The Hothouse – August 2007

Experience: 7/10

By Harold Pinter

Directed by Ian Rickson

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Friday 31st August 2007

This was a real treat. We were up in London for other reasons this weekend, and got to see an evening performance at the National. Wow. I suspected the atmosphere would be different from matinees, and it certainly seemed to be – more lively, more of a buzz.

I hadn’t seen this play before, and I found it very typical of Pinter’s style, though clearly dated. It shows a version of Stalinist Russia, where people disappear and odd things happen, and the person in charge has to watch their back in case their second-in-command wants to take over. A bit like a Klingon ship, but less overt.

The set was a series of angled walls, which gave us Roote’s office, a staff room, and a wider view including the stairs with another room above. The décor was very fifties/sixties institutional drab. The plot was simple – a patient has died and another patient has given birth. Everybody skirts around these facts, and one of the junior members of staff is tortured to confess to being the father. Eventually, Roote (Stephen Moore) is bumped off and Gibbs (Finbar Lynch), as the last man standing, takes over the institution. There’s also a woman member of staff, Miss Cutts (Lia Williams), who seems to spend all her time latching on to whichever man is in power to ensure her safety, and Lush (Paul Ritter), the only other member of staff who could stand against Gibbs, but who seems to be on the downward slope.

What I enjoyed most about this production was the wonderful language. Pinter has a musical way with words. He finds not just a minor key, but a menace key, and manages to keep it going. It’s partly what’s not said that does it. There’s also a lovely use of repetition, when Gibbs is sort of informing Roote about the two patients (two digits are transposed, hence the confusion), the one who’s died and the one who’s given birth. The dialogue is virtually identical, with some details changed to suit the different circumstances, but otherwise it’s a straightforward reprise. Until the end, that is, when after plying Gibbs with lots of descriptive statements about the woman, Roote ends up saying “Never met her!”.

There’s also a lot of silence and stillness in this production, which are very effective. In addition, there were some wonderfully menacing sound effects, a susurration of suffering, which made the staff nervous and suggested the unrest growing in the asylum. Lovely stuff, and I’m glad we could fit it in.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Absurdia – August 2007

8/10

By: N F Simpson/Michael Frayn

Directed by: Douglas Hodge

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 30th August 2007

This was a combination of three plays, the first two by N F Simpson, and the third by Michael Frayn, each revelling in the absurdist style. Before the first play, a group of bowler-hatted suits brought on the furniture. The set was the wall of a room, with some shelves, a window, a door and a rectangular floor surrounded by gravel. There were net curtains at the window and flowery wallpaper on the wall. Above, the A-shape of the roof topped it all. Otherwise, the set was bare until the furniture arrived.

One of the suited gentlemen (a couple were actually ladies) was played by John Hodgkinson, one of the actors. I assume the others were stage crew. They brought on a small table with a radio on it, another small table with a telephone, a bigger table and a couple of chairs, and a wastepaper basket. Then, when everything was in order, John Hodgkinson announced “There will now be an interval.” Much laughter.

The first play, A Resounding Tinkle, was an edited version of the full text, though we didn’t know this at the time. It deals with the concerns of a couple who find the elephant they ordered has arrived while they were out, and it’s much too large this year. They wanted a smaller elephant, but as they weren’t in when it was delivered they couldn’t tell the delivery men to take it back. A neighbour has had a similar problem – her snake is too small. There’s a lot of discussion of what they’re going to do, and some repeated dialogue, which creates a lovely sense of unreality. They also have a visit from Uncle Ted, who’s moved on from an interest in motorbikes and gone for a sex change instead. Few people would have an Uncle Ted with such a perfect female body, yet they take it all in their stride. After a few refreshing lines of literature to help him perk up, Uncle Ted joins them in listening to the service on the radio – a wonderful spoof of a church service with nonsense lines and responses. Then Uncle Ted has to leave to get his train back, and they’re left with the elephant/snake problem. They agreed to swap with their neighbour, but end up with a matchbox-sized snake. The wife is also wrapping raffia round a wire-frame light shade in her spare moments.

I enjoyed this enormously. I love the absurdist way of taking normal conventions and structures, and putting in absurd content. The performances were excellent, and established recognisable character types, even if the details were well crazy.

After this part, and once the actors were clear of the stage, the back wall of the house was let down on wires, and we could see a similar back wall but decorated differently. The playlet this time was Gladly Otherwise, a short piece which dealt with the visit of an official-looking man (John Hodgkinson, still in bowler hat and suit) to check up on the couple’s knobs – door knobs, that is, plus any other knobs they might have. The husband sat in a corner reading the paper, mostly screened by the door, while the official spoke with the wife. It was over fairly quickly, and was an enjoyable snippet, with some good lines. Again, excellent performances.

