Timon Of Athens – October 2006

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Adrian Jackson

Company: Cardboard Citizens

Venue: The Shakespeare Centre

Date: Thursday 26th October 2006

This was the best management seminar we’ve ever attended! Not that we actually expected to be attending a management seminar, but that’s the framework Cardboard Citizens were using to present this play, one of the many ‘difficult’ ones in the Shakespeare canon. Great performances, good production, interesting if messy staging.

It was held in the Shakespeare Centre, where we’ve been before for the Winter School. On arriving, we were given name tags, which included our occupation – I put housewife. We were also asked to put a coloured spot on our tags to show our rough annual income. I went for the yellow blob – one of the poorest in society – but there were plenty of other colours on display. (If I went again, I’d probably make up some fantastic career and opt for bags of money.)

The audience accumulated in the Woolfson Room, and a number of the actors mingled with us, introducing themselves, passing out business cards, and as it turned out, searching for a mole, an audience member who was to play a part in the performance. Then we had the ‘induction’. This was presented as a motivational training course to inspire us to change our lives. All the actors doing this part were in smart business suits, and there was a flipchart with some prepared sheets. We were first asked “Who is the most powerful person in this room?”, and most of the responses were shouted out by the actors, by the sound of it. They ended up with Will Shakespeare as the definitive answer – the greatest ever management guru. Various plays were put forward as examples. The two best I remember were “Comedy of Errors – an example of identity theft in the commercial environment”, and “Hamlet – prioritising your ‘to do’ list”. Brilliantly done, very tongue-in-cheek.

After this, there was some motivational haranguing, spliced together with clips from the play (Timon), and then we’re exhorted to change our lives – if you don’t like where you are, go somewhere else. This was our cue to move through into the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the main action of the play. Mind you, it took several increasingly direct nudges to get us to go. Anyone would have thought we were an unadventurous bunch. Unadventurous and slow!

Once seated (I’ll spare us the long trek in between), more motivational speakers took over while a second induction course was held, mainly for the press. The speakers caught the style very well, and managed to deliver potentially useful information as if they were talking complete bollocks. Or were they? There was enough ambiguity in the performance to keep me happy – they didn’t tell us what to think, just played it fairly straight and let us make up our own minds, but with enough detail so we could follow a number of different paths for ourselves. Well done. And the ‘play’ hadn’t even started yet!

Nor does it now. Next, we were introduced to Roger, the mole. He was “making a change” in his life – tonight he was about to act for the first time in a play, performing the role of Timon’s servant, Lucilius. (Of course I’m looking up all these names later – you don’t expect me to know them all, do you?) They did a little rehearsal, and Roger did just fine. Lucilius did even better, getting a tasty bride and loads of money to boot!

Then there was a pause while the newly inducted joined us. Actors were dotted around, doing exercises, breathing techniques, meditating, working on a laptop, etc.

Now for a description of the layout. Or, hopefully, a sketch of the layout. (Hope that scanner’s working…)


There were also a couple of tables at the back of the platform, and various artificial potted plants dotted around, not suspecting the fate that awaited them! (Always good to create a bit of suspense early on).

Once the press folk were all seated, we were treated to another question – what would we do if we didn’t get to see Timon of Athens, as we were expecting? Actually, the way the evening was going it wouldn’t have surprised me if the whole cast had just gathered on the stage and we’d had a long chat about life, the universe, and everything. But I digress.

After our expectations had been confronted, we were treated to a variety of actors coming forward to (presumably) talk about the play. I say presumably because most of them spoke in a foreign language. I found it all quite funny. I don’t know if I’ve adequately got across how much humour there was in all of this, and that set the scene for these actors to give us their talks, with various gestures and the odd English word popping up here and there. Also the sound effect of a dog barking. Somehow it all worked, and was really funny, in a nice way.

Well, that’s what happened before the play began – I may have missed some stuff, and put some things in the wrong order, but that’s how I remember it. Now for the actual play.

I won’t go through it in such detail, mainly because I can’t remember it so clearly. The play itself was interspersed with various actors telling us their experiences of being homeless – often very moving, and an interesting juxtaposition with Timon’s situation. We start with the two toadies bringing gifts to Timon, and see his generosity to Lucilius and others. He feasts his friends lavishly, and can even accommodate the philosopher Apemantus, who criticises Timon’s excesses. For the feast, some of the tables that form the front platform are moved slightly to become two dining tables, which allow for extra seating at dinner. The highlight of the meal is several large towers of Ferrero Roche chocolates, apparently real, judging by the number of wrappers being thrown around later – this is a very rubbish-strewn production.

