Merry Wives The Musical – January 2007 (2)


By: William Shakespeare, adapted by Gregory Doran, music by Paul Englishby, lyrics by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by: Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Saturday 31st January 2007

This was the last time of seeing this musical this time round, and one of the last times we’ll see a play in the main house as it is. Boo hoo. Although, as we were in the Gods, and the seats were neither as comfortable nor gave us as good a view as what we’re used to, the regret isn’t too strong – we’ll manage.

This was not just as good as before, it was even better. Firstly, we knew what to expect – we’d seen such a great performance at the Winter School. Secondly, we had a completely different view, and although we lost some of the detail, especially seeing the expressions, on the other hand we got a much better overview of the action, which helped enormously when there was a lot of action on stage – the final fairy scene, for example, was much clearer, and I suspect it was more due to our position than any change in performance, though of course I can’t be absolutely sure.

Thirdly, knowing this was our last time, and that we’re getting towards the end of the Complete Works Festival, and the end of the main house as we know it, made it all a bit more emotional. I noticed some changes in the performances – as if the cast have relaxed even more into their parts, and with relatively few performances left, are going even further with the business. There was more detail with Mistress Page and the first letter, and I noticed a number of other “upgrades” as we went through, though none I can remember for these notes, sadly – maybe they’ll come back to me later. One point I must note down tonight – the houses rotating into haystacks – I’m not sure if I noted that down before.

Our seats were quite uncomfortable in the first half – less room and less cushioned than downstairs. However, the couple next to us moved for the second half, so we were able to spread ourselves out and it was much easier to relax and enjoy the show. I still think they need to introduce the “Merry Wives” tune in the overture – it’s the main theme, and the one everyone’s going to come out singing or humming to themselves.

The audience seemed quite quiet for the first half – I wasn’t sure if we just weren’t hearing them so well up with the Gods, but they livened up for the second half, so maybe it just took time for them to get warmed up.

I’m still impressed by how well all the characters are introduced. It’s a complicated play, with lots of sub-plots, and although the priest and doctor never get round to exacting their revenge on the landlord of the Garter, everything seems much more straightforward in this version. I like the way Anne Page and Fenton are introduced to us in the traditional way of musical lovers, so we know they’re going to get together at the end. And the introduction of Henry IV dialogue in places makes the Mistress Quickly/Falstaff storyline work much better. So, apart from the quibble about introducing the main theme earlier, I find the whole adaptation pretty brilliant, and I do hope they revive it sometime soon – perhaps when they have the new main house?

One final point – I must remember to have a hanky ready if I see this again – I was sobbing heartily during Ford’s song asking forgiveness from his wife. Lovely.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

If I Were You – January 2007


By: Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by: Alan Ayckbourn

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 30th January 2007

This was good fun – another Alan Ayckbourn special. Like a lot of his recent work, he sets up the situation in detail in the first half, and you have to wait for the second half to see the full comic potential emerge. In this case, it’s a family situation, with two abused wives and two macho husbands, unthinking and uncaring, subjecting their wives to serious unpleasantness, and even violence. There’s also a son who’s still at school, to add to the mix.

Mal and his wife, Jill, are a married couple with two kids – Chrissie, who’s married to Dean, and has a young baby, Liam, and Sam, still at school and wanting to act, which his father disapproves of. Thinks acting is for poofs – you know the sort. We see Mal and Chrissie go through their day – Mal as the bullying, aggressive manager of a furnishing store, and Jill the depressed housewife, hardly getting dressed before her son gets home from school. Chrissie comes round to go shopping with her Mum, and ends up spending the day with her, doing her best to give her support. During this time, we discover that she’s being beaten fairly regularly by Dean, the apple of Mal’s eye – a “real” man as far as he’s concerned. Dean works with Mal, and joins him in the boozing and bullying. Sam, on the other hand, seems more sensitive, and doesn’t enjoy regular schooling. We’re aware that he’s probably got a crush on his English teacher, which is why he’s so keen to do the acting, but when we see his Francis Flute later on, he’s not bad. More on that later.

Mal has refused to sign a form that Sam needs in order to be involved in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, being done as part of an open-air theatre program, not part of the school’s drama work. His mother has promised to sign another copy of the form, and to keep it from Mal, and to help Sam with his lines the next day. Mal has had to deal with a sick secretary, Sandra (he’s threatened to fire her if she’s not in work the next day), a stroppy client whom he’s told to “fuck off”, and his lover, Trixie, whom he sees at lunchtime, with Dean covering for him. A visit from Head Office is also pending, so he’s feeling pretty stressed. Jill is obviously depressed, and could do with getting out of the house by getting a job, while Chrissie needs to find some way to hold her own against Dean. Not Happy Families, this.

