Dickens Unplugged – February 2008

6/10

By Adam Long

Directed by Adam Long

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 15th February 2008

This has been a good week for dogs. On Wednesday, there was a lovely (or not-so-lovely) pooch in Brief Encounter, and tonight we had not only another cuddly pooch (Dora’s little fashion accessory), but also a massive bull terrier, courtesy (if that’s the right term) of Bill Sykes. The cute little pooch nearly stole the show, as they have a tendency to do, I find. Perhaps it was the way it waved at its fans in the audience….

This was the Reduced Shakespeare version of Dickens, and done in much the same style as the Shakespeare, but with more music. There were five actors this time, and they were all well used. Despite all of the cast being male, I found the women’s parts particularly impressive, especially as they often told the male characters where to shove it. Something not often found in the original works, true, but I’m sure they were updating the stories with integrity and love. This lot are, after all, the best Charles Dickens tribute group in the world!

After the opening song, Dickens himself arrives, and remonstrates with the band. The set is a cornucopia of Dickensian bric-a-brac, with signs springing forth from either side, above their heads, and across the floor, to tell us which book we’re being treated to for the next five seconds. Condensed storylines are rattled off in song, and we get to see longer passages from David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and, finally, A Christmas Carol. All of this was interspersed with information about Dickens’s life and death. It was a heady brew.

What did I like most? The guillotine sequence, with Sidney Carton’s head popping up to sing the last line of his song. The way various characters keep interrupting David Copperfield as he’s trying to hear Dora’s last words. Tiny Tim riffing on his electric guitar (I still got the sniffles when Tiny Tim came on). The quick passing of many years, demonstrated by a sign saying “many years” being whisked across the stage. Dickens, ill in bed, being haunted by the “ghosts” of Bill Sykes and Miss Faversham, who’re both annoyed at the way he bumped them off. The early concatenation of songs from Oliver, which annoys Dickens so much he has them act out some correct scenes instead. The over-acting of the bludgeoning scene from Oliver Twist, which was apparently Dickens’ favourite to act out on stage. His ex and Ellen agreed at his graveside that that was what did him in, all that bludgeoning. The three ghosts of Christmas, especially the final one, with his pathetic “woooo”.

It took me a bit of time to get warmed up tonight, so I may have underestimated the performance, but I suspect there’s more to come. There are some more serious bits to this show, but they are brief, and overall it’s lively, entertaining, and fun. I hope they have a good run in London.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Visiting Mister Green – February 2008

5/10

By Jeff Baron

Directed by Patrick Garland

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 14th February 2008

This was a straightforward odd couple two-hander. The couple in question are Mr Green, an old Jewish guy living at the top of an apartment block, and Ross, the young man who nearly ran him over when he walked out onto the road without looking. Despite Mr Green being entirely to blame, as Ross sees it, Ross is the one doing community service, and a judge has ordered that he spend some time every week helping Mr Green in whatever way he needs help. Mr Green, being old (86?), doesn’t want help; he just wants to waste away now his wife’s dead.  Needless to say, the two get to know, like and respect each other, and Mr Green finally gets in contact with another family member he’d cut out of his life for years.

It’s a good play, well constructed, and I enjoyed this first trip to the Rose Theatre at Kingston. The theatre is pretty rough and ready, with some work still to be done, but the seats were comfortable enough, and the facilities plain but good. The staff were certainly welcoming and helpful, and with an easy train connection we hope to make this a regular stop.

The only down side to this performance was that Warren Mitchell is showing his age, not just acting it. The performances were good, but lacked power, and I feel that more could be got out of both parts with a stronger actor in the title role. That said, it was certainly entertaining, and I’m glad we managed to catch this production on tour.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Brief Encounter – February 2008

8/10

By Noel Coward, adapted by Emma Rice

Directed by Emma Rice

Company: Kneehigh

Venue: The Cinema, Haymarket

Date: Wednesday 13th February 2008

This was definitely the best combination of cinema and theatre I’ve ever seen. The way the two media were blended together created a tremendous experience, and the seats were a lot comfier too. And there were cucumber sandwiches in the intermission!

