Charley’s Aunt – April 2007


By: Brandon Thomas

Directed by: Mel Smith

Venue: Theare Royal, Brighton

Date: Monday 30th April 2007

This was our first chance to see Stephen Tompkinson dressed in a frock (apart from his priest days, of course). It was great fun, and interesting to see how well the piece still worked. At least, most of it did – the “where the nuts come from” was treated as an old chestnut from the word go, and the whole cast braced themselves very entertainingly each time one hove into view.

The set and costumes were all excellent. With three acts, and completely different settings for each one, the set itself had to be very adaptable. Even so, the changes took a little longer than expected, judging by the slight extensions to each interval. Not a problem, though, and the results were well worth it. The chaps looked average, the women elegant, and the first Charley’s aunt suitably grotesque.

I’d forgotten the plot (we last saw this back in 1987?), but it didn’t take long to pick it up. Mel Smith’s direction is always excellent; he’s good with the physical stuff as well as the gags, and the pace never let up. The cast seemed to be enjoying themselves too, and Stephen Tompkinson must be keeping well fit, throwing himself around as he does.

All the performances were good. I particularly liked the real aunt, played by Marty Cruickshank, as she had a good sense of humour which adds to the fun – she’s only too happy to wind up her impersonator with stories of the dead husband. I found myself wondering whether this play was written before or after The Importance Of Being Earnest, as they’re so similar in format.

Regardless of that, the whole production was very enjoyable, and we had a great evening.

P.S.    Having read a newspaper review, I’m reminded that Stephen Tompkinson did a great job of showing the softer side of his character, in a scene where the woman he loves dearly, and to whose father he deliberately lost all of his money, reveals her love for him, not knowing that she’s speaking directly to the man she loves. His real discomfort at having to hear this desired yet unwanted confession was very moving, and all the more commendable coming in the midst of a lot of funny business, such as the cigar smoking, and setting light to the furniture.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Mistaken …. Annie Besant In India – April 2007

Annie Besant

Image via Wikipedia


By: Rukhsana Ahmad

Directed by: Chris Banfield

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 26th April 2007

This was only the second performance of this play, and it became clear early on that a fair bit of work is still needed, even once the performances bed down. The subject is interesting, but the play itself lacks some coherence, and could do with more humour. The performances came across as lacking confidence for the most part, but there was still enough enjoyable material to suggest that, with revision, this could become a very watchable play.

The action is basically split into two sections, covering Annie’s experiences in India in 1916 and then in 1919, with some later events tacked on. Given that she seems to be largely forgotten now, it might have been helpful to have filled in her background more, such as her involvement in the match workers strike, and her relationship with her husband and children. However, we still get to see some momentous occasions, such as meetings with Ghandi, and her support of the young man who became Krishnamurti. With such a rich life, the problem must be what to concentrate on so that the audience can get home before midnight!

The author uses a narrator, or storyteller, to provide us with a structure. She reflects back to her time with Annie Besant (a fictional storyline), and this gives us a window on the past. (This narrator is played by two women – the storyteller who stayed to one side and linked some of the scenes, and the young woman who enters the play and meets Annie in person.) We see Annie as an already established figure within Theosophy and the Indian Home Rule movement. She regards herself as Indian, and is convinced that India’s future lies in a close relationship with Britain – Home Rule within a Commonwealth, rather than Independence. We see her increasing isolation as she disagrees more and more with the choices made by the other Indian leaders, such as Ghandi and Nehru. And we also see Krishnamurti’s split from the Theosophical Society, which she initially rejects, but then comes to accept – why identify someone as special, gifted, and destined to lead people spiritually, then not trust his choices? While he travels the world, teaching, she languishes back in India, waiting for his return, and finally dies in 1933.

The main problem I found was purely technical – many of the cast did not deliver their lines clearly enough. Reading the play text, I suspect I lost about half of what was going on – it is so important for actors to project clearly. This was not true of everyone – on the whole I heard Annie fairly well throughout, and Krishna was usually clear, but the others needed to become stronger in their delivery – the storyteller was almost conversational in volume, and as she was located in the far corner of the stage, that made it very hard to hear her.

Secondly, there were some confusing aspects of the play. In one scene, after Annie is involved in inciting those attending a rally to riot, we see her on the ground, where Krishna finds her. She seems to be confused, rambling, doesn’t know who Krishna is, etc. Shortly afterwards, she’s steered into a meeting with the Governor of Madras, to be sent to prison as a terrorist (there is a war on, after all), and she seems clear and focused. I couldn’t easily see how these scenes related to one another. Had she made a remarkable recovery? Was she losing her mind? Why did Krishna appear to be taking her home and then leave her? Was it a dream? There was too much confusion in what was meant, so although it was possible to ignore that bit and move on with the rest of the action, it left a niggling doubt about how the information was being presented, especially in terms of the timeline.