For the final piece, The Crimson Hotel, the rest of the house came down, and we had a relatively bare set. The idea of this play was that a writer of French farces, knowing that taking his lover to a hotel will inevitably bring her husband to the same hotel and even to the same room, has taken his mistress-to-be to a completely deserted space – nothing around for miles – in order to seduce her. Of course, she’s perfectly willing to be seduced, but finds the great outdoors a bit disconcerting. As she’s the leading actress in his latest play, they play around with the emptiness, pretending to open doors and check in wardrobes, and find the door actually squeaks! When one of them turns the light out, they can’t see. Finally, as they settle onto the bed/rug, they glimpse a figure in the distance – her husband! After calculating they don’t have enough time for nooky and getting dressed again afterwards so they can pretend complete innocence before he gets there, they run about trying to find somewhere to hide. Eventually, they end up in the small case they brought the picnic in, while we hear the voices of the husband and his lover, another actress in the company.

This really was absurd, and excellently so. The intermingling of French farce and the absurdist style worked brilliantly together, and I loved the combination of logic and nonsense. The miming was good fun, and there was also lots of repetition, as they went through the lines of the play. Lots of echoes and layers. The performances were, yet again, excellent, and my only complaint was that it took less than two hours for the lot. Wonderful fun.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Ca$h On Delivery – August 2007

6/10

By: Michael Cooney

Directed by: Ian Dickens

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Wednesday 29th August

This was a cut above the usual farces that we’ve seen recently at the Connaught. Partly, this was down to the writing, which gave us some wonderfully funny moments, such as the undertaker’s line at the end of the first half – “He’s dead”! (You had to be there.) The other reason was the casting of Eric Potts to replace the original Norman Bassett. However good the other chap may have been, Eric Potts did a fantastic job, and brought out the maximum humour whenever he was on stage. We remembered we’d seen him in Art at the Connaught earlier this year, and had been really impressed with his performance, so it was even nicer to see him in something different, confirming our opinion of him as an actor.

The plot had more twists than a corkscrew, but the gist is that Eric Swann (David Callister) has been claiming benefit fraudulently since he was made redundant two years ago, through an opportunity that arose when a previous lodger left for Canada. The amounts paid to him have escalated, so that now he’s earning around £150,000 a year, and the complications all start when he tries to kill off his bogus claimants, beginning with Norman. When a DSS inspector arrives (Geoffrey Davies), lugging a large briefcase jammed full of claim details, the need for extra characters stretches everyone to breaking point. Eric’s wife doesn’t know about the scam, and thinks her husband is a cross-dresser, as she’s found some of the gear sent to him by the DSS over the years – maternity dress, wig, stockings (surgical), maternity bras, corsets, etc. I must admit, I didn’t see that coming when we were originally shown the stuff. Eric’s Uncle George (Melvyn Hayes) has been his partner in crime, and nearly ends up being autopsied as a Lassa fever corpse. With several different storylines on the go for several different visitors, including the undertaker, the humour just keeps building, until eventually the characters come clean, and the situation is resolved in a very appropriate way (for a farce).

There was plenty of physical slapstick. Melvyn Hayes was particularly active, being hit several times by the kitchen door, and being bundled hither, thither and yon as a corpse. The sexual innuendo was well to the fore – Norman’s alter ego as his own son, grieving over his father’s death, is called John Thomas, previously known as William Richard (but he found being called Willie Dickie too much). The crossed wires were good fun, especially with the cross-dressing theme and confusion over who was actually dead. Poor Norman thinks his own father is dead for a while, before finding out it’s just him! There were also some good connections between the explanations, such as the claim that there was a health inspector at the house tying up with the lie about Lassa fever. The set was very familiar too, and certainly took a hammering.

But the best thing altogether was Eric Potts’ performance as the innocent lodger who gets snared in the cover-up to avoid being accused of complicity in the benefit fraud. His expressions were brilliant, and he was very good at being slow on the uptake. He has to put up with finding out he’s dead, not being able to talk to his fiancée, having to pretend he’s deaf, and having to make up most of the explanations to give to various people he’s never met before. At the end, he turns up in a frock (intending to impersonate Mrs Swann), and David Callister finally lost it. He’d been twitching a bit during the first half, and just managed to keep it together, but this scene was too much for him, and both he and Eric Potts had a minor giggle before carrying on. Not that anyone in the audience minded – there was a good crowd for a midweek matinee, and we were all enjoying ourselves. Although everyone was good, Eric really stood out, and helped to raise this production well above the average.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Our Man In Havana – August 2007

8/10

Adapted by Clive Francis from the novel by Graham Greene

Directed by: Richard Baron

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 24th August 2007

This version of Our Man In Havana was great fun. I was vaguely aware of the story, though I haven’t seen the film nor read the book, so I was very open to see what they would do. This wasn’t the first performance but it was the second, so I wanted to give as much response as I could to help them get the feel of it. Also, one of the cast had had to be changed at short notice – Clive Francis came on at the start to make an announcement about it – so the replacement actor had only had a few days to learn lots of parts. Poor chap.