The story of Brief Encounter is comingled with several Noel Coward songs and poems, performed by the staff at the railway station, a talented bunch who can turn their hands to most things. As well as sporting a magnificent rear end and selling delicious looking cakes, the chief tea lady Tamzin Griffin plays the cello and sings. Her helper, Amanda Lawrence, also sings and dances, and there are contributions by the others as well.

First, the set. The entire width of the stage was used, with plush curtains coming across to screen off the sides occasionally. At other times we could see the scaffolding on each side, with the stairs leading up to the gantry at the back. There was an oven door set into the back wall, the tea shop counter on the left, and some tables and chairs to the right. The back wall was used as a screen, while another screen, made of strips, came down near the front on several occasions, and allowed characters to slip on and off screen – very effective. It was mainly used to show Laura rejoining her husband. The first time, she was obviously reluctant to leave her lover, but later, there was a sense of finality, as she chooses her husband over Alec. When needed, the same chairs and lamp were brought on for a scene with her husband on the stage. Their children were large puppet dolls.

The performance started with the ushers and usherettes lining up on each side of the stage, and serenading us with some lovely harmonies. Then the two lovebirds, who were sitting in the middle of the front row, began having an argument. She got up and walked off, and from there we got all sorts of entertainment, some on stage, some in the auditorium, some filmed, some song and dance. But they kept the focus and the momentum going brilliantly throughout.

They made a lot more of the minor characters, but eventually the love story gets underway, and we’re treated to a couple of outstanding performances by Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock as the two lovers. They give us all the necessary emotional restraint and upper class accents, while at the same time making the passion underneath it all believable. This passion is often represented by having a film of waves crashing on the shore projected on the screen at the back, and playing some sweeping classical music as the characters swoon briefly in their chairs in the tea room. On one occasion this segues nicely into a scene with Laura’s husband, where he asks her to turn the music down.

The interval was an intermission, and there were some lovely adverts shown, all done in the style of the day, and finishing with the cheesy grins which are held for a second or two longer than is natural. Then the cucumber sandwiches arrived, and we both had one – lovely.

In the second half, we get the scene where the lovers’ final parting is ruined by a friend of Laura arriving and taking over the conversation. She’s played here by Amanda Lawrence, who also plays Beryl in the tea-room. She’s wearing an outrageously long feather on her hat – nearly pokes Alec’s eye out – and she has a cheeky wee dog that steals the show. It’s another puppet, or perhaps a mop, but with a massive personality. After the curtain calls, the final piece of music accompanying our exit is Joe Jackson’s Fools in Love – very appropriate.

This is Kneehigh as I like them best – imaginative, inventive, and telling a story well, despite all the apparent distractions. We left the theatre, sorry cinema, or was it a theatre…? Anyway, we left feeling very happy, especially as there’d been a few sniffles to accompany the many laughs.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Homecoming – February 2008

8/10

By: Harold Pinter

Directed by: Michael Attenborough

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 9th February 2008

After the first scene of this play, I wondered why it wasn’t better known, even done in schools. After the first half, I had a pretty good idea why it wasn’t done in schools, but I’m still not clear why it isn’t better known, and done more often. Perhaps the violence and misogyny put people off. If so, it’s a shame, because it’s a brilliantly written play, full of Pinter’s ambiguities and menacing intonations, and with the rhythms and cadences making it seem like a classical composition rather than a play.

The story, if it can be called that in a Pinter play, concerned the return of one of three sons to the house he grew up in. It’s an all-male household – the father, his brother, and the other two sons. The returning son has brought his wife, and in this production they’ve cast Jenny Jules as the wife, Ruth. This was suggested by Pinter himself, apparently, as well as being the director’s choice, so the juxtaposition of unknown wife and abandoned family is theoretically given an added dimension by having her played by a black actress. However, there’s nothing much in the dialogue to suggest that anyone takes any notice of her skin colour, so in some ways this was a wasted opportunity, and we’re effectively dealing with colour blind casting again. Anyway, she’s an excellent actress, and played the part with great assurance, bringing out what little of her character Pinter puts on the page. Let’s face it, he never could do women well, so this is really a play about the male relationships, and the men’s inability to relate to women as anything other than whore or saint, and often confusing the two.