In the final scene, after Annie’s death, as the storyteller and her character in the play are discussing the event, they express regret at not telling her the truth. What truth? I assumed it was to do with Krishnamurti not coming back, but it’s not clear, and left me with an unfinished feeling at the end.

The other main problem I experienced was the dullness of the piece. There is one lovely piece of humour, when Sidra, the character of the storyteller, starts to explain a spiritual term to Krishna’s father, and he explodes with anger, complaining that “Every second person thinks he’s a swami!” It got across the situation much better than several pages of exposition. Unfortunately, this was the only laugh all evening, and the whole piece felt rather dreary and worthy, like a drama-documentary. More humour would make it more accessible, especially as truly spiritual people are usually full of humour, in my experience.

Mind you, Annie herself comes across as a dour campaigner, so perhaps this play is simply reflecting her personality accurately. I was left at the end not knowing whether the play was a celebration of the life of an amazing woman who influenced Indian political thought and nurtured its educational system, but who ultimately fell into disrepute and became a forgotten heroine, or whether it was a critique of her work, pointing out her mistakes, while trying to remember her in some way. The title suggests the latter, though the elements of the play don’t entirely support that conclusion.

All in all, I was happy enough that I’d seen it, and would be willing to see it again, once the initial run has sorted out the performance issues.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Dying For It – April 2007


Freely adapted by Moira Buffini from Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide

Directed by: Anna Mackmin

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 21st April 2007

The subject of this play is suicide, and the original is by a Russian, so naturally I expected a lot of laughs. I wasn’t disappointed.

Semyon Semyonovich Podseklanikov is a young Russian man, living with his wife (Masha) and mother-in-law (Serafima), in an alcove off the stairwell of a crumbling old building in Stalin’s Russia. His wife has a job and keeps them all, his mother-in-law grumbles for Russia when she isn’t telling the most embarrassingly unpleasant jokes, and poor Semyon is in despair at his own uselessness. As a result, he’s unpleasant to everyone, but especially to his wife, who’s the only one putting food on the table.

The play opens in the dark, with Semyon waking his wife up in the middle of the night to ask for some food, in this case, black pudding. He didn’t eat any at dinner because he felt she was only feeding him to make him feel bad about not earning any money (total nut case), so now he’s hungry. She finally gets up to get him the black pudding, and when it arrives, he throws a hissy fit, blowing out the candles. Along comes mother, woken by the din, with one of the best entrance lines I’ve heard in a long time – “Now, you know I don’t like to intrude…” – which tells us all we need to know about her interfering ways.

Semyon disappears under cover of darkness, and his wife panics, thinking he’s going to kill himself. She wakes up a neighbour (Alexander), who’s got a fancy woman with him (Margarita), and asks him to help her get her husband out of the bathroom – they think he’s locked himself in. In fact, it’s another neighbour from upstairs, Yegor, a postman, the complaining sort who’s got a People’s Medal for Speed and Diligence. Eventually, we see Semyon’s hand appear from under the bed to take the black pudding off the plate – so he’s not so daft after all!

A chat between Semyon and Alexander leads Semyon to the ridiculous assertion that if he could only get hold of a tuba, he’d be fine. He’s found a teach-yourself book under the bed, for the tuba, and fantasises that in a few easy steps, he’ll be giving tuba concerts and raking it in. Fortunately, Margarita owns a coffee shop, and is involved with a female jazz band, Party approved, so she can lay her hands on a tuba at short notice. With the mother-in-law promising to come and clean the gents’ toilets at the club, Semyon gets his tuba.

It’s a little harder than he imagined getting a sound out of it. Fortunately, the author of the book, who wastes no opportunity to promote himself, has given a handy tip on how to blow into the mouthpiece, involving taking a piece from yesterday’s newspaper, putting it on your tongue, and spitting it out. Strange as it may seem, this works, and soon the powerful sound of a tuba is wafting up the stairwell, much to the annoyance of Yegor, who seems to be permanently hovering about. Unfortunately, the tuba master hasn’t covered scales so well, and suggests the eager student should buy a piano and practice on that, transferring the scale to the tuba afterwards. At this point, Semyon realises he’s been had, and throws a tantrum.

He decides he’s going to kill himself, and that’s when things start to go crazy. As word of his plan gets out, all sorts of people turn up to persuade him to use his suicide to make a statement, blaming some group or other in his suicide note. First, there’s an intellectual, wanting him to blame the government. Then an aesthetic vamp turns up – sort of New Age flapper – wanting him to kill himself for love of her beauty, a truly noble cause, in her mind anyway. If he could at least have got a night of sex from her beforehand, it might have been worth it, but she’s the unavailable type, all romance and keeping her legs together. Name of Cleopatra, or Kiki.

