The Seagull – December 2007


By: Anton Chekov

Directed by: Trevor Nunn

Company: RSC

Venue: New London Theatre

Date: Saturday 22nd December 2007

I had hoped to see some improvement from the previous performance of this production that we saw in Stratford, but apart from one or two details, it was pretty much the same, still lacking that warmth and empathy that would help me enjoy it more.

Like the King Lear, the different acting space helped a bit, as it all seemed much closer than before, and our seats gave us a good view of the stage. The detail in the servants’ comings and goings was more noticeable this time, but I didn’t catch anything extra in the main performances; they were just as good as before. The main difference was that this time William Gaunt was playing Sorin, and his portrayal was less doddery. As a result, the lines came across better, although he had to fade pretty fast by the end.

Frances Barber wasn’t limping this time, but she wasn’t throwing herself about quite so much either, as I recall. I still enjoyed her performance, and still felt very distanced from the events and characters. It’s a shame, perhaps, but maybe the next production will show me something different.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Fantastic Mr Fox – December 2007


Adapted by Sarah Woods from the story by Roald Dahl

Directed by: Steve Tiplady

Company: Little Angel Theatre

Venue: Stratford Civic Hall

Date: Thursday 20th December 2007

This was one of those shows where adults like us can feel a bit out of place, turning up without any kids in tow. Who cares! We’re always keen to enjoy ourselves, and as we’d liked the Venus and Adonis that Little Angle Theatre did as part of the Complete Works, we decided to give this a go as well.

It was great fun. We were in the minority – most of the audience were significantly under ten – but that didn’t matter a bit, although we might choose less conspicuous seats next time. Right in the middle of the front row was a bit obvious. It led to me being the strange ‘thing’ Mr Fox warned his cub not to go near, as he didn’t know where I’d been!

The Civic Hall had been transformed from when we’d seen Noughts and Crosses. The only seating was what had been the central block before, and the puppet theatre took up the front of the acting space. There was a jumble of screens, boxes, sheets, and walkways, which I can’t possibly describe in detail. The set also came to pieces – flaps opened up to show us the foxes tunnelling underground, and as the nasty farmers dug down to try and catch them, that part of the set was gradually taken away to show how far down they’d dug. A section on the left became the food store in the third farmer’s cellar. There were lots of cider bottles, and a mouse which was obviously very happy as it could drink itself silly whenever it liked.

The story is all about how Mr Fox (the fantastic Mr Fox) saves his family and steals loads of food from the three farmers who are so mean they want to kill Mr Fox and his family to stop them eating any more of their livestock. He’s a great tunneller, so he can dig himself and the family out of pretty much any difficulty. His kids follow him and have a great time seeing their daddy at work, but there are a few close shaves. Will Mr Fox save his family? And will they have enough to eat? Of course they do. It all ends happily with the farmers trounced, the foxes and their friends happy and safe, and lots and lots of delicious food to eat. Given that the rabbits have also been invited to the feast, I was a bit concerned that some of the guests might not make it back home, but this one’s for the kids, so let’s not go there.

The puppetry was fabulous again. We could see the puppeteers clearly, as they were in the light the whole time, and wearing ordinary but plain clothes. They also did the voices, and had to be pretty dextrous to manage all the various puppets that were moving around at the same time. Once again, I could have sworn the expressions on the puppets’ faces changed, but of course they didn’t. Different sizes of puppets were used at different times, to give a sense of perspective, and yes, I did get Steve to buy one of the cuddly Mr Fox’s on offer in the shop afterwards (he’s so cute!). (That’s the fox, by the way, although Steve’s pretty attractive too.)