All of Timon’s ‘friends’ praise him enthusiastically, and he responds by giving away even more of what he doesn’t have – we learn from his steward that Timon has racked up major debts, but he’s completely oblivious, and refuses to listen to his steward, the only character who really cares about him. The obvious parallel I could see with today’s world is the excessive debt so many in the UK are living with. At some point, these debts will have to be paid, but how? And it’s never clear how Timon comes by his money – another parallel with today, where the credit just seems to pour in from nowhere. The bankers funding Timon are shown here as City types, tapping away at their laptops while sending others out to collect what’s due.

Finally, Timon is down and out, unable to meet his creditors’ demands, but confident that his ‘friends’ will rally round. They give the usual range of excuses – sorry, but I’m a bit short myself just now, it’s not a good time to be lending money, and the outright winner – I’m so miffed that he didn’t come to me, his best friend,  first that I’ll not lend him anything! Even Timon has to admit defeat. But, being a man of extremes, he doesn’t just shrug philosophically and learn his lesson. Oh no, he has to go to the other extreme and start raging at all humanity.

First he has his servants invite all these false friends for another feast, only this time, the fare is a lot less pleasant. Bear in mind that Shakespeare has Timon offer his guests water and stones. Well, I hope they were faking it in this production, because when Timon says he’ll provide the food and drink, he means it, literally! All the product of his own body. I was suspicious when the carafes were filled with yellowish fluid, but the full horror became apparent when the lids are lifted off the plates, and ‘turds au naturel’ are presented to the understandably upset dinner guests. They’d probably been starving themselves all day so they could leech more effectively off Timon’s hospitality, so the nastiness of the proffered repast was suitably effective.

It’s at this point that one intriguing aspect of the staging came forward. There are actually three actors playing Timon. Bit unusual, but there we are. The main Timon was the one regular actor in the cast, and at this point, another actor takes over the part, really giving it his all in venting Timon’s rage. I wasn’t sure at first why they’d done it this way, but it may just have been to emphasise the different stages of Timon’s experience – all hunky-dory, rage, extreme cynicism. It seemed to work OK, and certainly kept me on my toes, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a regular feature.

We had a break now, quite a relief after all we’d been through. Meanwhile, the cast began to rearrange the set even more. Timon had been pretty stroppy before the interval, and various pieces of furniture had been thrown about a bit. The actors now made it worse. Much worse, including opening up a big hole in the front platform floor. Plants were flung over, rubbish was everywhere. This wilderness was Timon’s new home. And, appropriately enough, we had a new Timon to go with it. Timon 3 skulked about this debris, giving us the benefit of his revised view of humanity. He’s visited by various people, though this is a much trimmed down version from what I can remember. He finds gold again – is he the world’s luckiest man? – but does nothing with it, gives some away but that’s all. He has realised that gold can’t buy friendship, only hangers-on, but he despises everything so much, he’s not prepared to do any good with it either. Eventually he dies, and his epitaph is read out. End of play.

It’s during this second part that we see most of the actors’ stories. There’s also a sub-plot about Alcibiades, an Athenian captain, who seems to be more of a genuine friend to Timon. One of Alcibiades’ friends is to be executed for murder, and Alcibiades pleads for him to be shown mercy. The senate are not sympathetic, and his temper gets the better of him. Piqued, the senate banish him. He leaves, but returns and conquers Athens. Quite a sub-plot. And what does it have to do with Timon’s story, we wonder? Well, here it echoed the lack of gratitude shown by Timon’s beneficiaries. The man whom Alcibiades pleads for has done good service to Athens in its wars; he’s earned his pardon, as far as Alcibiades is concerned. The senate begrudge everything, and get their comeuppance. There’s also the contrast with Timon – Alcibiades has earned his reputation and whatever money he has, while Timon is praised, but we never learn for what. Was he a valiant soldier? Did he carry out some great feat, or render some service to Athens? We never find out, and it’s the unsubstantiated nature of Timon’s wealth and reputation that underpins his downfall. Alcibiades can raise troops loyal to him to take revenge for his treatment. Timon is left to rage impotently at the whole world.