Then the priest turns up, and tries to dissuade him from killing himself by spelling out all the horrible tortures he will go through in hell, as God “has no forgiveness for those who despair”. As Semyon doesn’t believe in God, however, he’s not concerned; he sees Hell as being better than what he’s currently got! After this failure, the priest gives up, but as he’s waiting for his tea and biscuit (the main reason why he’s there), he suddenly thinks of an idea. Perhaps Semyon could express his Godlessness in his suicide note, and the priest can use it as propaganda to promote church-going.

When all this excitement has died down, and even Margarita can’t persuade him to call it off, she decides the least they can do for him is to throw a party. A sending-off do. Everyone turns up, including the poet who broke Cleopatra’s heart by rejecting her, and who takes down Semyon’s last words. They’re not bad, actually, and then he heads off into the dark night with his gun, while they all wait, in differing moods. There’s a long wait, then, finally, a distant gunshot. It’s over.

The next act shows us a body lying in the bed, completely covered. Masha comes back – she’d left him the afternoon before – thinking he’s just asleep, but when she throws back the blanket, it’s her mother lying there asleep. She tells Masha the bad news – that Semyon has shot himself, and the rest of them are out searching for the body. Masha is distraught. She didn’t think he would do it, and now she’s lost the man who meant everything to her.

The body is brought in and laid on the bed. There’s a nasty wound on his right temple. The mourners turn up – all the people from last night’s party, plus a photographer and his assistant. The last words have been prepared for printing, slightly revised, and a fancy coffin turns up. A collection is made (Serafima’s quick to pocket the money) and even Cleopatra offers to get the wife and mother-in-law new hats so they won’t look too hideous at the funeral. Unfortunately, we’ve found out that Semyon isn’t actually dead. He was so drunk he couldn’t shoot straight, and missed, knocking himself unconscious in the process. He’d been sleeping it off outside, and so his body was pretty cold when they found it. Naturally, they assumed he was dead. Difficulty is, everyone else wants a dead man to show off to the masses, and he’s not only not dead, he’s actually got over the suicide thing and wants to live. Oops!

As the onlookers are coming up the stairs, he ends up hiding by jumping in the coffin, and playing dead. Serafima is only too happy to play along (this is where she grabs the collection money), but Masha is desperately trying to tell everyone that Semyon is still alive, which means everyone thinks she’s crazy, and in denial about her husband’s death. Eventually, Semyon comes back to life, and the situation is resolved by simply closing the coffin up, and claiming they can’t show the face as it was destroyed in the act of suicide. The crowd outside won’t know the difference, and too many people have too much to lose by telling the truth.

As Semyon and his friends are celebrating his new life, Alexander goes up to invite Yegor down to join them in a drink. When he comes back, it’s to tell them that Yegor has hung himself. He’s left a note, simply saying “Semyon is right. Why live?” And that’s the end of the play.

Whew, that’s a lot of action to fit in, and yet this brief description of the plot doesn’t actually tell the whole story, nor does it get across the vast amount of humour and perceptive writing there is in this play. The set was suitably drab. Everything was grey and decaying. A stove on the left had a flue pipe running up then across to a window on the right. The pipe had simply been put through the glass, and wadding put round the gaps in the broken pane to keep out the draughts. The spiral staircase was wide and grand, but had been shored up in several places with metal poles. A curtain was all that separated this alcove from the stair, and for most of the performance it was drawn back, allowing us to see all that went on. Alexander’s room was on the floor above, and the stairway continued on upwards, to Yegor’s apartment, and possibly beyond. Serafima’s room was to the left, while the kitchen was downstairs. People also came and went via the lower window.

The performances were all superb. Tom Brooke played Semyon, and reminded me at times of Robert Englund in Babylon 5. He was scrawny, unkempt, but with the light of passion and despair in his eyes. His initial bitching in the dark with his wife was a great start to the play, and his initial delight at learning to play the tuba set us up beautifully for his anger and despair at discovering it wasn’t so easy after all. This is a man who is easily disappointed with life, but then there doesn’t seem to be much to be happy about either, apart from his wife.

Masha, played by Liz White (from Life On Mars), really wanted to have a husband to be proud of. One minute she’s snapping at him for waking her up and complaining about her earnings, the next she’s sitting, looking adoringly at him as he tries to master the tuba. She was genuinely horrified when she thinks Semyon’s dead, and fiercely protective when Cleopatra’s around. (Semyon passes her off as the cook, just in case Cleo fancies coming across). She even goes for Cleo over the coffin, while Semyon is playing dead – learnt a thing or two from Gene Hunt, obviously.

Serafima is a wonderful mother-in-law type. Wonderfully entertaining, that is. Her attempts to cheer Semyon up include a funny story about how they teased a poor foreigner who had the shakes, particularly with his head. He was starving, and they offered him food, but kept taking it away because his head was shaking like he was saying “no”. How she laughed. He didn’t seem to enjoy it much though, ungrateful sod! Still, she had the savvy to keep the money, and the nice new hat Cleopatra had brought her, so she’s got some sense.