I can’t comment on individual performers here, as I wasn’t really paying attention to them at all – how on earth do we do this thing in our brains where we can see people moving the puppets and completely ignore them like they’re not there? But it was very good fun, and entirely suitable for adults as well as kids. So there.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Noughts And Crosses – December 2007


Adapted by Dominic Cooke from the novel by Malorie Blackman

Directed by: Dominic Cooke

Company: RSC

Venue: Stratford Civic Hall

Date: Wednesday 19th December 2007

This was a powerful drama, well acted, and successfully aimed at the younger generation. Starting from the problems of racial segregation and repression, Malorie Blackman’s story of the love between a young boy and girl takes the Romeo and Juliet theme and turns things on their head, producing a modern story told by adolescents about the difficulties of growing up and leading a life of your own choosing when society’s prejudices stand in the way. A lot for one evening, and it’s amazing how it all gets fitted in – Dominic Cooke has adapted this really well, though not having read the book I can’t say how faithful he’s been, just that this works well as a drama.

I felt the first half was a bit slow, but it did set up the characters and situation well for us. The second half introduced the other family, and this helped to round out the relationships and the context of a repressive society. The plot concerns Callum, a young white man, and his friend Sephy, a young black woman. In this society, whites are called “noughts” and blacks, “crosses”, or “blanks” and “daggers”, respectively. This is a society in which black people are well off, in charge, and determined to keep it that way. White folk are despised, denied opportunities and treated like shit. Naturally, Callum and Sephy’s friendship doesn’t go down well with anyone, and they go through all sorts of ups and downs in their relationship to each other, as well as their family and friends, culminating in Callum’s refusal to save his own life as it would mean Sephy agreeing to abort their baby. The play ends with Sephy cradling her new born girl – a ray of hope for the future.

Along the way we get to see how people can become involved in violence and lose their way when so many bad things happen to them and their families. Callum’s sister was beaten up for dating a cross, and retreats into madness for a few years before killing herself. Callum’s Dad gets involved with a Liberation group, and allows himself to be convicted for setting off a bomb which killed seven people. He does this partly to protect his other son, Jude, who was involved, and partly out of grief for his daughter’s death (at least, that’s what I reckon). His determination to die leads him to attempt escape, which gets him killed. Sephy herself is beaten up at school for daring to sit with noughts at lunch. It’s a bleak picture, and yet there’s a lot of humour, and the love between the two main characters lightens much of the darkness. There’s a strong sense of compassion. We see the suffering in Sephy’s family – a mother who drinks, an absent father more interested in his political career than his family, and an unexplained rift between the two mothers, who had been on some sort of friendly footing until a few years before. Although the story is mostly told from the youngsters’ point of view, we do get to see the effect the social situation is having on the people around them.

The performance space was new to us. It’s basically a flat area with seats on three sides, and entrances in the corners. The two leads often came on and spoke directly to us without any props. When needed, furniture was brought on by the cast, chairs were held up until all were ready, and then slammed down together – very energetic and lively. Occasionally the people on stage would freeze, while Callum and Sephy would talk or move around them. It was a very direct style, and worked well, especially for the asides. With the audience on three sides, it was noticeable that the two leads were careful to include everyone, moving around as necessary, even when on the loo! (It’s in the small toilet cubicle which gets wheeled on to stage that Sephy gets beaten up.) When the characters turned on the TV for the news, the reporter would walk onto the stage, along with any interviewees, and speak directly to the viewers. Talk about having TV in your living room! I found this worked very well, as it emphasised the closeness there was between the characters in the action and what was being showing on TV.

The cast were excellent. The two leads – Richard Madden as Callum and Ony Uhiara as Sephy – gave superb performances, managing to grow up just the right amount over the two or three years of the action, maturing from gawky adolescents to young adults. The physical aspect of their love was also well done, developing from the first exploratory kiss, heads to one side, to full blown sex described only in words, but all the more powerful for that (for some things, less is more). Their first night together in Sephy’s bed was a lovely depiction of innocent love, and the way Sephy’s mother nearly caught him the next morning was very funny. Fortunately, Sephy’s ally Sarah, her mother’s secretary, helps out by pushing one of Callum’s shoes under the bed.