The scenes give us glimpses of the characters in action. The father, Max (Kenneth Cranham) would give Alf Garnett six lengths start and still pass him well before the furlong pole. He’s a bitter, twisted old man, who spends his time alternating between smooth charm (rarely) and vicious ranting (mostly). He’s obviously done his fatherly duty by hitting his sons copiously with his stick, and I wondered what treatment his wife received when she was still alive. When he first sees Ruth, he attacks Teddy (Neil Dudgeon) for bringing a whore into the house. Even when he’s been told she’s Teddy’s wife, he still has a rant, and then he’s all charm and smarm with her.

Teddy is a strange character. At first he seems nervous and over-anxious, as he and his wife arrive. His meeting with his dad has some very uncomfortable undertones, as they square up for either a battle or a cuddle. It’s clear he’s done his best to get away from the toxic atmosphere of the house, which is why he’s been in America for the last nine years. He’s a doctor of philosophy, literally, as philosophy is his subject. He then decides to leave; presumably the family hasn’t improved over the years he’s been away. However the family want Ruth to stay and look after them, at least when she isn’t turning tricks on the side to help make ends meet. Teddy seems completely unconcerned by this, and is totally happy to leave his wife with this group of Neanderthals. Strange doesn’t quite cover it.

Lenny (Nigel Lindsay), the second son, is a smooth operator. We don’t find out what business he’s in till the second half – he runs a number of prostitutes. He seems to have got past his upbringing by no longer being frightened of his dad, but when confronted with Ruth’s calm assurance, he becomes quite nervous. Joey (Danny Dyer) is the third son, a boxer still under the influence of his dad. He’s the quiet one. There’s also Sam (Anthony O’Donnell), Max’s brother, who works as a chauffeur by day and does the dishes by night. He’s clearly the sensitive one in the family, and the only one who seems to value women for more than sex and housework.

Ruth is the typical female blank at the centre of Pinter’s work. She’s described, by herself and Teddy, as the perfect wife and mother – they have three boys back in America – yet she shows a strange tendency to use sexual allure to enthral the men in the house. She has an encounter with Lenny early on, where he tries to impress her by telling her how he beats up women (not a chat-up line I’d recommend, by the way), and she unnerves him by staying calm and asking straightforward questions. She wins the battle of wills over a glass of water, and yet she seems to be propositioning Lenny. Later, when Joey comes downstairs after spending two hours upstairs with her, it turns out he hasn’t done anything – no sex, nothing. According to his tales of other encounters with women, this is not usual. All these men are attracted to her – moths and flame spring to mind – yet they’re able to talk of putting her on the game so she can earn some money for her keep. At the end, she chooses to stay with the family, on her terms, and as her husband leaves, she’s sitting in the main chair, Max’s chair, just beginning to smile. Her reign has begun, but what sort of a reign will it be in that household? It reminded me of Lord of the Flies, but with a woman involved.

This description really doesn’t get across the beauty of the language. Even with all the swearing and crudity, it was powerful and focused. The performances got the most out of it, and although I would like to see it again, I’m not sure it could be done better. I just hope it is done again – it deserves to be.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Equus – February 2008

6/10

By: Peter Shaffer

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 7th February 2008

It’s strange that I found the previous performance of Equus in London more enjoyable than this one, yet I prefer this performance space – I felt it suited this production more – and the performances were as good, if not better. I think this is an example of the surprise factor. I had a greater sense of wonder and awe the first time round as I hadn’t seen the horse designs before. This time, they were still good, but not such a lift to my system. Some of the magic had gone. Ah well.

Simon Callow played the psychiatrist this time, and Alfie Allen the young man. Simon Callow’s portrayal was much more uptight, and I got a greater sense of someone wrestling with their own demons, never mind someone else’s. He seemed on the verge of a breakdown, and although I didn’t entirely relate to the imagery of the horse’s head, I got the sense of something powerful which he had to come to terms with. Alfie Allen’s performance was very good, and this time I felt that even if the sex had happened in a less stressful place, he might not have got over his obsession. With the more open performance space, I had a greater sense of all the contributing factors to his fixation.