Barnaby Kay played Alexander, and I didn’t recognise him at first behind a big bushy beard. He’s a large character, with a large appetite for life, and he makes good use of the demand for Semyon’s services as a suicide – he takes money for passing on individual requests. Some of the money he passes on to Semyon, after taking a large cut, of course. Margarita was played by Sophie Stanton. She’s not just a wanton woman, she’s got a good business head and a heart of gold, but not a scrap of sentimentality. When the crowd are getting nasty over not having a dead body, she’s the one who persuades them to accept an empty coffin by threatening to dump a nasty bucket of shit over anyone who disagrees. Good negotiating skills. (Actually, the bucket only has water in it, so she’s good at bluffing as well.)

The other supporting roles were beautifully done, and the whole ensemble worked very well together. The final revelation, of Yegor’s suicide, changes the atmosphere completely. It’s a shock, but it doesn’t eradicate the enjoyment of the previous couple of hours; it simply gives us a lot to think about.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

The Man Of Mode – April 2007


By: George Etherege

Directed by: Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Thursday 19th April 2007

I almost didn’t go to this performance today, as I wasn’t feeling so good when I got up. But a spot of breakfast got my system going, and I realised I wanted to see this production, so off we went. It was a good choice: this is one of the best productions of a Restoration piece that I’ve seen.

The style was totally up-to-date, high-tech, and very flashy. Messages were sent via text and email, and instead of the Mall or the park, we see the characters promenading in a modern art gallery. Between scenes, to cover the set changes, there were extra cast members, often dancers, entertaining us with some sort of mime activity – people meeting in the street, posing for photographers, and when it came to the art gallery, dancing like a piece of performance art sculpture – very funny. We both thought this sort of thing might become tedious, but they fitted it to the action of the play, and varied it so well that it worked brilliantly, and added to our enjoyment.

The opening scene had a short prologue added, whereby Dorimant, freshly risen, is waited on by a couple of glamour models and a photographer with his crew. He’s wearing a long periwig, a mask, and leather trousers, and poses with the models as for a celebrity photo shoot, stripping off as he goes. Nice body – shame about the tattoos. It’s only at the end of this photo shoot, as he’s giving one of the models his number, that the play proper gets going. His servant informs him that the flower-seller has arrived (changed from orange-seller in the play). She’s brought him a fresh display for his flat – red tulips to replace the roses (from yesterday, presumably) – and offers him information about a young heiress who’s come to town with her mother, and who was seen eyeing him up the previous day. We then get more information from Medley, his friend, and the many strands of the piece start to unfold (or should that be unweave?). Dorimant is tired of Loveit (he sends her a billet doux from his laptop), is in love with Bellinda and plans to bed her that night, having first sent her off to Loveit to fuel her jealousy, as he’s fond of creating a row to enable him to flounce out as if the other was in the wrong. He also plans to meet this new heiress, and see if he fancies her. Meanwhile, he’s been helping a young man, Bellair, who’s in love with Emilia but is worried his father won’t allow them to marry. They arrange to meet at Mrs Townley’s, here converted to a fashionable club, where a lot of the action takes place. Complicated, isn’t it?

There’s an extra complication in that Bellair’s father, Old Bellair, has taken to Emilia himself. Although he criticises her in public, he flirts dreadfully with her in private, lecherous old bugger. Once all these strands are introduced, we can relax and get on with the fun of seeing the plots develop. Needless to say, it all ends happily, for the most part.

Loveit’s place is a fashionable underwear boutique (if they’re still called that), where her assistant gets some of the best business and lines. Bellinda’s arrival goads Loveit into reaching below the counter for a ready supply of white wine, which leads her assistant to tap her watch, pointing out how early it is. Loveit goes for the wine on at least one other occasion, notably to give her time to replace her stocking after Dorimant’s interrupted attempt to give her a good tongue-lashing (of the sexual variety). As I recall, it was during this re-seduction of Loveit that Dorimant turned to the audience (the side we were on), and, acknowledging our reaction to his breathtaking cheek, he finally mouthed “shut up” at us, so he could carry on undisturbed. Of course, we laughed even more, but nothing much could throw that rake off his stride.

There’s a wonderful scene where Sir Fopling Flutter (the play’s fop, in case you hadn’t guessed) gives an excruciatingly embarrassing performance on the piano of a love song that he’s written. This is in Dorimant’s flat, and the others present (Dorimant, Medley, and the servant) are all busy filming it on their mobiles, to send on to their friends. Sir Fopling is played by Rory Kinnear, who’s very convincing as a young man desperate to become one of the “men about town”. His costumes were suitably outrageous, but still worked in the modern context. [Winner of an Olivier Award in 2008 for this performance]

The only other point to mention is that the casting makes the Bellair/Emilia families Asian, thereby making plausible the idea of arranged marriages, which would otherwise be difficult to portray sensibly in a modern context.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

September Tide – April 2007


By: Daphne Du Maurier, adapted by Mark Rayment

Directed by: Ian Dickens

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 17th April 2007

Oh dear, this was a dismal evening for the usually reliable Connaught. The play concerns a young (in his 30s) artist, who marries the daughter, and falls in love with the mother. Eventually he informs her of this, they have one night alone together because a tremendous storm stops the daughter from getting back to the house (this is Cornwall, after all), and then she tells him he must leave for all their sakes, and he does. Ho hum. It may be the original play has more to it (and I’ve no idea why an existing play should need an adapter, anyway), but this version was decidedly slight and humdrum. Very Mills and Boon (and that may be an insult to Mills and Boon, I’ve no idea). The cast did their best, but there wasn’t much give in the text, so sadly the evening was not that enjoyable.