It’s difficult to single anyone else out, but I do want to mention Jo Martin as Sephy’s mother, Jasmine. She gave a wonderful sense of that character’s “hinterland”, her suffering as she gives in to try and make things work, the drinking to “smooth out the rough edges”, the support she gives secretly to help Callum’s father during his trial, and the unknown reason for all this – what happened those few years before that caused the rift between her and Callum’s mother?

Although I found it interesting to see this topsy-turvy view of racism, I didn’t really relate to either group. I found it hard to believe the noughts were really downtrodden – was that just my conditioning, or was I influenced by possibly unconscious body language from the actors? I can remember wanting to belong to a group when I was that age – we’d moved several times, and it always seemed hard to find like-minded friends of my own age – but I don’t ever remember wanting to create a “them” to support the “us”. Maybe I was lucky not to fall in with the “wrong” sort?

Looking back, probably the only criticism I can find is that the play does sometimes feel a bit like a checklist of discussion points to be covered. The action comes so thick and fast, especially in the second half (20 minutes longer than the first half), and the scenes are so short, that there’s not a lot of time for depth of character to develop. Actually, it’s surprising how much depth is achieved – another compliment to the actors and the adaptation.

Anyway, the play raised a lot of interesting questions, and more than usual I find myself wondering how I would handle some of these situations. The youngsters at the play tonight were obviously engaged as well, and I suspect there will be some interesting discussions as a result of this.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Chains – December 2007


By: Elizabeth Baker

Directed by: Auriol Smith

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Saturday 15th December 2007

This was our first trip to the Orange Tree, and everything about it was enjoyable. The theatre itself is small but beautifully formed, has nice loos, and a civilised cup of tea at the start helped a lot. I noticed a sign about post-show discussions after every Thursday matinee, so that will be something to look forward to on our next visit.

The play was written in 1909, and gives a good account of life at that time for those at the bottom of the white collar employment ladder – the clerks. Supposedly in safe, well-paying jobs, they were being worked like machines (quill-drivers), and just as much at risk of losing their jobs as anyone nowadays. Or if they kept their job, it was only by accepting a salary cut.

We get to see the different opinions and choices made by a group of people in this category. Charley Wilson is a clerk with the usual far-off “prospects”, married to Lily. To make ends meet they have a lodger, Fred Tenant (bit obvious, that). Lily has a sister, Maggie, and a brother, Percy, both of whom look set to be married. Her parents, Alfred and Mrs Massey (honest, that’s what she’s called in the program), also appear after the interval, and there’s a neighbour, Morton Leslie, a big hulk of a man who keeps insisting on climbing over the wall and wreaking havoc on Charley’s garden every time, to sounds of clanging and clattering off stage.

The action starts as Charley and Fred arrive back after their Saturday (Saturday!) stint in the office, and Fred tells Charley he’s off to Australia to make a better life for himself. This is unsettling news for both husband and wife. Lily’s more concerned about getting another lodger; in fact she suggests to Charley later that they could get two lodgers, if he clears his plant cuttings out of the small bedroom. Charley’s upset because he also wants to break free from the chains of office life, and over the course of Saturday and Sunday he decides to make the break. The final revelation on Monday morning stops him in his tracks, and we see him taking on the burden of a monotonous life of drudgery in order to support his family. I’m still not sure whether Lily knows she’s won a sort of victory at the end, or whether her serenity, bordering on smugness, is just due to her natural good temper.

The set and the auditorium were as one. Intimate doesn’t fully describe the closeness. It looked like we’d invaded someone’s living room, put in the audience seats and audience, and let them carry on with their lives. The far wall had wallpaper and pictures on it, behind the audience, and people in the front row were centimetres from the action, if that. Mind you, the whole performance space was less than ten metres square, so cosiness is a given.

