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

Absurdia – August 2007


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

Ca$h On Delivery – August 2007


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

Our Man In Havana – August 2007


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

Hobson’s Choice – August 2007


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

The Enchantment – August 2007


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

Deadlock – August 2007


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

The Five Wives Of Maurice Pinder – August 2007


By: Matt Charman

Directed by: Sarah Frankcom

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Wednesday 15th August 2007

This was an interesting new play. Without getting into any great debate, it shows an alternative form of relationships, somewhat akin to polygamy but more open-ended. Maurice Pinder, a scaffolder with his own business, has three “wives” at the start of the play. We don’t find out all the details straightaway, and I quite liked the teasing way in which the play took its time to clarify the relationships. I’ll cut to the chase: Maurice (Larry Lamb) has been divorcing one wife and then marrying another for some time. His first wife, Esther (Sorcha Cusack), couldn’t have children, so she agreed to her husband taking another wife in order to have a family. This was Fay (Clare Holman), who provided them all with a son, Vincent (Adam Gillen), now seventeen. Next up was Lydia (Martina Laird), who has a young baby, provisionally called Fergus. When the play begins, we get to see these wives plus Vincent, before Maurice brings home Rowena (Carla Henry), who’s heavily pregnant with another man’s child. This man was beating her up, so Maurice decided to take her into the family.

The relationships are apparently stable at this point. Vincent is about to go to university, Esther is the overall mother-figure, taking care of everyone, Fay is working (loosely) at telesales, and Lydia is a Reiki practitioner who prefers to live in the caravan in the back garden. They seem to get on fine, and in some ways the play almost became dull in the early stages, with very little conflict or dramatic interest. The performances were fine, and I felt I was getting to know the characters, but there wasn’t quite enough bite to it for me. All that changed when Fay brings home Jason (Steve John Shepherd) for a shag, against family rules. He’s disturbed by the setup, although he likes Fay, and despite his impending marriage (this is Tuesday, and the wedding is on Saturday) wants to continue their relationship. She doesn’t. Unfortunately, this means she’s pissing off a local planning inspector, and as Maurice is in the process of building an unapproved extension on the back of the house, Jason starts to take his disturbance out on the family.

This was the only character who didn’t ring true for me. He represented the “average” reaction, combining fascination with how such an arrangement works, with revulsion at such a different set of norms. However, his abrupt changes of attitude made it hard to relate to him as a real person, while the other characters seemed more real, more rounded, and I could relate to their experiences.

Anyway, Jason’s antagonism isn’t the only problem. Lydia is the restless sort, and finally decides to leave them and travel with her baby. This leaves a huge gap in the family structure, and Maurice tries to fill it with Irene (Tessa Peake-Jones), his office manager and a bossy sort. When Vincent comes back from university, he finds the situation seriously changed (though not so much in terms of the extension). His actual mother, Fay, is drinking way too much, and taking to even more meaningless shags in car parks, presumably to find what she’s not getting from Maurice on their one night a week together. Esther is even more withdrawn, trying to be supportive, yet being even more excluded by Irene, who doesn’t seem to have got the hang of the sharing nature of the family yet. Rowena seems to have settled in, but even she is planning to leave once she gets some money together. She’s already married Maurice, so what we get to see this time is the wedding ceremony between Maurice and Irene. They stand in the sitting room, facing each other, reading out prepared vows. Maurice’s are well-worn; they’re the same ones he’s used for each wedding from the sounds of it. Irene seems to be looking for someone she can devote herself to, but lets it slip that she doesn’t see the need for any of the others once she and Maurice are hitched. Fortunately, the rest of the family, so noticeably absent from the vows, turn up in force with some atrocious behaviour, and put her off altogether. The play ends somewhat weakly, with Vincent breaking up the extension, and Fay, Lydia and Rowena talking about their futures away from Maurice. There’s a line about how the two babies have open futures, and then the lights go out. Personally, I would prefer a stronger ending.

The set was a section of the house, from the front door and sitting room on our left, through the extension into the garden and down to the caravan at the end. To our right, there was a wooden gate, which Vincent preferred to climb over rather than go through. The small, domestic details helped to make the family situation seem more normal, not particularly weird or troublesome. It certainly favoured Maurice, although keeping so many women happy was obviously beyond him. Esther hits the nail on the head when she bursts out with the truth – that none of the others would have been there if she could have had children.