It would have been nice to have rounded off the evening with a reference back to the management seminar idea we started with, but it was an exhausting evening to watch, never mind perform in, so I’m not surprised they ended it with Timon’s epitaph. The energy of this staging was amazing. Not just in terms of the physical energy, but the way the actors blended the various aspects together. It was a great piece of teamwork, and I would happily see this company again.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Steptoe And Son – October 2006

Experience: 4/10

By Ray Galton and John Antrobus

Directed by Roger Smith

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date : Monday 23rd October 2006

          This was an entertaining romp through some of the much-loved set pieces of the old Steptoe and Son series, together with some linking material and a context. It was enjoyable, though it never reached the heights, or depths, of the original. The performances were fantastic, both actors looked sufficiently like their counterparts to satisfy most ardent fans, and they had the mannerism and accents down pat.

The set-up was current day, with the National Trust having taken over their old rag-and-bone yard, keeping it intact as an example of a particular era and trade. The comedy here was in the attention to detail – when the manager tidies up he puts more dust on the table instead of cleaning it off! Harold has returned after 40 years of living abroad, on the run after murdering his father with an assegai. (Accidentally, as it turns out.) He wants to have one last look at the old place. This was one of the few quibbles I had about the casting – although Harold should be even older than his father was at the time of the murder, he still looks about 35 – 40. I was happy enough, though, as it made the flashbacks more credible – Harold’s age ranges from 8 upwards.

Naturally, Albert’s ghost is also haunting the place, and when Harold chances to get locked in for the night, his father’s ghost accosts him with a request for Harold to sign his official form so he stops being earthbound and can go to heaven. They argue, of course, and Harold starts retelling the story of their lives together from his childhood, hence the flashbacks. We see many of the plots resurface that we know and love so well, often reworked slightly, and with some new material, or at any rate, material I didn’t remember. It was good fun, fairly predictable, but still enjoyable. We saw Harold being killed off so he couldn’t go back toHarrow, being locked in the basement so he wouldn’t have to fight in WWII, and when he finds the love of his life, the daughter of a rival rag-and-bone man, Albert drives them apart by telling them he is actually the girl’s father. All lies, of course.

Eventually, Harold agrees to sign the old man’s paper, and then he discovers another of the ways Albert’s cheated him. He gets so angry, he has a heart attack, and after the lights are temporarily dimmed, we see him, resurrected as a ghost, standing next to Albert, while his body still lies on the floor. Spooky! After a couple of final revelations, they head off to heaven on the horse and cart, cunningly concealed behind the door.

Good fun, but it could probably do with some rewriting to tighten it up in places. The performances were better than the rating I’ve given the production as a whole – only the writing let it down a bit.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

An Hour And A Half Late – October 2006

Experience: 10/10

By Gerard Sibleyras with Jean Dell, adapted by Mel Smith

Directed by Tamara Harvey

Theatre Royal Bath Productions

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 19th October 2006

          Adapted by and starring Mel Smith, that’s mouth-watering enough as it is. Also with Belinda Lang, even better. And then add a superb relationship comedy. What more could we have wanted?

Nothing really. There was so much humour in this that I can’t possibly cover it all, so just (some of) the highlights. There was lot of laughter for the wife’s first three entrances. The husband is obviously waiting for her to finish getting ready, and she appears first in one top, then goes back into the bedroom, appearing a few moments later in another top, then goes off to another room, re-enters the bedroom, and comes back out in ….. the first top again! All of this was accompanied by Mel Smith’s wonderful expressions.

The wife wants to talk. She’s feeling old and useless, not helped by her husband’s lack of sympathy. He wants to get to an important celebration dinner being hosted by the man who’s buying him out of his business, thereby making him very rich. He’s also the man the husband’s worked with for twenty years, so it made sense at the time for the husband to tell his colleague about his wife’s unfaithfulness. The unfaithfulness, she now admits, which was a lie, designed to give their flagging marriage a boost. It succeeded, but now the husband is shocked to find out his wife hasn’t slept with another man, and she’s shocked to find out he told his colleague she had! (Apparently it helped the colleague’s sex life in his marriage.)

It’s a lovely comedy that points up the differences in approach and attitude between men and women. At one point she’s disheartened to realise she’s now a granny. His thought is that it’ll be his first time with a granny. When he complains about her obsessive tidiness, she tells him to spill his drink, and, reluctantly, he does. This triggers a mad session of hurling food, objet d’art and pot plants about the place. It’s a very stylish flat they live in, by the way, which makes it even more fun. Afterwards, they consider ways to restore their sex life, and he comes up with the squeaky floorboard idea – they’ll sleep in separate bedrooms, now their last child has flown the nest, and prowl to each other’s rooms, making the floorboards squeak as they go to heighten the anticipation. This is a very funny scene, as they try out all the squeaky floorboards they can find.