The set was really amazing. There were slatted screens across the back, which could be turned into doors, the side walls of a toilet cubicle, etc. Various desks and tables slid on and off and the cast were very good at bringing on the extras – chairs, drinks, etc. For one scene they even made the changes while dancing! Another panel to our right could be a shrine or Wormold’s desk, and there were so many variations that within a few seconds we could be anywhere we liked. There was even a map of that part of the Caribbean which came down every so often and a model plane on a stick which flew across from one side of the stage to the other – the sort of thing I really enjoy. I did find the lighting a little awkward at times – it left the actors’ faces in shadow a bit too often during the early stages – but hopefully they’ll sort that one out as they go.

It took about twenty minutes for the play to really get going – the first part obviously introduced all the characters and set the scene. It wasn’t a bad start, but there was so much to take in and my headset wasn’t working, so I had to concentrate to keep up. Also I found the amount of scene changing a bit distracting at first but that soon settled down. Once we got to the start of the fake agents, though, the whole performance took off. I loved the way the other actors came on and played out Wormold’s fantasies as he developed his list of agents.

From here, it’s a wonderful ride through the intricacies of Wormold’s web of deceit. The idea of senior Whitehall officials being fooled by large scale pictures of a vacuum cleaner was hugely entertaining, and I felt genuinely moved when Dr Hasselbacher died. Oh, and the dog that got poisoned was another great moment, as were Hawthorne’s (Clive Francis) reactions as he realised what Wormold had been up to, but felt he couldn’t expose him as he was receiving congratulations all round for finding him. Clive also had a great deal of fun with his portrayal of Teresa the stripper, as did we.

There’s too much to write it all down, so I do hope they produce a text for this. Other than Simon Shepherd, who was only Wormold and helped with the narration, each actor played a massive number of parts, and they got across the changes very well. Their adrenalin levels must be through the roof during each performance, as they have a lot to do and they all did the various roles extremely well. I certainly didn’t notice that one of the company was any less well rehearsed than the others. I hope we get a chance to see this again.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hobson’s Choice – August 2007

8/10

By: Harold Brighouse

Directed by: Jonathan Church

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Wednesday 22nd August 2007

I love this play, and tonight we saw a very good production of it. The set was the shop floor which covered about two-thirds of the stage, with the outer third showing us the street outside. Before the start, someone was working with some boots or some such in the gloom, and a big grid with boots hanging off it was all around him. I guess this was suggesting the basement workshop in Hobson’s shop. In the run up to the start, this grid was lifted, and the chap disappeared off stage. I suspect he was Dylan Charles, who plays Willie Mossop, as he told us later in the post-show that he’d done some leather working in preparation for the role. (Didn’t think to ask if it was him, sorry.)

Once the grid was up, we could see the shop interior properly. It was a beautifully detailed setting, with lots of boots on the shelves, and various boxes etc. To our right, near the front of the stage, was a tall desk with the account books, and there was a small settee to our left, with a few plain chairs here and there. The shop door was far left, and the entrance to the living area was to our right.

The plot is straightforward so I won’t cover it again, but I will say that as well as enjoying the performances, I was reminded of how well written and structured the play is. I noticed how, in the final act, the sisters set us up to really appreciate the change in Willie, by going on about how timid they know him to be. I could also see the echoes of Shakespeare – The Taming of the Shrew and King Lear. The only weakness appeared to be John Savident as Hobson, who didn’t seem to have all his lines fully at his command, though as he was playing drunk some of the time, it didn’t always matter so much. Willie and Maggie (Carolyn Backhouse) were excellent, and the rest of the cast played their parts, even the small ones, to the hilt. This was a really good night out, and I hope they do well on tour.

At the post-show there was some silliness about how authentic the accents were – given that they were attempting to recreate the spoken Lancashire of the period I’m amazed anyone wanted to complain, but Northerners can be so touchy! The cast had done some individual research, and we found out that it was only ten years before the action of the play that a law had been passed forbidding men from beating their wives or daughters, making more sense of some of the comments early on about how useful it is to have a wife to keep daughters in line. The cast seemed to be very well integrated, and everyone joined in. I got the impression they’re all impressed by this play, and enjoying doing it. Good luck on tour!