On the whole, the relationships had their problems, and perhaps no one of them was worse than any individual couple faces, but they did seem to be compounded when so many people were attempting to live such intimate lives. It was all too easy for Maurice to get another, younger wife to keep him supplied with kids, rather than tackling his main relationship with Esther, and either living together childless or exploring the other options. I wasn’t sure if his aversion to convention was a cause or an effect of his lifestyle. I did wonder if any of the women had considered what would happen to them when he died, and perhaps no one but his latest wife had any claim on the estate. These are the kind of practicalities the play doesn’t go into, and that’s fair enough, but I felt there was a lot more to explore in this subject, and this play didn’t go quite as deep as perhaps it could have.

Having said all that, this was still a very enjoyable experience. There was a lot of humour, all the performances were very good, especially Adam Gillen as Vincent, and the time flew past. A good way to spend the afternoon.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Twelfth Night – August 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 14th August 2007

We didn’t have the best of starts to tonight’s performance. The journey over was done in pouring rain, and we squelched our way to the theatre only to find the foyer jam-packed with other theatregoers as the doors hadn’t opened yet, and only ten minutes to go before the scehduled start. When we finally got seated, I was amazed to find that we were only a few minutes after the start time, and the play itself began fairly soon after that.

I had been worried that the warm-up might affect my enjoyment of the play (I can get a real sulk on me at times) but I was proved absolutely, completely, and blissfully wrong when we were treated to one of the best Twelfth Night’s I’m ever likely to see. I was puzzled at first to see three men come on stage, one standing at the back, one, the butler or manservant, off to one side, and another attendant sitting on the other side. The music, played on the phonograph (see below) was lovely and sad (Elgar’s Sospiri, per the program notes) and then I realised! We’d seen two productions (Chekov International Theatre Festival meets Cheek by Jowl, and Propeller) where the opening scene was the aftermath of the shipwreck, and I’d forgotten (oh, so quickly) that the opening scene in the generally accepted text is Orsino’s “If music be the food of love…”. Blow me down with a feather, we were not only getting Shakespeare’s language, we seemed to be getting his version of the play as well! What a turn up! Recovering my composure quickly, I focused on watching this performance with an open mind, with one further adjustment later.

Best to describe the set now, before I get too carried away. At the back of the stage was a wall of glass panels, as in a Victorian style large conservatory, with three sets of double doors. A curved walkway in front led to some steps on our right, and below these was a beautiful floor design, suggestive of many things. The interior was blue and shiny, looking like a pool or a water splash. There were tendrils of water spiralling out from this centre, and at first I wasn’t sure if they were wet or dry. Dry, as it turned out. Interlaced with the water spirals was a rough, textured shoreline, looking like sandbars, with one or two areas of planking, as in a jetty. In front of the walkway were a couple of patches of sand grasses, left and centre, and to the right of the pool, on the slant, was a bench, while on the left was a box of some kind (turned out to be a piano), also on the slant, as if half buried in the sand. These gave a wonderful sense of flotsam and jetsam, the after effects of the shipwreck, as well as being practical stage furniture. With the glassy blue of the pond and the greyish colour of the sandbars, there was also a hint of winter and a frozen pond, which was quite appropriate at the end when Feste wraps his coat around himself for the final song. And of course they also suggested the sea, and the beach. This was a masterpiece of design.

Above all this hung several items which were lowered to illustrate and enhance various parts of the story (this is a bit like The Generation Game – can I remember what was on the conveyer belt?). There was a model of a large ship (four funnels – possibly the Titanic?), a life belt (according to Steve, it said SS Rodrigo – the name Sebastian uses when he’s first rescued), a toy dog on wheels, an old style phonograph with trumpet loudspeaker, a plant pot with a tuft of very dead-looking plant, a candelabra, and a pair of tannoy loudspeakers. I will try to remember to mention each item as it’s lowered down. I’ll just mention now that during the interval the chair and piano were removed, so the set for the second half was as for the first but without the integral seating. Costumes were Edwardian glamour, with a strong touch of Upstairs, Downstairs.

Martin Turner as Orsino listened to the music for quite a while. This was no hardship. At the end, he gave us the lines beautifully, and I got the impression of an older, world-weary Orsino, who’s perhaps in love with Olivia because there’s nothing else to fill his days. Let’s face it, he doesn’t seem to have spent much time with her up to now, so his references to “fancy” may imply there’s no real basis for his love – an elderly Romeo falling for a younger Rosalind perhaps? All the lines were delivered well, throughout the play, and I heard far more than I usually do, which made it all the richer. I also liked Orsino’s moodiness when he wants the music, then doesn’t, and also when he changes mood at the end of the scene, from being upbeat about Olivia’s capacity for love, to being gloomy again. Perhaps he’d just reminded himself of what he hadn’t got?