Eventually, this all calms down, and the wife is in a much better mood. She disappears off upstairs, and this time she reappears in her little black number, dolled up to the nines, and ready to go to the celebration dinner, an hour and a half late!

I can’t convey all the wonderful humour that was in this production. Much of it is in the performance, of course, but there were many great lines, and the overall construction was great. It’s been well adapted – although the ‘Frenchness’ of the play was still discernible, it worked well in a contemporary London setting. I will definitely see this play again when I get the chance.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Amy’s View – October 2006

Experience: 6/10

By David Hare

Directed by Peter Hall

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Monday 16th October 2006

This was a little disappointing, though that may have been partly my attitude – I was pretty tired and couldn’t raise a lot of enthusiasm for going out.

The play concerns a mother and daughter who fall out over the daughter’s choice of partner. The disagreement isn’t helped by the daughter being pregnant. The events take place between 1979 and 1995, so we see quite a lot of development over the years. The daughter (Amy) and her partner have children, and eventually marry, while the mother (Esme), a widow, takes financial advice from a friendly neighbour, who, it turns out, is a commissioning agent for Lloyds of London. She ends up not only broke but owing bucketloads of money, and has to continue working to try to pay off some of her debts. Interestingly enough, she’s one of those who don’t agree with suing the agents who got people into those syndicates – her point of view is that she was happy enough when the money kept rolling in, so now she just has to swallow her medicine.

She’s an actress, mainly on the stage, and that’s one area of contention with Amy’s partner – he’s a bit of a prig, and thinks the stage is dead. Film and TV are the only media that matter. At the start, when he still seemed quite a nice bloke, he admits to wanting to make movies, then he ends up savagely sneering at them on TV, finally graduating to movie production. Amy seems to spend her time looking after the children, and although we don’t learn the details, we find out in the final act that she’s died. Her ex-partner, now married to another woman after running off with her, attempts a rapprochement with Esme, but is rebuffed. There’s also Esme’s elderly mother-in-law, who goes increasingly gaga, and, supposedly, the ghost of her long-dead husband, a well-known painter in his day. Personally, apart from a few references and lots of painting on the walls, I didn’t get much sense of his presence.

The strength of this production for me was the relationship between the two women. Both had made their choices, and were sticking to them. The mother wasn’t happy that her daughter had chosen a intellectual who wasn’t prepared to have a proper relationship with her daughter, while the daughter, naturally enough, wanted to be left alone to make her own decisions. Funnily enough, the mother then goes and makes a disastrous choice in her next male companion, so both women seem pretty well matched to me. Apart from this, there was some fun here and there, especially with the pompousness of Amy’s partner and his attitudes to art. And the opening of the third act, where Esme has had a hard time carrying out an operation while filming in the studio, was good fun too. But time and again I find myself asking what these plays are for. It’s interesting to be reminded of the precarious nature of the financial boom in the eighties, and the acting was fine all the way through, but I’m not sure I got a lot out of it that will stay with me, or provoke new ideas and fresh attitudes. As I say, it may just have been how I felt that night, but I suspect from past experience it’s a deeper problem than just one play.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Sherlock Holmes and the Final Problem – October 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Justin Webb

Directed by Alan Meadows

Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford

Date: Friday 13th October 2006

This was a three-hander, giving us the story of Sherlock Holmes up to the Reichenbach Falls, and including some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s own difficulties with Holmes’ success – he says the character has “subsumed” him, hence the desire to kill him off.

The Mill Studio is a small performance space, with bare brick walls and just an open stage. Various packing cases were positioned on the stage, painted different colours, and there were coat stands at either corner, ready for all the quick changes the small cast had to do. Some items were taken out of the packing cases as well. There was violin music playing in the background for most of the performance, and beforehand too. We didn’t see Holmes play his instrument, although he took it out and polished it, but the music gave us the sense of it all the same.

They started with the dramatic struggle of Holmes and Moriarty at the Falls. A brief tussle, and then the lights go out and we hear the scream of whoever went over the edge. Then the lights go back up, and we see Watson’s first meeting with Holmes, in the lab where Holmes has discovered a test for haemoglobin. The play takes us through their early days, and the case of the speckled band. We see Mrs Hudson, rather stern and strict, somewhat disapproving. We also see various other characters, all beautifully played by the ‘company’! To end the first half, they segued into a scene betweenBelland Doyle by having Watson refer to Conan Doyle as his mentor, then we see Conan Doyle confessing toBellthat Holmes has got to him, and he’d like to kill him off. It’s quite a long scene, and allows us to compare the two men –Belland Holmes. Both have the keen eye for detail and an inherent kindness, once they realise there’s something to be kind about.