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Enchantment – August 2007

2/10

By: Victoria Benedictsson

Directed by: Paul Miller

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Tuesday 21st August 2007

This was a less than thrilling afternoon’s entertainment, which left me hoping the problems with the play were partly down to the adaptation, although I suspect they’re more fundamental than that.

The basic story is simple. A Swedish woman, who has lost her family through illness and death, has herself been ill and is recuperating in Paris, tended by some compatriots she’s met there and who live in the same building. She’s already keen on a particular sculptor and when he arrives, she’s drawn into a destructive relationship, from her point of view. He seems quite happy with the arrangement, confusing free love with consequence-free sex, as many do. She ends up killing herself by jumping fully clothed into the Seine – in those outfits, any woman would sink like a stone in seconds.

I found it hard to relate to these characters. The woman herself, Louise, seems to be a loser through and through. We don’t really get to see what she was like before, although people keep mentioning how she’s changed, and she doesn’t do anything – no hobbies, no work, nothing. What does she do all day? She’s a cipher, so perhaps it’s not surprising she falls for someone who simply wants to use her to fuel his art.

The sculptor is also an enigma – I couldn’t get any real sense of his personality, just his behaviour, and that’s not enough to keep me interested for this long. The other characters in Paris were drawn equally crudely; the step-brother, the woman artist who’s nursed her and who was the sculptor’s previous great love (coincidence, eh?), her husband, and her sister(?) who’s in love with the step-brother. If this sounds confusing, it’s because none of this was introduced as clearly as I would have liked.

Back in Sweden, there were more characters, and this was the most entertaining bit of the play. The housekeeper, Botilda, is a cheerful soul, who can’t see why anyone goes to Paris since they’re all so gloomy when they come back! She has some lovely lines. There’s also a mother and daughter who give us a glimpse of the middle-class Sweden that the author knew only too well, and was presumably avoiding. This daughter is also keen on the step-brother, entertainingly so, but no chance. Finally, there’s an older man, the bank manager, who’s been keen on Louise since she was twelve, and who’s been proposing regularly to her for years. He offers her one final chance to snap him up, but she’s still too wrapped up in her passion for the sculptor to consider him.

All the actors gave good performances, and I don’t intend any criticism of them. I particularly liked Marlene Sidaway as Botilda and Niamh Cusack as Erna, the lady artist. At least she was playing a spiky character, which is so unlike most of the women in drama of this period. There were also physical problems, too. The set was as spread out as for The Five Wives Of Maurice Pinder, and the seats we had were poor. We were off to one side, but facing in to the centre of the stage, so that when anything happened on the part of the stage behind us, we were completely cut off from it. Unfortunately, this happened fairly often, so I felt rather detached a lot of the time. The theatre was also very stuffy during the first half, so I found myself nodding off a few times, especially as nothing much was happening on stage to keep me alert.

Steve described this afterwards as “a poor man’s Ibsen”, and that just about nails it. The writer herself had been shattered by finding that her lover, the leading arts critic of their generation who had fostered a regeneration of Scandinavian art, wouldn’t review her work because she was a woman! From what I can glean from the program notes, she wrote this, her one and only play, shortly before she killed herself in despair, and while suffering can inspire great creativity, it doesn’t seem to have worked here, partly because her characters are so empty (reflecting her own feelings, presumably), and partly because she didn’t have experience writing drama. It may be that another adaptation would bring out more of the original, but don’t hold your breath.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Deadlock – August 2007

6/10

By: Peter Benedict

Directed by: Peter Benedict

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Thursday 16th August 2007

This was a better class of thriller than we’ve seen for a while. I won’t give away the ending, but the storyline was based on previous thrillers, and used a lot of the plot of The Mikado. We saw quite a few of the twists before they came (sometimes just before), but it was enjoyable and well written, with some of the earlier apparent clunkiness (e.g. a rather fake Irish accent) explained by the later revelations.

The set reminded me of Wait Until Dark. It’s a basement studio, where a politician does his sculpture and entertains rent boys. The back door is self-locking, and there’s a large oven for baking the clay. We’re treated to a longish dissertation on the effectiveness of the Nazi incinerators, which were built by the same German company that designed this oven, so the evening gets off to a gruesome start. The politician (Simon Ward) also has a thing for sculpting appropriate punishments in order to “make the punishment fit the crime” – he has gluttony wearing a scold’s bridle. The oven gets well used during the play.

There’s also a wife, a PA, and a young man, and it all ends unhappily for the characters that are still alive. I suppose you could say it ends even more unhappily for those who die of course, but either way it was a good ending from my point of view. There was plenty of humour too, which made it all the better.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me