Viola (Laura Rees) was carried on by her sea captain, and set down in the middle of the stage. She seemed a perky waif, a bit dishevelled by being nearly drowned, but not particularly affected by her experiences. This was where I had to do another mental adjustment to stop myself from failing to appreciate the performance. I’d been used to recent Violas being more emotional and more obviously grief-stricken, but this performance was different. This Viola was showing more resourcefulness and humour, and fewer outward signs of grief, and it was both perfectly valid and a very good performance. I still found the “My brother, he is in Elysium” very moving, and had a little sniffle. (I had several more sniffles and an outright sob later on – great fun.) This was a very good scene for telling us where we are, who the relevant characters are, and what the situation is.

Another benefit of this production is that it’s an ensemble piece along with Macbeth. As a result, we have such a tremendous cast for this play that many of the relatively minor parts were played by hugely talented and skilled actors. With such a beefing up of all the roles, the whole production soared to new heights, and there was not one weak area.

The next scene showed this up very well. We get to meet Sir Toby (Paul Shelley), Maria (Suzanne Burden), and later Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Scott Handy). Maria is doing her best to warn Sir Toby that his drunken revels will get him into trouble, but he’s not bothered. A couple of maids have brought on the tea tray, and he has a cup of tea, flirting with the maids as he does. He also tips some whisky from his hip flask into the cup. It’s clear he likes a good time, and that Maria has a soft spot for him, though not as completely as later?

Sir Andrew arrives, fresh from bathing, judging by his swimsuit. Scott Handy played him marvellously well. It’s a difficult part, because on the one hand he is a fool, and the butt of many a joke, but he is also hard done by, and his relationship with Sir Toby is one of the darker aspects of the play. Here we have a Sir Andrew who’s infatuated with Sir Toby, always trying to be like him, to copy what he says and does, and who is all too easy to gull. I got the impression he’s up from the country, with lots of money and not much in the way of brains, almost childlike. It was possible to laugh at him, but I did feel very moved by his “I was adored once too”; it suggested a missed opportunity that might have made his life turn out very differently. The dancing that he did, in fact all the dancing in the production, was contemporary to the setting – early 1920s. Sir Andrew’s efforts included a kind of vertical doggy-paddle, and were suitably funny.

Back at Orsino’s court, the next scene was done as a picnic, with flasks of tea and a rug. Then we see Maria chiding Feste (Michael Feast). He’s carrying a large suitcase, and is on the tart and cynical side. He certainly knows what’s going on between people, as his comments about Sir Toby and Maria indicate.

Olivia (Kate Fleetwood) arrives with her entourage. Malvolio (Patrick Stewart) is holding her umbrella, and is dressed like a butler. I noticed he had that slight head tremor which is often associated with very rigid people. Olivia is more sprightly than is usual, and really does enjoy Feste’s wit, smiling if not actually laughing, and sitting beside him on one of the benches. She’s quite strict in rebuffing Malvolio about his attitude. Malvolio is played with a strong Scottish accent, which fits the lines perfectly, and reminds me of a dourer version of Mr Hudson. He’s completely contemptuous of Feste, and we can see the battle lines being drawn already.

Now Viola arrives, and we see several attempts by Olivia to find out who this messenger is. Finally Malvolio reports on him in a very long-winded, pedantic way, and is most surprised later to be told to leave along with the rest of the servants. He peers back through the window as he leaves, which got a good laugh.

For once, Maria isn’t asked to put on her veil to confuse Viola (it’s not in the text), and despite this, the scene worked perfectly well, with Viola/Cesario’s questions about who the lady of the house is seeming more impertinent, but also more practical. This scene was very brisk, and although it lost some of the details I’m used to from other productions, it did get across how Viola’s passion for Orsino is conveyed in her speeches to Olivia, and it’s this that Olivia falls for. It’s as if Viola was wooing Olivia herself, and yet she’s just expressing her own love for Orsino. I also got the need Viola has to see Olivia’s face – she wants to see what she’s up against, and finds the competition pretty stiff, looks-wise.

Antonio and Sebastian’s scene is set in a railway station – lowering of tannoy speakers. Antonio is really keen on Sebastian, and dashes after him to catch the same train. When Malvolio catches Cesario, I was aware that she covers up for Olivia by not disclosing that she left no ring. Again, Viola is pretty cheerful through her working out that Olivia is in love with her boyish disguise, but it all came across clearly.