Kate O’Mara was too old to play the mother convincingly, and there was no psychological depth to any of the characters, at least none that I could see. Admittedly I did nod off a few times, but that’s partly because there was so little going on. Last night’s performance didn’t lose its grip for a second, so tonight I have to assume that it was the play rather than me.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

The Bargain – April 2007


By: Ian Curteis

Directed by: James Roose-Evans

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Monday 16th April 2007

This was an amazing play. Inspired by actual meetings between Robert Maxwell and Mother Theresa, it explored some possible areas they might have discussed, and the sort of negotiations that might have gone on between them. As nobody witnessed their meetings, we can’t know for certain what went on, but this play fills in the gaps very entertainingly, and shows some good insights into their characters and situations at the time.

The action is condensed into two meetings and set almost entirely in Robert Maxwell’s riverside flat in London. We see Maxwell and his assistant, called Sidekick, trying to set up the meeting. Maxwell is planning to print an encyclopaedia of world religion, and wants Mother Theresa to provide an introduction. He actually wants a number of other people’s endorsements, but can’t persuade them, so Mother Theresa will have to do.

They finally persuade her to come and visit them, after Margaret Thatcher has turned down Mother Theresa’s request for funding – apparently the homeless and destitute had perfectly adequate provision under the welfare state. They spend a few minutes tidying the place up, removing the booze to pretend Maxwell doesn’t drink, setting up Gregorian chant on the CD player, etc. Sadly, they overlook a large bottle of brandy sitting on the floor by the corner of the sofa.

The first to turn up is Sister, the nun who’s assisting Mother Theresa, and played by Susan Hampshire. Maxwell is down on one knee showing respect when she comes in, real crawler. She explains that Mother Theresa has stopped to give comfort to an old man, as she often does. When Mother Theresa does turn up, Maxwell’s more relaxed and behaving more naturally, so Mother Theresa gets to see him with his guard down.

Mother Theresa is played by Anna Calder-Marshall, a brilliant performance. She’s short, anyway, and stoops, and really gets across the idea of an old woman with strength and determination. She has that spiritual ability to focus on what she wants, and see clearly what’s going on. She’s not fooled or shocked by Maxwell or his past, and she’s prepared to sup with the devil if it will get her what she wants. A number of times, she says she has a price for helping him with the encyclopaedia, but doesn’t get round to explaining what it is till the end of the play. Meanwhile, Sister has been driving a very shrewd bargain herself for Mother Theresa’s involvement. Sister trained as a doctor for a few years, before switching to accountancy before becoming a nun. Although she radiates simplicity, and is obviously devoted to Mother Theresa, she also sees what’s going on quite clearly, and works out what Maxwell’s scam is. He’s arranged for banned items to be sent behind the Iron Curtain, and wants to get the money back out. By getting the encyclopaedia printed in Estonia, for example, he can cover up the movement of money via the banking facilities he himself provides to the Communist printers.

He, in turn, has got his journos sleuthing round about Mother Theresa, and has dug up all the allegations that have been made about her and her work over the years. He’s threatening to do a big splash in the Mirror, either about how he and she are starting a campaign to raise money for hostels in the UK, or exposing all her dubious practices. The two of them have negotiated their way round all these points, but still she hasn’t told him her price.

She’s established clearly that he’s feeling guilty about surviving the concentration camps during WWII. She tells him about how she sent four nuns to Russia after Chernobyl, to help in any way they could. They had to be sneaked in, as religious orders weren’t allowed in Russia at that time. They helped the locals as much as they could, and took on anyone rejected by the official support agencies. This meant the young and the old, especially the poor, and many of these were Jews. The locals accepted them, grateful for the work they were doing, and no one reported them to the police. Eventually, the local mayor dropped off an old prefab building with a decent roof to replace the damp cellar they were using. Mother Theresa sent more nuns to help, and now she wants Maxwell to use the goodwill he’s built up with the Communist regimes over the years, to persuade Gorbachev to acknowledge them as the first religious house permitted in the USSR. A huge step. Maxwell agrees, and a handshake seals the deal.