At the end of the day, with Mal leaving the remains of his curry stinking up the living room, and refusing to engage in conversation with his wife, we’ve seen the worst that men have to offer their partners, and some of the depths that women plumb trying to live with them. With no explanation given, Ayckbourn is confident enough in his writing skills to have Mal and Jill change personalities during the night, so that Jill wakes up in Mal’s body and he in hers. This we see just before the interval, and Jill/Mal’s scream as she sees herself in the bathroom mirror was a joy to hear. We then spend the second half getting to see how these characters deal with their role reversals, and how the other characters handle the changes. Brilliant fun.

Sam is the first to notice the differences – his Mum is now clearing her chestiness in the morning rather loudly instead of his Dad. Mum no longer knows where anything is in the kitchen, while Dad has put on a pinny and Marigolds, and is cleaning the place up. At least Sam eats breakfast for once – his Mum’s never barked the order to eat at him so fiercely before!

While Mal/Jill is gracelessly coming to terms with being domesticated for the day, Jill/Mal is bonding with everything in sight. She empathises with Sandra, whose “feminine problems” are keeping her off work for another day, and advises her to see a doctor as soon as possible to get it sorted out. She organizes a whip-round at the store for Charlie’s wife, who’s just had a baby, so they can send some flowers. And she deals with the stroppy customer, back for a return bout, by agreeing with everything and promising nothing – apparently that’s the best way to deal with that type. Towards the end of the day, she also deals with Trixie, whom she has not visited during lunchtime, by telling her that Jill knows, and is terribly jealous. She makes out Jill is coming into the room with a knife and (screams)…..end of phone call. Trixie probably won’t be back.

Meantime, Mal/Jill has attempted to dress smartly – in a flowery tangerine top and leopard print trousers that go way beyond clashing. Makeup is likewise not too successful, but you have to give the poor man marks for effort. Sadly, he doesn’t spot that the vacuum is full to the brim, so to get it to work he takes it to pieces. Chrissie arrives at this point, and the vacuum gets put to one side so they can have a natter over a cup of coffee. Naturally, during this talk, Mal/Jill discovers that his blue-eyed boy, Dean, has been beating his daughter, the only woman he seems to prize. He also finds out later, from Sam, that lots of things have been kept from Dad, as otherwise they wouldn’t be able to do anything, to which Mal/Jill can only agree. He does at least carry out Jill’s promise the previous day to help Sam with his lines, and during this finds out about the crush on the English teacher. He’s much relieved.

Sam gives a demonstration of Thisbe’s final speech – a very moving one, depending on how it’s done. This time the emotions came across, and Mal/Jill and Chrissie are obviously engrossed. This is the time when Dean came in the previous day and checked the football results when the women were watching a TV show – totally inconsiderate. Today he comes in when Sam has finished Thisbe’s speech, and is so out of place, and so unpleasant, that Mal/Jill punches him, knocking him onto the couch. Hooray! Chrissie finally has her leverage over Dean, and she asks her family not to tell anyone Dean was knocked out by a woman, because if anyone’s going to tell his friends at the rugby club, it’ll be her.

Jill/Mal shocks Sam even more by offering to make him something to eat – like a lot of teenagers, he seems to be living off cans of fizzy drink – and as he leaves with his sandwich, he unwittingly expresses the reality of the situation by saying “Thanks, Mum”.

As they go to bed, Mal and Jill seem to be coming to terms with their situation, but as they go to sleep, with Jill/Mal counting sheep, they change back again, and now comes the biggest question of all. With all that these two characters have learned during the day, how have they changed? Will they stay changed? Their final coming together suggests that their relationship will be better than before, if not perfect, but then few of us can manage that.

The bulk of the comedy in this was clearly in the male/female conflicts and differences, and there were some tremendously funny bits throughout, mostly in the second half as the role reversal plot developed. I liked that Ayckbourn is tackling more serious subjects in his comedy, if that doesn’t sound too contradictory. Ayckbourn obviously respects women more than men – these women manage to do far more, and more effectively than the men, and it was lovely to see Jill/Mal gain in confidence when doing her husband’s job as well as a good deal of her own. I also found Sam an excellent character – well acted, and he gave us a vital perspective on the changes in both main characters, as well as a pivotal moment in the plot.