Now we have Sir Toby and Sir Andrew carousing in the wee small hours. Feste joins in, and again the phonograph is deployed. (It had a slight problem which meant we heard it scratching away for a bit, but that was soon sorted.) Michael Feast demonstrated what a good voice he has with Feste’s song, and when Maria arrives, there are two or three other servants with her. We’re treated to a dance number, with everyone joining in except Sir Andrew. Malvolio arrives, and puts a stop to the party atmosphere. He’s very unpleasant, especially to Maria, and I could see how he’s set himself up for their revenge. Maria’s device is clearly thought up as she speaks, and much appreciated by the two knights.

Back at the Duke’s, the music is played by two of Orsino’s servants – one on the piano buried in the sand, and the other playing a guitar? (possibly – it’s been a while). Viola’s suffering is clear to see, and Orsino obviously feels a strong affection for this boy, but without any of the uneasiness that’s often shown. Viola is actually kissed three times in this production – once by Orsino, once by Olivia in a later scene, which she doesn’t exactly fight off, and once by Antonio, which really throws her. She also kisses Orsino once herself, at the end.

Now for the big set piece of the play – the gulling of Malvolio. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian are concealed behind an inconspicuous huge red umbrella or parasol, which may not be out of place on a beach, but is perhaps the most unusual hiding place I’ve seen for this bit. Naturally, they keep poking their heads up to say their lines, and Sir Andrew keeps his up too long at one point. When Malvolio “revolves”, Sir Andrew is in plain view, but Malvolio is so wrapped up in himself, he doesn’t see him at first. By the time he does a slow double take, Sir Andrew has had time to get into hiding again.

Patrick Stewart’s performance as Malvolio is the best thing I’ve seen in a long time. He’s a nasty piece of work, and Patrick Stewart doesn’t hold back with playing that side of his character. He insults Feste, has a go at Sir Toby (quite reasonably, in the circumstances), and threatens Maria, as well as raising suits against others, such as Viola’s sea captain. In this scene, he’s positively leering as he describes his idea of married life with Olivia, and he’s even got the proof that such things can happen – he shows us a copy of the Tatler where the pictures prove that “the lady of Strachy married the yeoman of the wardrobe”. We’re all ready to see him taken down a peg or eighteen, when he chances on the letter. The first four lines are written on the outside of the letter, and then we get to the prose bit inside. The reading of the lines was excellent, and the scene was immensely funny. His reactions to the contents inside were fantastic – he’s overjoyed to find she loves him. Malvolio didn’t practise his smiling at this point, so we get to see the fully rehearsed version later. I wasn’t always aware of the reactions from the others, as Malvolio was so funny.

After the interval, with the set slightly adjusted, we get a very evocative seaside interlude, as Feste does his Punch and Judy for a couple of youngsters, another child has her balloon popped by an unpleasant young man, the policeman strolls around chatting to one or two folk, and all is summer jollity. Sebastian and Antonio treat us to scene 3 (before we’ve had one and two), and as they talk, a gentleman who’s been reclining on the far side of the beach, reading his paper, seems to recognise Antonio. He goes over to speak to the policeman, indicating Antonio, and although they don’t do anything more at this time, it’s obvious he’s been rumbled. As everyone disappears, and Feste is packing up his folding Punch and Judy kit into his suitcase, Viola arrives, and starts Act 3 scene 1 proper, by asking Feste if he lives by his tabor. Again, the wit is lively, and sets us up nicely for the next part.

When Olivia and Maria enter, Sir Andrew is well taken with Viola’s words to Olivia, and it’s clear he intends to mangle together a sentence using them all as soon as he can. When they’re told to leave, he’s made at least one failed attempt to give Olivia a present, and he lingers as long as possible behind the glass doors, muttering “odours”, “pregnant”, etc.

After Viola and Olivia have had another verbal tussle, it’s the turn of Sir Toby and Fabian to set up Sir Andrew for the duel with Cesario. Sir Toby’s unkindness is starting to show more clearly, and his character’s darker side is coming to the fore. Next Maria prepares us for the entrance of Malvolio.

Olivia herself comes on first, and we can see she’s being seriously affected by her infatuation with Cesario. Her hair is starting to come down, and she’s much more emotional than any Olivia I’ve ever seen. Later on, she’s actually crying because she can’t get what she wants. This time, though, her additional edginess works really well to set up her reactions to Malvolio’s preposterous appearance.