In the second half we were given The Red-Headed League, and the run-up to theSwitzerland trip, culminating in a reprise of the final struggle, and then Watson reading Holmes’ final note.

It took me a few minutes to get the hang of what they were doing, and then I really enjoyed it. I loved the very quick changes, where an actor would just throw on a cape and instantly be a different character. The performances were great in that it was easy to tell the characters apart. I especially liked the silent exchange between Holmes and Watson, when they’re telling the story of The Red-Headed League. At one point they need someone to play the pawnbroker with red hair. A vivid red wig is produced, and with wry smiles and grimaces, Watson accepts that he’s to play the part, and dons the wig. I also liked the simplicity of the storytelling. With so few props and clever use of lighting, it was amazing what a range of places and atmospheres were suggested. And when Holmes and Watson travel by coach, there’s none of the bumping around that’s usual with this sort of imagined scene – the dialogue is allowed to fill in the pictures in our minds, the sort of thing that Conan Doyle was so good at anyway. A very enjoyable two hours.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Alchemist – October 2006

Experience: 9/10

By Ben Jonson

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th October 2006

          What fun! The programme notes were very interesting, and I got a huge amount out of this production. Lovely to see not only Simon Russell Beale but also Alex Jennings, whom I haven’t seen for a long time on stage.

The set was another lovely revolve, with two sides of a large room, and masses of doors. A staircase ran up one side of the semi-building, with a door at the top. The style was more Victorian than early 1600s, and the costumes were circa 1950? All these elements worked very well together – the production was clear, and stylish, without being cluttered. A good job too, as the action becomes pretty frantic as the play reaches its climax.

The two male leads are busy arguing at the start of the play. Alex Jennings’ character, Subtle, considers he is the sole provider for the team of con men, while Simon Russell Beale’s character, Face, is pointing out how much work both he and Doll Common do to bring in the dosh. She acts as peacekeeper between them (this involves partly strangling Subtle, so not trained by the UN, then), and gets them to hug and make up, though you can see that rivalry and tension still lurks beneath the surface.

Once they’re into their cons, though, everything starts to go more smoothly. This first scene reminded me of The Tempest, strangely enough, with the quarrelling between Prospero and Caliban. I also noticed that Doll Common emphasises that all their goods are to be held in common, which was something the Anabaptists believed in – perhaps a deliberate reference?

The cons are good fun. A young clerk wants to win at gaming, and believes that the Docto’ will be able to give him a fairy to help him win all the time. (There’s one born every 10 seconds in thisLondon!) An Asian shopkeeper wants advice on the best way to set up his store to maximise profits, and also wants help to snare a young, rich widow. The widow wants her fortune told to find out whom she’ll marry, while her brother, a young Hooray Henry up from the country, wants to be taught how to quarrel. Given the modern dress, this allows for much business with attempted African-American culture. Or Ali G, depending on preference. Very funny.

There’s also a wealthy knight with itchy palms, who wants the philosopher’s stone, so he can turn just about everything into gold and rule the universe, at least for starters. And since he’s given the Doctor loads of pewter and tin plate, the con men also arrange to sell the stuff to some overly serious Puritans. And that’s just in the first half! Face has to switch between the Captain, a suave man about town, who pulls in the marks, and a foreign servant, somewhat resembling Ygor from most Frankenstein movies, shuffling around in a leather apron, looking sinister. Subtle basically just plays the Doctor, an alchemist and fortune-teller, but he has different personas to sell his character to the different marks. So for most people he puts on an American drawl, wearing a headband, sunglasses and beads round his neck, hippy-style. For the Puritans, though, he adopts a different approach, with tweed suit, proper glasses, and a serious demeanour coupled with a Scottish accent. Face also uses a Scottish accent when the Puritans are around. Doll’s main character is a widow, sister of a Lord somebody-or-other (fictitious, I think). She is very intelligent but has a mania. She can’t bear to hear any talk of the Talmud, or Moses, or anything Jewish. Apart from that, she’s fine. And, given her looks, there’s many a man would overlook the odd flaw. They’re lining her up to be taken by the knight, thereby ruining his chance of getting the philosopher’s stone – any naughty business in the house will cause the delicate process of creating the stone to go awry – so they can filch all his money and get away with it. The stone’s demise is accompanied by an almighty explosion, flames, and smoke. Poor Face is covered in soot, especially his face, and it’s a wonderfully funny scene.