The first two acts and the last were in the same room – Charley and Lily’s living room – while act three, after the interval, was in Lily’s parent’s sitting room. The set was changed during the interval, and I was wondering how they’d change it back for the final scene. Different covers had been put on the settee and comfy chair, the fire, carpet and tables had all been moved, and it took a while. The actual change was a lovely piece of staging. Col Farrell, playing Mr Massey, stayed in character, while the other actors became stage hands and started moving all the furniture back in a very organised way. Mr Massey obviously wanted to carry on reading his paper and smoking his pipe, but kept being moved on by the others. Eventually, he sits in a wooden chair, thinking he’s done, and his wife comes along and snatches the paper away. By this time, the set has been completely changed, and he looks around in amazement, realises he’s in the wrong house, and scuttles off. Beautifully done.

All the performances were excellent. Amy Noble, as Lily, was in her first professional role, and carried it off remarkably well. Octavia Walters played Lily’s sister Maggie with a lot of spirit; she’s the one who supports Fred’s plans to go to Australia and helps to fuel Charley’s enthusiasm for a new life. Col Farrell was very good in a small role as Lily’s father, kind hearted but seeing no need for change, and Justin Avoth as Charley Wilson held it all together well. His difficulties in making up his mind were the central issue in the play, and we get to see a slice of Edwardian life that I hadn’t known about before. I found it a very well-written and interesting play, and a very good production.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

King Lear – December 2007


By: WIlliam Shakespeare

Directed by: Trevor Nunn

Company: RSC

Venue: New London Theatre

Date: Wednesday 12th December 2007

This was a definite improvement on the Courtyard performance. For one thing, we could see what was happening on stage from the start, and although I didn’t get a headset, I found I could hear pretty much everything as well. There was one change to the cast that we noticed – Frances Barber was indisposed, and so we got to see Melanie Jessop play Goneril, which she did at the start of the run in Stratford but without being reviewed. I probably preferred Frances Barber, of the two, but this wasn’t bad at all.

Before I forget, I’ll just mention the palaver at the start, as about 400 women queued for about ten loos, causing the start to be delayed by a few minutes. This was why I didn’t get a headset, and God knows why we were sent into the auditorium from the wrong end of a very long row! Not the best start, but once the play got underway, I soon settled down to enjoy myself. I will also add that there was relatively little coughing, especially during the first half, although the mobile phones in the second half must have been unpleasant for those that heard them. (Four, according to Steve – I just caught the ice-cream van one near us.)

Enough of that stuff. The stage here was less thrust than in Stratford, and this suited the set much better – the action at the back wasn’t so far away. In addition, the open nature of the auditorium (more like Chichester’s main stage) made the action seem to come forward more. We were practically straight on to the centre of the stage, and got a really good view of everything.

The opening bit with Lear demonstrating spiritual as well as political leadership of his people was OK. It does set up his dominance, and also gets the opening characters on stage plausibly. I liked William Gaunt’s Gloucester in this – he’s well-meaning but gullible, and apart from Kent’s passionate reactions, he’s the main source for our emotional response to the way the King’s being treated. Or perhaps I should call him the ex-King, as his loss of power is very clearly demonstrated here.

We finally saw the speeches, as Lear stood at the lectern and used his cards to prompt himself. The court was obviously used to pandering to his every whim, and understood the need to flatter him, although the sisters were a bit unsure to begin with. I noticed this time that Cordelia stood at the back, didn’t give us her asides, and seemed to regard it all as a joke on her father’s part. Perhaps this explains her different relationship with him – her sisters know how unreliable he is and have suffered too much at his hands, while Cordelia indulges and is indulged. Boy, is she in for a surprise.

I didn’t see Regan reacting to the gift of territory this time – last time she was clearly thinking her portion wasn’t big enough; she’s a girl who always wants more. Cordelia still thinks it’s all a joke when she starts off at the lectern, but it all goes rapidly downhill when she doesn’t trot out the paean of praise her father expects. Her shock is clear, and was well played. I always like the bit where France takes up “what’s cast away” – sniff, sniff. After Cordelia’s “farewells” to her sisters (more like “drop dead, you bitches” in this performance), Regan and Goneril discuss the situation, and here it’s clear that Regan just hasn’t been attending those AA meetings. She snaffles not one but two drinks this time, the second on her way out.