Maria and another maid are with her when Malvolio arrives, and they spend most of their time trying to shield her from him. At one point, Olivia’s standing on the chair with the maids in front of her. Malvolio’s in a kilt (naturally, given the accent), and his stockings are indeed yellow, and seriously cross-gartered. His first grin got a good laugh, and he continues to grimace for all he’s worth throughout the scene. When Olivia asks if he will go to bed, he runs his hand up her leg. He also brandishes his legs, and even waggles them when he’s lying on the ground. They’re all running away from him, but he keeps on going, and when they run off at the end, lifts his kilt to flash them. It was very funny.

Now they’ve gone, he can admit to the tightness of the garters, and sits down to untie them. He’s tremendously dismissive of Sir Toby, and as he reties his garters in order to leave, I can see that he’s tying them the wrong way round – effectively tying his knees together. Sure enough, when he gets up to make a dignified exit, he finds he can’t move his legs separately, and has to make an uncomfortable decision. Does he redo them, or does he hop off the stage, hoping no one will notice? Being the kind of character he is, and not wanting to admit to a mistake, he chooses to hop, and we were in fits of laughter as he tries to maintain his dignity while hopping to the edge of the stage with his knees together. There’s another decision point as he comes to the steps and realises what he’s let himself in for. It’s a tribute to Patrick Stewart’s fitness that he’s able to have Malvolio, after an agonising pause for thought, hop down the steps and off the stage. It just about brought the house down. I have no idea what the other characters were up to – I only had eyes for Malvolio. Brilliant.

The duel was good fun as well. It’s clear neither duellist wants to fight, and again we see the unpleasant side of Sir Toby. Antonio breaks up the fight, and when he asks for his money back, we can see Viola grasping the possibility that Sebastian is alive very quickly. It’s also the first time Cesario’s integrity has been questioned, though not the last. It’s about here that I started seeing this as a farce, with all the threads being carefully woven to give us the marvellous comedy of their unravelling.

The abuse of Malvolio was unpleasant, and I felt he was very badly treated, despite all his own unpleasantness earlier. It was clear that Sir Toby realised he couldn’t keep this sort of behaviour up any longer.

Sebastian was also very good. He handled the possibility of his madness remarkably well, as well as his sudden marriage to a beautiful woman – he’s got some brains, that boy. For the final revelation, Viola is standing at the front of the stage, with Orsino in front of her so that Sebastian can’t see her when he rushes on from the back. When they do see each other, and circle round, warily, I was sobbing with the emotion of it all. At the end, Antonio leaves the stage, a free man but without the man he loves, while the others gather behind the glass walls of the conservatory to celebrate. Feste comes out to sing us his final song, and that’s it.

Well, I didn’t manage to put in where each item was lowered down, but that’s tough luck – I’ve written quite enough for one play. I particularly liked the excellent reactions from the spare characters on stage – often they don’t seem to be fully participating, but tonight they were completely involved and responding noticeably to the main action. I so want this production to transfer, but sadly, it seems it’s only the Macbeth that will be going to London. A shame.

The post-show was interesting, and we found out that Michael Feast apparently suggested that Patrick Stewart play Malvolio with a Scottish accent. With Macbeth, there were a lot of men crammed into one small dressing room over at the Minerva, and they had a running joke going with Scottish accents. After the suggestion, Patrick Stewart tried it out, and found it fitted the lines perfectly, so the rest evolved from that. I don’t remember much more of what was said now, but the performance will live on in my memory for a long time. Hopefully, I’ll still be able to enjoy future productions, and if they’re half as good as this one I’ll count myself lucky.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

The Penelopiad – August 2007 (2)


By: Margaret Atwood

Directed by: Josette Bushell-Mingo

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 9th August 2007

I managed to wipe my memory clean for the start of this performance, forgetting what I’d seen before, to allow me to see this as a totally new experience. I did start to get “flashbacks” later on, but I found it surprisingly easy to move into forgetfulness – perhaps the influence of Lethe?

There were some changes to the cast. Sarah Malin, who had played Odysseus so well last time, had been taken ill, so the parts were re-arranged to cover. This meant there were only eleven maids tonight, but that didn’t spoil it for me. On the whole, the understudies did a great job, and I possibly just preferred this Helen (Lisa Karen Cox). Odysseus was played by Kelly McIntosh tonight, and the only snag was her height. When so many people comment on Odysseus’s short legs, it needs a bit more effort on the audience’s part when Odysseus is one of the tallest people there. However, apart from that, and some uncertainty in the bow-stringing scene, this was another good performance, remarkably so in the post-marriage bed.