For the final scene, the walls lift up and away, and Maxwell walks Mother Theresa along by the river as she heads off for her plane. (Incidentally, Maxwell had ordered Sidekick to tell all sorts of porkies to get her plane delayed, as they were just getting down to the nitty-gritty. Mother Theresa just said “Tell them Mother Theresa wants it.” She may be humble, but she knows she has clout.) At the end, as she tells Maxwell he will sleep better now, and that he must go back to the village where he was born and find some of the old folk and talk with them, she starts to shoo away the birds on the Embankment, just as she did when she was a girl. And the final image is of her standing in front of lots of birds, rising up into the sky – an image she’d described to Maxwell earlier.

The last words belong to Sidekick, however, as he tells us all that Robert Maxwell died three years later, and when his financial dealings were investigated, the only funds he hadn’t plundered were those raised for Mother Theresa’s hostels.

I found this play fascinating. The two main characters were so large, and had such influence in their lifetimes, that even though this was fiction, it still felt very powerful. The key for me was Anna Calder-Marshall’s performance as Mother Theresa. She was so believable, and so centred as a character that it was hard to take my eyes off her when she was on stage. Michael Pennington did a perfectly fine job as Maxwell, but his character, although interesting, didn’t have the same power as Mother Theresa. He even admits at the end that she’s tougher than he is!

The support from Susan Hampshire and Jonathan Coy was excellent, and set up a lot of the humour. But Mother Theresa’s dry humour was wonderful to see. At one point, she and Maxwell are having a pissing contest over who had the more terrible childhood. He informs her that President Kennedy said his was the saddest story he’d ever heard. She said that the Queen had told her much the same about hers. He upped the stakes by mentioning the Pope, at which point she asked “which Pope?”. “The fat one”, was his reply, and she took the wind even more out of his sails by saying that the three Popes she had known had all found her story the saddest they’d ever heard. At this point he realises she’s teasing him, but by now he’s more relaxed with her, and knows he’s not going to impress her with his suffering.

A good play, a good production, and a decent audience made this a much better evening than last week.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

The New Statesman – April 2007


By: Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

Directed by: Jennie Darnell

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Thursday 12th April 2007

Well, this doesn’t happen to us often. We actually left the show at the interval! I’d considered leaving even earlier and waiting for Steve outside, but I managed to hold on.

The problem was only partly with the material on stage. These jokes were pretty old, and although there were topical references, the usual stale punch lines were dragged out again for another trot round the circus ring. In many ways, this humour reminded me of Bernard Manning – much despised by the alternative comedians, but tonight his jokes wouldn’t have seemed out of place. We got the impression that at least half the audience were laughing with B’Stard, rather than at him – a works outing from the BNP, perhaps? And as Rik Mayall milked every slight mistake for all it was worth, redoing them as often as possible, it became more an evening of one man’s extempore comedic business than a political satire piece.

There were some decent laughs to be had, such as the comment by Condoleza Rice about plan B, but not enough to keep us there, given that the couple next to me were excessively twitchy all through the first half.  The prospect of another hour beside them was too appalling to contemplate, and as Steve wasn’t that keen either, we headed off early.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Equus – April 2007


By: Peter Shaffer

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Venue: Gielgud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th April 2007

I was keen to see this play, as I hadn’t seen it before, and it’s often talked about as being really influential. Of course, the prospect of male nudity didn’t put me off at all.

The set was impressive. Designed by John Napier, who designed the original production at the Old Vic, it was very bare, but with some lovely touches, mainly the horses’ heads. These were formed from steel wire, making a head-shaped basket, with leather straps between some of the wires. Underneath was a cap for fitting the masks on to the actors’ heads. They were beautifully made, and hung round the walls of the set at the start. The centre was a large plinth, all black, with four black blocks set on it – these could be put on any side and moved around easily to create furniture as required. There were also six stable doors evenly spaced round the back and sides of the stage – these only became apparent later.

As well as the main house being packed, there were a couple of rows of seats up behind the stage, also full. On the whole, the audience were fine, despite having a younger average age than we usually see in a midweek matinee. I did have to ask one man to be quiet, as he seemed to think it was OK to carry on a conversation with the person next to him throughout the performance! There was extra loud applause at the end – some of it may have been down to the Harry Potter effect, but mostly it was well earned.

The story is relatively simple, though quite challenging. We gradually learn why a young man has blinded six horses at the stable where he worked. He’s developed a weird sexual attachment to horses, based on an early experience and fuelled by his mother’s insistent religiosity. When he nearly loses his cherry in the stable barn, he’s driven to this extreme act by his fear of what his horse-god has seen. I couldn’t help feeling that if the young lady (a questionable description, in this case) had only chosen somewhere else for his first night of passion, he might have turned out quite reasonably – her choice just happened to be the worst one possible for him.

I liked all the performances, although there wasn’t much for some of the minor characters to do. Richard Griffiths creates a tremendous sense of trustworthiness, and Daniel Radcliffe managed to get across his character’s strangeness very well. His mother and father were also good, especially Jonathan Cullen as the puritanical socialist who gets caught out visiting a porn cinema. The “horses” were also excellent, and the blinding scene, where torches are used for the horses’ eyes and extinguished as they’re gouged out, was both disturbing and beautiful.

