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 12th July 2006

This was a rehearsed reading of a late play by RBS, the only play he wrote after starting his political career. It was based on a German play, and apparently he followed it very closely, whether translating it himself or from a translation, I don’t know.

This reading was put on to tie up with the production of Royal Hunt of the Sun (seen earlier), and a few of the actors came from that production. In fact, the actor playing Pizarro today was the understudy we had seen before, which made it all the more interesting. It was hard to hear all of the actors, as some of them didn’t seem to realise they had to project as much as if it were a regular performance, and in the vastness of the Olivier a lot of the dialogue was lost. We weren’t as close to the action as in, say, the Swan, so that added to the problem.

The dialogue was interesting. RBS is a wordy chap, and although this isn’t a comedy, the same style showed through, and the speeches sometimes seemed overlong. I suspect the rehearsal period wasn’t very long either, as the minimal amount of action didn’t always add to the experience. However, it was still good to see this play, even with these difficulties, as we’re unlikely to see a full performance.

This play seems to be less about Pizarro than his ex-lieutenant who’s gone native, literally. He’s become the native population’s military commander in their resistance to the Spanish conquest, and the play focuses on his rivalry with another native warrior who thinks he should get the job instead. People get captured, released, captured, etc., and there’s a lot of talk about the politics and inhumanity of the situation, with some effort to include the personal feelings as well. Pizarro’s wife, Elvira, also features strongly. She was keen to marry Pizarro at first because she thought his escapades so glorious, but as she saw what was really happening, she came to despise him and his work. Interesting ideas, and I would still  like to see a proper version some time, if we ever get the chance.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at