The letter scene between Edmund and Gloucester was well done. I was even more aware this time that Gloucester had earlier come back on stage with France and Burgundy just as Kent is leaving to go into exile. His comments about the situation seem more pertinent because he’s only just caught up on events, and his use of an actual pamphlet to read out the predictions was a nice touch. Of course, the predictions are all going to happen, so it’s double fun to hear Edmund ridicule his father’s gullibility – partly because he’s right in general terms, and partly because he’s wrong as far as this play goes. Edgar, probably the only decent man in the play, made it clear that spending two hours in conversation with his father was a real snooze-fest. Ben Meyjes’s performance was just as good as I remembered from last time, with no significant changes that I noticed.

When Lear comes on with his cronies for his après-hunting drink before dinner, the rowdiness was either more than before or just more noticeable on the trimmed down stage. There seemed to be more interaction among the group during this scene than I remember, and the early signs of Lear’s madness are evident. Goneril didn’t react as strongly to his cursing, although she did still collapse, and the fool’s comments all came across clearly. “Nothing” is the key word of this play, and Lear’s response to one of the fool’s enquires echoes Cordelia’s “nothing” perfectly. He’s quite a good writer, this Shakespeare chap.

When Kent, in disguise, arrives at Gloucester’s place, there’s a party in full swing inside, and he’s waiting outside when Goneril’s servant arrives. Kent’s standing in front of the light, so naturally the other guy can’t see who he is, and the next thing he knows he’s being attacked, when he has nothing but his cowardice to defend him. Edmund takes a hand, and soon everyone comes out. Believe it or not, Regan doesn’t actually have a drink with her! But a tray with four goblets is brought out, and trust me, she has three of them.

I’ve just realised how Kent’s deliberate rudeness to this group both echoes and contrasts with Cordelia’s unintentional slight of Lear in the opening scene. Cordelia hardly says anything, Kent says plenty; she’s sent away, he’s put in the stocks. I do get Cornwall’s point, though; it’s easy enough for people to be rude and cover it up by claiming they’re just “plain speakers”, but then spin cuts both ways. Flattery can cover a multitude of sins as well.

From here it’s much as before. I keep recognising the validity of the sisters’ arguments – Lear has set up an almost impossible situation for them, and I’m not convinced even Cordelia would have been able to handle it, if she’d stayed. It’s often easier to be the one who comes in now and again, and who doesn’t have to put up with the daily grind of looking after an ageing parent. But of course they are two villainous bitches (apologies to any female dogs offended by that last comparison), and that was brought out fully in this production. It helped that Lear was relatively sympathetic – misguided and stupid, but not specifically malicious or monstrous. The sort of chap who was pampered and flattered as he grew up as heir to the throne, and never really got a sound grasp of reality, nor learned how to deal with setbacks. As long as everything went fine for him, he was easy enough to get on with, but woe betide anyone who crossed him, as he wouldn’t be able to handle it reasonably.

One other change I noticed was the way that Regan draped herself erotically against some poles when she gets a chance to be alone with Edmund. She whipped her coat off so quick she risked getting friction burns, and flung herself provocatively onto the prop, just before he turned round and saw her. Nifty work.

The fight between Edmund and Edgar looked a little weak this time, as if they’re getting a bit jaded. Some of the movements didn’t make sense, and didn’t seem to connect properly, and the energy wasn’t as focused. Kent’s departure at the end had him actually taking his gun out of his holster, an advance on last time, making it even clearer that he’s off to kill himself. In fact, I was half-expecting a gunshot off stage after Edgar’s closing lines – it would have added tremendously to the emotional impact at that point.

The whole production had a tremendous amount of detail, and all the performances were good, but the central part of Lear is key, and Ian McKellen’s performance was outstanding. I’ve already mentioned that this Lear was more sympathetic than most, but McKellen’s depiction of Lear’s emotional journey into madness was superb. It started early, was soundly based on Lear’s personality and developed in an intelligible manner, beautifully paced. It’s perfectly logical that he should strip off when he does (and it doesn’t hurt the box office).