It seems a worthy revival of an interesting play, and I was glad to have seen it. Although there had been some rewriting to bring the dialogue up-to-date, the overall feel of the piece was very modern anyway.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

John Gabriel Borkman – April 2007


By: Henrik Ibsen, in a new version byDavid Eldridge

Directed by: Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 5th April 2007

This was a fascinating play, and an excellent production. The intimate setting of the Donmar worked very well, as the play focused on the peculiar domestic situation of the Borkman family. The senior generation were basically a bunch of loony tunes trying to get by on their delusions, which all come to a sudden, shattering end when JGB’s son finally decides to speak up for himself, and to run off with the woman he loves (and a spare).

The set was simple. A row of windows at the back look out on to some trees, dead now in winter, as snow gently drifts down. A wide bench sofa in the middle has some grey crochet work on it, while to our left is a table and chair. Deborah Findlay, as Mrs Borkman, is restlessly sitting, crocheting, and pacing, as she waits for her son’s arrival. But the first arrival is a woman, unknown to the maid, who is obviously both well known to Mrs Borkman, and seriously disliked by her. Mrs Rentheim (Ella), is played by Penelope Wilton, and it turns out she had taken away Mrs Borkman’s son, Erhart, when JGB was sent to prison, many years ago. He’d used other people’s money to live a more lavish lifestyle than he could afford, and to speculate in the emerging market to exploit Norway’s mineral and other resources. We learn of the women’s rivalry for Erhart’s affection, and how Ella, whose money had been completely untouched by JGB’s depredations, bought the family estate, and allows them to continue living there. Mrs JGB seems particularly obsessed, repeating the idea that her son has a destiny to restore the family name. Like most of the characters in this drama, she feels she has suffered the worst, more than those who lost all their life savings, because she has suffered the loss of the family name. At the very end of the scene, Ella clarifies their relationship, as twin sisters.

Towards the end of their confrontation, Erhart arrives home, with Frida and a Mrs Wilton. They are off to a party at the Hinkel’s. Mrs Wilton is a very sociable woman, and it’s evident that Erhart is smitten with her. Frida heads upstairs to play piano for JGB, while Mrs Wilton takes her leave to go to the party. However, soon Erhart follows her, much keener for her company than his mother and aunt’s.

The second act is set in the upstairs room where JGB spends his days, pacing up and down, and occasionally being entertained by Frida. She plays Danse Macabre – his favourite, apparently. The room is similar to the one downstairs, but the windows are shuttered, and the furniture is different, with several piles of books dotted about the place. After she leaves, by the back stairs, her father, Vilhelm, arrives. He spends his spare time trying to be a poet, and writing a play. From JGB’s reactions, it’s clear he doesn’t think much of these efforts, but he does need an audience for his own views. As we need to hear them too, we’re treated to his megalomaniac diatribe against the forces which brought him down, specifically a lawyer whom he considered a friend, and to whom he’d confided too much. The lawyer, Hinkel (yes, the same one), passed some letters on to the authorities, and JGB was doomed. He’s spent the last eight years going over and over the trial – the evidence, the prosecution’s case, his own defence – and time and time again he comes to the same conclusion – he’s innocent! Yet again, we have a character who feels “more sinned against than sinning”. I suspect Ibsen is having a go at the older generation, perhaps those who seem to be constantly passing the buck for their decisions, and expecting the next generation to make everything better. I don’t know any historical context for this play, but that seems to be the message.

JGB and Vilhelm quarrel, and after Vilhelm leaves, JGB is visited by Ella. She’s determined to have Erhart for her last few months on earth, and she wants JGB to help her convince Mrs Borkman to let him go. When he attempts to help out (and this involves going downstairs, something he hasn’t done since he came back from prison eight years ago), everything falls apart. Mrs Borkman sends for Erhart, to force him to decide between them, but he drops a bombshell of his own. He’s leaving that very night, with Mrs Wilton and Frida. They’re travelling to Europe, where Frida will get further training in music, and probably some other things as well. Mrs Wilton is quite frank about the inevitability of their relationship ending, and Erhart’s eventual need for a replacement – she’s just making sure he’s got one handy. At last Erhart speaks up for himself and renounces all his elders’ plans for him. By this time, even JGB is planning to re-enter the world and rebuild his life, and wants Erhart to go with him. But Erhart will have none of them. He doesn’t want to work, he just wants to have fun. So off they go.

The penultimate scene sees the three older folk outside, looking for the sleigh that will carry Erhart away from them for good. They hear the ringing of silver bells further down the hill, and then Vilhelm appears. He’s come from his house to tell them the good news; that Frida’s off to study music in Europe. Mrs Wilton’s taken her, and there’s a tutor to teach her other subjects as well. JGB explains what’s happened, and he’s delighted – unlike the others, he seems to see good in everything that happens. He was even knocked down by the very sleigh that was taking his daughter away, an event that doesn’t bother him – he’s more impressed by the fact that the sleigh had silver bells, showing how wealthy Mrs Wilton is.