But the main acting credits must go to Terence Booth, stepping in to take over the part of Mal, and Liza Goddard as Jill. Both were excellent, especially in portraying the other’s character after the change. It was always clear to us who was who, and that made the whole thing work marvellously well.

The set was typical Ayckbourn – part of a kitchen, a bedroom, and a sitting room. Change the lighting, and voila! we’re in the furnishing showroom. Marvellous economy, and very effective.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

The Letter – January 2007


By: Somerset Maugham

Directed by: Alan Strachan

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Tuesday 16th January 2007

This was a play adapted by the author from his own story. Set in Malaya, it’s an account of the trial of a woman for murder, following her shooting of a man who, she claims, tried to rape her. But is it that clear cut? Well, the title’s a bit of a giveaway, as you know there’s going to be a letter involved somewhere along the line, which will have a crucial bearing on guilt or innocence. And the plot doesn’t have many more twists than a willow wand, but the performances were good enough (although I couldn’t make out Jenny Seagrove too well in the early stages) and the story was watchable enough to make it an enjoyable evening. At least Maugham gets some good humour into the writing, and the characterisations have more detail than average, although we’re so used to his style now that there are few surprises. The set was rampant colonial, with bamboo screens being moved hither, thither and yon during scene changes, and the theatre was so stuffy I found myself nodding off a bit during the first half (that, and a very late night yesterday). Still, a decent play and very watchable, especially for the Chinese lawyer milking the letter situation for all it’s worth.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Merry Wives The Musical – January 2007 (1)

Experience: 10/10

By William Shakespeare, adapted by Gregory Doran, music by Paul Englishby, lyrics by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 5th January 2007

Another big change. This time, the cast seem to have got to grips with the production and given it a good shaking out. Everything gelled tonight. I could hear more of the words, the music fitted with the dialogue better, and the weaker singing voices had strengthened up. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half, and although the energy drops a little in the last quarter, I still found the whole experience much better than first time around. In fact, the musical aspects had improved so much that the “Merry Wives” song no longer seems the highlight that it was!

Specific changes to performances: Slender had developed even more in small touches, including kissing Mr Page when they meet for the first time. Alistair McGowan as Ford seems to be getting more expression into his performance, and his voice has definitely come on. His song to Mrs Page asking for forgiveness was very moving tonight, and I was reminded of The Taming of the Shrew in reverse. We had been warned that Judi Dench did something different every night when coming on at the back of the stage, but tonight was the same as we’d seen before – reacting to the size of the buildings with surprise and confusion.

Our seats were to the right of centre this time, across the aisle, and I actually preferred this, as I found I could see the whole of the stage in one glance, which is absolutely vital in a production where so much goes on. I spotted a lot more detail, although I still missed Dr Cauis’ performance between injecting himself in the neck and falling into the buck basket – if we get to see it again, I must look out for that. I saw so much that I hadn’t before, but I can’t be sure what was new and what I simply missed, so I’ll just include it all in the first set of notes.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Pericles – January 2007

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Dominic Cooke

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 4th January 2007

What a difference from our previous experience! These seats were central, but they were in the back row of the upper gallery, and our view of the action in the first half was severely limited. Fortunately, having seen it before, we could at least fill in some of the details for ourselves, and the modern pentathlon was still mostly visible. But had we been sitting here when we first came, we probably wouldn’t have rated this production, and might not have wanted to see it again. This layout seems to be creating serious problems for the audience, or not, depending on your position.

I still enjoyed the second half, however, as most of the action takes place in the middle. In fact, we probably had a better view of the scene where Marina and Pericles meet. I was certainly very moved by all that section, through to the rediscovery of Thaisa. Shame about the first half.

I thought one piece of action was new. When Lysimachus, the governor of Mitylene enters the bawdy house, he “chested” Boult a few times. Neither Steve nor I remember this from the first performance we saw. I was unsure whether some of Gower’s gestures had changed – perhaps we were just seeing them more clearly than before. Otherwise, it seemed much the same, and I found myself wondering whether the changing nature of the promenaders made it less likely the actors’ performances themselves would develop so much over the run.