There’s one potential hitch. A character called Surly, a friend of the knight, is being lined up for a con, but fails to appear. Instead, he’s setting the con men up by pretending to be a rich Spanish nobleman, in need of sex. This is Surly in disguise. By the time he gets to the house, there are so many other cons under way, that Doll isn’t available, so they decide to set him up with the young widow, telling her that her destiny is to marry a Spanish nobleman. So far, so good. However, Surly explains all to her, and while he’s so taken with her that he wants to marry her, he still confronts the con artists and threatens to expose them publicly. Despite this, the various marks running around the place come to their aid, and chase Surly off. The shopkeeper wants the widow himself, and so on. The character switches the con men are having to do get faster and furiouser, and eventually, all the marks have been seen off (or have they?), and the money safely gathered in.

The clerk who wanted a fairy, and was expecting to see the fairy queen, (his aunt, apparently) was shoved into the privy while some other scam was dealt with, and finally chews his way through the gingerbread gag. At this point, the con artists are packing up as they’ve seen the house’s real owner arriving. Face is looking after the house for his master, and while he’s away fromLondonto avoid the plague, the others have been using the house to ply their trade. As they pack up, Face dons his usual suit, and appears on a balcony to rubbish the neighbours’ reports of lots of people going in and out of the house at all hours. The house has been locked up all this while, he claims, and might just get away with it, but for noises from the privy and the knight and Surly arriving, with the police, ready to break the door down. They enter, but can’t find any evidence of the people the knight and Surly have reported, so go away empty-handed. Meantime, Face comes clean about the whole shenanigans, and sets his master up with the young widow. While they’re off getting married, the three tricksters put all their money into the one box, and lock it, giving Face the key – bad move. He then announces that his master knows all, and sends the other two packing – no honour amongst thieves here. It turns out Face sent for his boss deliberately, and for his reward, he’s given a small (very small) token of gratitude. As the other marks turn up, demanding whatever goods they think they’re entitled to, the master of the house rebuffs them all. He’s got the pewter and tin plate, all the money, and a new wife to boot, and is very pleased with himself. But I’d be careful – Face knows a trick or two, and I wouldn’t put it past him to swindle his master before long.

There’s a huge amount of plot in this, and a lot of background information in the programme as well, about tobacco, alchemy and Puritans. The language is very dense, and I still didn’t get much more than half of it, but what I did get I thoroughly enjoyed. Some of it may have been updated – I would need to check with the text – but it all worked brilliantly. It was the first time Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale had worked together, and it was superb casting. They’re both strong enough to play these parts to the hilt, and I’m not sure I’ll see a funnier production than this. All the other actors were great, too. Special mention to Julian Curry, who stepped in to play Lovewit, the owner of the house. He gave a lovely performance, and didn’t let on that he was in on the plot. Also Tristan Beint was excellent as the quarrelsome young man.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Heroes – October 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Gerard Sibleyras, translated by Tom Stoppard

Directed by Claire Lovett

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Monday 9th October 2006

This was a French piece, similar to Art in that it’s about the relationships amongst three men. The three are WWI veterans, living out their days in a military hospital. They talk and grumble amongst themselves, and plan a daring escape, only to be foiled by the reality of their debilities.

It’s a short piece – only one and a half hours long, though not even that tonight. There were a good few laughs, and I would have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been for the unfortunate woman on my left who turned out to be a serious fidgeter. Unfortunately, she showed no signs of fidgeting before the off; it was only when the lights went down that she began her activity – getting her glasses out of her handbag, folding her programme and putting in her bag (at the fifth attempt!), getting her bag back on the floor, getting her glasses on, and then, sadly, continuing to twitch and move around for most of the rest of the performance. Very distracting. I missed the first few minutes almost completely.

Once I got into the play, I found it entertaining but a bit insubstantial. The three characters are all well drawn. Gustave, the hard-bitten cynic, is terrified of going out of the hospital grounds, Henri is lame but still gets around and seems to have accepted his situation more than the others, and Phillipe has a piece of shrapnel lodged somewhere which causes him to pass out frequently. When he comes to, he’s always calling out “Take them from behind, Captain, take them from behind”, which we assume to be a military reference, until he lets us know that “Captain” was what a lover of his liked to be called.