The final scene is JGB and Ella walking through the night to a bench they used to spend time together on. He’s refusing to enter that house ever again. He talks of the opportunities he can feel in his blood, the ores and other riches lying in the cold ground, calling to him to release them and let them fly. His one regret is not having been able to do that. He dies, from the cold, and slumps down on the bench. Mrs Borkman arrives, with the maid, and sends her for help. The two sisters talk, their animosity apparently at an end, but although they speak of holding  hands over the dead body, I noticed that this staging had them at either end of the stage, and showing no signs of getting any closer. (According to the stage directions in the text, they do hold hands over JGB’s dead body.) Interesting.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this play, and the actors portrayed the various characters brilliantly. Their willingness to show total obsession, rampant megalomania, and all sorts of other less popular traits, was admirable. Not a family you’d want to spend time with, but absorbing to watch on stage. None of the characters is appealing, although Ella does at least seem to be more concerned that Erhart should live his own life than any of the others. She was JGB’s great love, but he left her to Hinkel in return for the position at the bank which would allow him to carry out his schemes. She loved JGB, and was devastated when he renounced her. More unnecessary suffering.

I liked the honesty and humour of the production, and the symmetry of the opening scenes – three women confronting each other, and then three men, although Hinkel isn’t physically present. I found my sympathies changing a bit over the performance, though nothing could make JGB remotely likeable. A very enjoyable afternoon.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Kean – April 2007


By Jean-Paul Sartre, adapted from the play by Alexandre Dumas

Directed by Adrian Noble

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 2nd April 2007

This play opens with Antony Sher, as Kean, as Richard III, giving us his “Now is the winter of our discontent…”. It was particularly memorable, as Kean’s Richard, a serious hunchback, uses a walking stick, and lurches to the front of the stage in a manner highly reminiscent – OK, let’s just come out and say it – it was pinched directly from Antony Sher’s previous Richard III, where he cavorted round the stage like a mad spider on two crutches. The “echo”, if we may call it that, was obviously recognised by a fair number of the audience, judging by the laugh it got. It was a good start to a tricky but entertaining play.

The set was a stage, on the stage, with lots of room to either side. A painted backdrop (and I had to look really hard at this one), gave us a plush red theatre curtain, and when that was raised, we could see the audience behind Kean. Steve spotted that one of them was asleep. From the later scenes, I’d guess it was the Danish ambassador.

We romped through selected highlights of Richard III, and then the stage was cleared to create space for a cocktail party, given by the Danish ambassador. We learn that his wife is infatuated with Kean, who has been invited to attend the party later. There are various bits of gossip, and then the throng, now joined by the Prince of Wales, is entertained by the news that Kean and a young lady have run off together, until Kean himself arrives to deny the story. He passes a letter to the ambassador’s wife, pretending it will prove his innocence in this matter, but in reality it’s a love letter for her. She agrees to come to his dressing room the following night by a secret door, wearing a veil.

The next night, Kean fusses about whether the door has been oiled, and whether the lady’s coming or not. He’s put out by the arrival of the Prince of Wales, who wants him to give up the ambassador’s wife altogether, in return for having his debts paid off. They lay a bet – if she turns up, Kean will have her, if not, then he’ll sign the paper and renounce his love. When a woman does turn up, the bet is settled, but not the way Kean expects.

The lady who has turned up is the other woman, the one he’s supposed to have run off with. She wants to be an actress and marry Kean, not necessarily in that order, and the whole situation becomes more complicated when the ambassador’s wife turns up later for her assignation. How many women can Kean keep on the go at one time?

In the end, he and the ambassador’s wife are just playing at being lovers, and they’re both happy to go their separate ways. Kean’s jealousy has led him to insult the Prince of Wales in a full theatre, in a manner considered treasonable, and he’s lucky to get off with a few years of exile. Fortunately, he can head off to America with the young lady who wants to marry him, so all seems to end reasonably happily.

There was a great deal to enjoy in this production. In theory, the play is examining the nature of acting and “real emotions”. When is Kean acting, and when is he being “honest” about his feelings. There are no set answers, although the play suggests there is no difference between acting and the rest of life. The scene where Kean and the ambassador’s wife play out their melodramatic love affair was very entertaining – they stop for a breather, then get going again.

The costumes were possibly 1930s, possibly 1950s; it’s a bit difficult to tell with upper crust evening dress, as it doesn’t change so quickly as ordinary fashions. All the performances were excellent, and I remember various ideas coming up at the time which I can’t remember now. It was also good fun to have the Danish ambassador as one of the characters, given Kean’s reputation for playing Hamlet.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at