As a general point, we find that Trevor Nunn’s productions are clear, decisive, and tend to the literal interpretation. For example, Lear’s comment at the end “and my poor fool is hanged”, which has been interpreted in various ways, is here demonstrated just before the interval, when Cornwall’s soldiers capture Gloucester and hang the fool. It’s a style of production that brings out a great deal of the plot and makes every line significant, and there’s much to commend it.

However, I still found myself not able to applaud for long afterwards. I did enjoy myself, and found it a very comprehensive and clear performance, with many individual highlights, and a strong sense of understanding the play, but I didn’t feel as enthused as for some Shakespeare productions. I’m very glad we saw it again, and from a better angle, as well as in a more supportive performance space, and I would recommend it to anyone (if you could get the tickets!), but I still felt a lack of connection somewhere – an intelligent but not necessarily a heartfelt production.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Cloud Nine – December 2007


By: Caryl Churchill

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 8th December 2007

We’d seen this play back in the 80s at Chichester. Neither of us could remember much about it apart from Tom Hollander dressed as a little girl. We weren’t sure how good this afternoon’s performance was going to be, and our low expectations gave us ample scope to enjoy this production, which seemed much funnier and more interesting than we expected.

The play was originally developed during a workshop period, with Caryl Churchill going off and writing the piece after the actors and director had explored a specific topic, in this case sexual politics. For the first half, we see a family out in Africa in Victorian times, supporting Queen and country, and seething with repressed and expressed passions of all kinds. With mixed gender roles – the son is played by a woman, the mother by a man – there’s a lively sense of fun which reminded Steve of farce. The set is simple – a round raked disc (is this a theme? – Thea Sharrock did the same thing with The Emperor Jones) with a square flat platform in the middle, a doorway with a couple of windows, and a bench. Sophie Stanton, who played two characters in this half, had a lot of quick changes to do, but otherwise the characters stayed the same throughout.

In the second half, we see the family group twenty-five years on, but in terms of the outside world, we’re now in 1979, in London. This strange warping of time works remarkably well. Victorian attitudes lingered on for longer than necessary anyway, and this juxtaposition shows up the changes more clearly than a more realistic timescale would have. It’s also good fun, as when the Victorian characters reappear from time to time – more quick changes, but for everyone this time. There’s no real plot, just the characters discovering what works for them and what doesn’t.

For example, Betty the mother is now a prim, uptight sexually repressed woman who worries for England and gradually finds her feet, and her clitoris, by the end of the play. Her daughter Vicky, played rather well by a doll in the first half, now emerges as a woman in her own right, but so far up the collective gender political backside that we sometimes need subtitles to understand her. Her determination to find herself as a woman makes it virtually impossible for her man, Martin, to know where he stands. I found myself wondering if these scenes were funnier now that we’ve moved on a bit from those situations, or if this is just a much funnier production.

The son, Edward, now played by a man instead of a girl, has accepted his homosexuality, and is content to be a wife to some man. Unfortunately, his partner of choice is rampantly unfaithful, so Martin ends up living with Vicky and her lesbian lover, Lin – a more interesting ménage-a-trois than most. The next generation consist of Cathy, Lin’s daughter, whom we see, and Tommy, Martin and Vicky’s son, whom we don’t. Cathy is played by James Fleet, who also played the father in the first half, all rugged colonial with a moustache and a hard-on for another woman. The moustache stayed on for part two, and although it didn’t entirely go with the pink frock, after a while we got used to it. I won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t become the fashion, though.

The play ends with Betty of old coming on to be embraced by Betty of now. It wasn’t a bad ending – I just felt we hadn’t concentrated on Betty enough to make it a completely fitting ending. However, this is probably a compliment to the fine ensemble work that kept the whole piece entertaining all the way through.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at