Overall, it was more like a series of sketches than a play. Some of the situations were pretty funny. There’s a stone statue of a dog that Phillipe thinks he can see moving. Gustave plays along with this, but Henri thinks it’s a load of nonsense. Phillipe also believes that one of the nurses, Sister Madeleine, is bumping off inmates who share the same birthday, so as not to have two parties on the same day. He gets worried when another veteran arrives who shares his birthday, as he thinks he’s going to be the next on her list. This is one reason why they decide to head off together, to make a break for freedom. Sadly, Phillipe and Gustave want to take the dog with them, and this proves too much for Henri, who flounces off.

They have a scene where they practise roping themselves together which has a few laughs, and I felt that the final scene, when Gustave tells Phillipe that his sister’s died, could have been funnier. (Phillipe has been giving Gustave his letters from home, to which Gustave has been replying, so Phillipe has no idea what’s happened in his family. Apparently the funeral went very well.) I would like to see another production of this play sometime, to get a better chance of appreciating it without so much distraction.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Frost/Nixon – October 2006

Experience: 10/10

By Peter Morgan

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 5th October 2006

This was an excellent play brilliantly performed. There was a remarkable degree of dramatic tension, even though the outcome is already well known. I hadn’t known about the events leading up to the interviews, so there was a lot to learn. This is a dramatised account, of course, so you have to make allowance for artistic licence, but even so this was a great piece of theatre.

The Donmar is so small, there’s rarely much to the sets. A 6×6 bank of TVs on the back wall gave us any documentary footage or close-ups as needed, otherwise it was just chairs, desks, etc being brought on as required. We saw the development of the idea to interview Nixon, and some of the difficulties that had to be overcome, for example Nixon wanted a significant amount of money to do the interview, which David Frost apparently paid out of his own pocket. Nixon’s focus on the money side, obsession almost, was very clearly demonstrated. His abilities as a politician were also evident, and it was clear that the interviews were not going Frost’s way until the final session. Extra information had come to light, or rather been spotted by one of his researchers, which allowed Frost to combat Nixon effectively over Watergate. We could see the former president crumple before our eyes (and on the big screen as well). It was very powerful, and felt as if we were actually watching the real event unfold before us.

The differences of opinion between the Americans and Brits were also news to me, and added to the build-up of tension. There was also plenty of humour to help the two hours along. The two central performances were stunning. Michael Sheen was totally believable as David Frost, and caught his mannerisms to perfection. (He even appeared on Bremner, Bird and Fortune recently doing his David Frost as part of a sketch – pretty impressive.) Frank Langella wasn’t as jowly as Richard Nixon, but he conveyed the powerful presence of the man very well, and his delivery was excellent. All the support cast was good, and I hope this gets the transfer it deserves so more people can see it (and we might even sneak in a repeat performance ourselves).

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Life Of Galileo – October 2006

Experience: 10/10

By Bertolt Brecht, in a version by David Hare

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 4th October 2006

This was excellent. It was lovely to see Simon Russell Beale again. I’ve missed many of his performances, for various reasons, and it was good to see he’s still as talented as before. He commands the stage, taking full advantage of the scope this part gives him. Even when he shows us Galileo’s unkindness towards his daughter, we can at least understand some of his reasons. He’s not a monster so much as a man obsessed.

The play covers a range of issues, but the central conflict is between science and dogma. The portrayal of the Catholic Church is refreshingly neutral, with church officials ranging from extreme dogmatists to enlightened thinkers, and it was good to see the niceties of the Church’s concerns put across. It was OK to talk about the Earth going round the Sun as a hypothetical mathematical concept, so long as it was said in Latin so the ordinary folk couldn’t get wind of it. In other words, don’t rock the boat, or we’ll throw you overboard! The overweening concern of those in power to stay in power was clear, although they tried to justify it by pretending their concern was only for those poor people who would lose the will to face such difficult lives without their absolute faith in God, as propounded by the Church. There were some lovely nuances through the play – I particularly liked the subtle innuendo of the Cardinal inquisitor (Oliver Ford Davies – another excellent performance) as he worked on Galileo’s daughter to recruit her as a spy, via her confessor. Although he could just have been warning her that anything they did would get back to him, so watch your step.

There were plenty of characters representing concerned friends, who wanted to support Galileo’s work, but who feared for his safety and that of his daughter, and others who supported him and wanted him to challenge the establishment and damn the consequences. Some of these were very disappointed, even angry, when they realised he had recanted his views, and I realised how much we human beings invest in our images of other people, how much we expect them to be perfect or heroic for us, rather than taking responsibility for our own lives and accepting others’ human frailties. I also saw how much we do this to God as well. So many people in this play saw no alternative to the Earth-centred, God created view of the world that would still allow God to exist as God. If not the still Earth at the centre, then chaos. Weird, given our greater knowledge now. Still, reason did not completely win out. The effects of Galileo’s choices left his daughter without a husband, so the human cost also had to be considered.