It was interesting seeing it again from a completely different angle. Before, we had more of a panoramic view – here we were much closer to the action, and could see the expressions on their faces more clearly. I was also aware of the sound effects more – how recordings were used for various lines to create an effect. I hadn’t realised how much this went on when we were up in the second gallery. I also saw some things that hadn’t been so visible from above – Penelope talking to one of the maids who was off to one side, for example. And of course we missed seeing that beautiful pool this time. I’m glad I had my memory to call on for that one.

The darkness at the start seemed to last longer this time. When the light shafted down, Penelope was standing there with her veil over her head, and speaks the first few lines like that. I don’t remember if it was the same last time. Either way, it was very effective. When she removed the veil, and wrapped it round herself, she was grinning, and very girlish. The changes of emotion through the opening scene came across very well, and I noticed this time that when the maids came on from the back they too had veils over themselves. When the next scene starts, showing us Penelope’s childhood, that’s when they throw off the veils and start playing the other parts.

I was able to see Penny Downie’s drowning performance much better tonight – it was very effective, giving the impression of someone falling through the water, and struggling for air. The birds still seemed more like seagulls, but who cares? The audience seemed more responsive tonight; I heard more laughter on the funny lines than I remember from before.

She dances a bit when talking of the “vapid dancing” that goes on in the fields of asphodel – that may be new. The curtain at the back that came down for the childhood scene, I think, didn’t properly come down, so the group that huddles behind it for the wedding night activities are partly exposed. I thought Penelope screamed a bit quicker tonight, and seemed to be enjoying the deception a lot more.

The sea journey to Ithaca was clearer from this perspective. I noticed Penelope throwing up more than once, and the maids were hauling on ropes and bailing out the ship. Odysseus was positioned aft, steering their course. With the dramatic lighting, it made more of an impression on me this time. I was prepared for the introduction of the in-laws this time – there seemed to be more bleating, though whether it was the wife or the goat, I’m not sure.

The birthing scene was well received this time, and certainly looked effective, with the baby suddenly popping out. I had a greater sense of Penelope being held back from her baby, being cut off from her natural role.  The scene where Odysseus leaves for Troy registered more with me. The audience responded more to Odysseus’s comment about having thought the oath up himself – hoist with his own petard.

It’s after this that Penelope has a go at Helen, calling her a “septic bitch”, and immediately after that she draws back the cover on the pool. For several of the scenes, when the maids or their characters were giving us the main action, I noticed that Penelope was standing towards the back of the stage, usually on the left, and with her back to us she was looking over her shoulder at what was going on. This gave a lovely sense of her detachment from the maids’ version of the story, while still emphasising her importance as the central character.

The meeting with Helen in Hades was just as good as before. I liked Helen’s calm assurance that, even as a disembodied ghost, she’s still worth looking at. The rape scene was just as powerful, and I felt the contrast with the feather fan song even more acutely. It’s a tough thing to pull off, bringing in a song like that when we’ve just had an extremely emotional moment, but they’re still managing it very well.

The dream sequence is triggered by Eurycleia bringing in a drink for Penelope. She holds a huge drinking bowl up, and runs around her, waving it in the air. Then Penelope dreams. She sees the sailors, the sirens, and Telemachus with his toy boat on his head, walking across the stage, and meeting with Helen. The one-eyed monster seemed to be missing this time, but it all seemed much clearer from this angle.

I realised that Penelope is teasing Eurycleia when she tells her to wash the stranger’s feet. Knowing that she’s already recognised Odysseus helped, I think. The tension wasn’t quite the same for the bow-stringing scene, and Odysseus had some difficulty removing his breastplate to become a maid again, but the hanging scene was even more effective, as I could see the maids rise up – the equivalent of their bodies dropping down – one by one. It was macabre and very moving. For their final bows, Penny Downie took a moment to acknowledge each of the understudies.

Overall, I enjoyed this almost as much as the first time. The changes due to illness did remove a bit of the energy, but the performances were even more remarkable for the last-minute rearrangements. Seeing it close up was also a bonus, and I still think Penny Downie should receive every acting award available for this performance. I’d love it to come back after the stint in Canada, but heigh-ho, we’ll just have to cross our fingers.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at