With the talk from this afternoon still fresh in my mind, I was more aware of the introduction of Marina. I knew they were using the same actress to play both Antiochus’ daughter and Pericles’ daughter, echoing the abandonment and actual/potential incest, although again I felt the risk of incest between Marina and Pericles was non-existent in this production. I was watching when the actress came on to represent Marina, still a baby, and to do her crying for her, and I got a sense of the spirit of Antiochus’ daughter returning to haunt Pericles. Do right by this one to clear your debt to me, sort of thing. I wondered how those who didn’t know the play took this staging, and whether it confused them. I also found myself wondering how close the coast of Ephesus was to Tarsus, and whether Thaisa’s coffin could have realistically floated there in the time. Get a grip woman, it’s only a play, and a fantasy play at that!

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

The Winter’s Tale – January 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Dominic Cooke

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 3rd January 2007

I enjoyed this performance much more than the previous time. We were sitting across from our first seats, and a gallery higher, which gave us a very different perspective. Having just had our own New Year celebration, I felt more in tune with the opening scene, and I was able to get into the swing, helping with the countdown, etc. Although I missed some of the scene, as it was played out right underneath us, I did catch up on the parts that Time had been blocking before, so overall I was more engaged from the start. I suspect it was partly due to our familiarity with the layout, partly because we were in a better position (and a complementary position to our earlier experience), and some credit also has to go to Robert Smallwood, who gave us Winter Scholars a superb lecture on the play, which he considers his favourite, if not indeed Shakespeare’s best. Based on his lachrymose experiences, I must admit to having a touch of the Smallwoods tonight, several times.

I was only aware of one difference in the staging from last time. As far as I could tell, the music that played over the opening scene was here restricted to just one part of the scene, which helped enormously. I could be remembering it wrongly, of course – it’s amazing what even a few short weeks can do to my memory. Other than that, the staging was as before, but this time I was aware of much more, and could see a lot that I’d missed first time round.

I was well aware how angry I felt at Leontes when he arraigned his wife when she’d hardly recovered from giving birth – the bastard. I wanted to hiss and boo him, but there wasn’t really a good opportunity (not without getting myself evicted, anyway). I could also feel a desire to throw things down onto the actors innocently performing below – a strong temptation which I fortunately resisted (see eviction point above). The promenade layout meant there were far more restrictions on the view from the upper gallery than normal, but although my perch was a little precarious at times as I leaned this way and that to catch as much as I could of the performances, I still found myself caught up in the play as I hadn’t been before.

Autolycus was just the same, and still failed to impress me. He seemed quite dull and uninteresting, without much detail to the performance. Nudity is all very well (in his case, VERY well!), but it’s not enough for this part. After the talks today, I was more aware of whether certain lines had been cut – it appears both bits our speakers thought would be dropped or severely edited were included pretty fully – the sheep shearing computation, and the reporting of the reconciliation scene, which was done very well. At first we have a lone reporter putting some copy onto his tape recorder, then someone official-looking comes out with a microphone to report more details, then another chap, even more important, adds the final touches. I thought it worked very well, especially in the light of today’s press conferences and spin doctoring waffle.

I still found the “shelf” that doubles as Mamillius’ bedroom and Leontes’ study (or has he just installed himself in his dead son’s bedroom to appease his grief?) ludicrously small – Leontes must have a pocket kingdom if that’s how big the rooms in his palace are. I did spot what Mamillius is playing with at bedtime, though – he’s tossing up a cuddly black bear, just like the one that’s going to eat Antigonus! I saw more of that bear this time, too, as it came on opposite us, and I noticed how quickly the promenaders cleared out of its way when it chased the poor old man. Shame! If they’d ganged up on it, they might have saved him. (Not that I was planning on rushing down there to lend a hand.)

I was more aware of the various decorations hanging from the ceiling this time, both the New Year’s celebration streamers and the sheep shearing flags. With several Winter Scholars in the audience, that was a bit of a distraction too, as I checked out their reactions occasionally. Having said that, the time flew – I’ve no idea when it finished, and I only glanced at my watch once, which is unusual, even in a good production.

I liked the way Time used music to convey the passage of sixteen years – his radio played “Catch a Falling Star” before his speech, and afterwards it was “California Dreaming”. The sheep shearing celebrants were clearly hippies, and Autolycus more of a drug pusher, but that fitted with the set up, as did the rather spaced out chap who tried to join in the group dance without a partner.

A friend commented on the statue facing away from most of the audience, which is a fair point, and I still think this layout doesn’t really suit the Swan – perhaps a purpose-built auditorium with careful consideration given to sightlines might work OK, but not this mish-mash. However, it was still enjoyable, and I was very pleasantly surprised at how much I felt it had improved over the first viewing.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at