At one point I almost shouted out to contradict the Senior Cardinal, one of the pompous opponents of Galileo’s work. His view was that God would not have sent His only son to some little backwater of a planet on the edge of the universe. I felt like pointing out that He allowed His son to be born in a manger, so there! Obviously, this play got to me more than I realised, but I like that.

All the performances were excellent. The carnival scene reminded both of us of Cabaret, and I loved the astronomical images projected onto the back screen. The set was on a revolve, with the grid of an observatory dome at the back, not moving, three sets of French windows in bay formation at the front, or rotated to the back, and various doorways and walls with windows which could be moved around to form all sorts of acting spaces. Costumes were modern dress, and this worked well for me.

Some of the fun moments: Galileo is visited by a Dutch student looking for tuition, who tells him of the telescope people inHollandare using. Galileo grasps the idea immediately, sends out for some lenses, and pinches the idea in order to get a higher salary from the Venetians. The Dutch student’s main complaint is that he’s coloured the tube red. Then the fun begins. When the young Duke of Florence, Cosimo de Medici, comes to check out the telescope with his entourage, we get to see some of the ridiculous objections people had to Galileo’s discoveries. The mathematician objects to looking through the telescope, because logic dictates that if the agreed view of the solar system held that there were no objects orbiting bodies other than the Earth, then the telescope must be doing something wrong if it shows such things. The philosopher objected because he believed Aristotle to be correct, therefore the telescope must be wrong. (I’m getting the impression that far from being an important early scientist, Aristotle was a bit of a road block on the path to discovery.) When challenged to believe the evidence of his own eyes, he retorted that he did believe their evidence, when reading Aristotle! This nonsense was very entertaining, and although it has some echoes today, I found it more interesting as an indication of how far we’ve come since then.

We also get to see the robing of a Pope, Urban VIII. This is a long-winded business. The poor chap has to wear so many layers, presumably all representing something significant to Catholics at that time, that he wouldn’t be able to use a toilet easily. This is also the scene where the Cardinal Inquisitor requests permission to torture Galileo to get him to recant. Given Galileo’s squeamish nature, he reckons he only needs to show him the instruments of torture to do the trick, and the Pope agrees to that. The recantation scene itself was masterfully done. We see Galileo’s supporters waiting outside – his daughter, his housekeeper’s son, Andreas, whom Galileo introduced to science, the monk who ‘converted’ to Galileo’s views, and his lens-grinder. His daughter was praying for him, presumably so that he would recant. The others were bolstering their confidence by assuring each other that he wouldn’t. As the news broke, and the declaration is being read out, they crumble, none more so than Andreas, who rushes to attack Galileo when he appears. We actually see Galileo approaching first, through the windows, and he hesitates, obviously aware how his choice will have upset his friends. My thoughts about imposing expectations of heroism on others are above.

The masked ball was good, too. Again, the modern dress worked fine, and they were just skimpy masks rather than huge ones, but it got the effect across very well.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Three Men In A Boat – October 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Clive Francis, adapted from the book by Jerome K Jerome

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 2nd October 2006

This was good fun, but needs some more work to iron out the creaky bits. Clive Francis, Neil Stacy and Simon Ward were fine as the three men going for a constitutionally refreshing trip on the Thames. Although longer in the tooth than the originals, their combined experience helped the piece along. I suspect this performance was early in the run, and there were wrinkles – some hesitancy about the lines, some lines failing to get a laugh, and some clunkiness due to the surprisingly elaborate set, using a boat on a revolve. Mostly, the actors moved fluidly (sorry!) from place to place and character to character, but the boat, graphic though it was, did hamper things a bit. It was nice to see, but perhaps there’s a better way to represent it.

There wouldn’t be a better way to represent Montmerency, though. His invisible presence, indicated only by occasional yapping and his ability to pull various characters all over the stage via his lead, was excellent. The best trained dog in the business. And no little messes to clean up afterwards.

My favourite part was the scene where, in total darkness, all three men attempt to sleep in the same bed, having blown out their candles by mistake. Even though we couldn’t see a thing, the dialogue was so good, it was clear what was happening, although at first I didn’t realise all three had landed on the floor. Very funny.

I wouldn’t mind seeing this one again, once it’s has a chance to bed down.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me