Apart from the cast changes, the only other change I noticed was that when Alan went to blind the horses, the lights went out together, instead of one by one, as they did in the West End. A very enjoyable reprise for a very good production.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Statement Of Regret – February 2008

6/10

By: Kwame Kwei-Armah

Directed by: Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Wednesday 6th February 2008

This was an interesting and stimulating experience. It’s the first play I’ve seen by Kwame Kwei-Armah, and I was impressed by how well he intertwined the personal and the social, how the characters weren’t just mouthpieces for the ideas they’re putting forward. On the other hand, while the performances were excellent, and the play informative, I didn’t feel I could relate to the characters as much as I’d hoped. I’ve had no difficulty with other “black” plays, e.g. Big White Fog, so I’m not sure how much of the distance I felt was down to me (very possible), and how much down to what Steve described as a lack of soul (also possible). Steve has seen other plays by this writer, and found the same deficiency in his other work. I certainly didn’t feel there was anything missing while I was watching the piece, although now that I have a little distance from it, I find there was nothing happening which I really cared about. And from their actions sometimes, it seemed the characters didn’t really care either.

The story is of an older man of West Indian parentage, returning from an enforced leave of absence, who has a breakdown right in front of us. As he runs a policy think tank on black affairs, this is bad news for the whole organisation – five men, two women, and no dog. Actually, given that the two women are this guy’s wife and his mistress, it’s clear the female point of view is going to be pretty limited, and so it proved. But that’s not a problem if the rest of the play can deliver, and most of the time it did.

On the personal level, this chap not only has his mistress, but also his son working for him, while another, illegitimate, son joins them as an intern during the play. Lots of scope for personal issues there. There’s also a gay black guy, and a laid back colourful character who delivers the post and does the opening and closing prayers for meetings, and a partner who is thinking of accepting a candidacy as an MP for the Tories. He’s really covered the ground, but it didn’t seem formulaic at the time, so apologies if my description makes it seem that way.

Don Warrington played the lead character, Kwaku, who is imploding before our eyes. His drinking is obvious, his delusional state less so, but it becomes clearer as the play progresses. His refusal to handle the grief he feels over his father’s death a couple of years ago, plus his guilt and other emotions, drive him crazy. He gradually takes on his father’s persona, eventually making some outrageous racist and anti-Semitic remarks in a TV interview which pretty much wipe out the good he’s done with the organisation over the years. It’s a good performance, and came across pretty powerfully in that small space. I did need a little time to adjust to his use of two different accents, but once I did I found it a useful way of showing what the character was going through, not knowing what path to follow.

The central conflict of ideas was whether black people who are descended from slaves are a distinct group with different needs and therefore should campaign separately, or whether there’s greater strength in all black people working together to further their joint aims. The divisions in the “black community” were very apparent here. Those from Africa who had settled here to find better education, jobs, etc, regarded themselves as different from (and better than) those who had come over from the West Indies. The statistics quoted made it clear that young men with an African origin were doing very well, while West Indian derived young men were at the bottom of the heap. The idea of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome was raised and briefly discussed, but didn’t get a full treatment, as the play was covering a wider range than just one issue, albeit a big issue. (Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome is an idea put forward by Dr Joy De Gruy Leary, and the program notes contain a discussion between her and the author.) The whole conflict was personalised here, because Kwaku’s legitimate son has an African mother, and so is neither one thing nor the other. His father’s rejection of him as not being properly West Indian is deeply hurtful.

The set is two offices, with doors off to right and left up some stairs. In the foreground is the open-plan office, with Kwaku’s office above and behind. Obviously, when action was taking place there, the front office had to go quiet, and this led to a strange lull the day after the really bad TV interview, when the characters left in the office would have surely been doing more than sitting at their desks looking glum while the other characters were having their row in the upper office. However, there was no other way to stage it, and it didn’t distract me too much – just a passing thought.

I don’t feel I’ve been able to put down the real experience of this play so far. It was fine watching it, but now I just seem to be left with ideas, and nothing much in my gut. So I’ll leave it there, and hope I can get enough out of these descriptions to recall the feelings, such as they were.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Late Edwina Black – February 2008

7/10

By William Dinner and William Morum

Directed by Ian Dickens

Company: Ian Dickens Productions

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Friday 1st February 2008

Both Steve and I went to this convinced we’d seen it before, many years ago, but couldn’t remember the details. Having seen it, either our memories are seriously bad on this one, or we hadn’t seen it before at all. I hope the latter is true. Anyway, it meant we were in for an intriguing evening.

The Edwina Black of the title is a Rebecca-like figure. Her loss is mourned by her faithful servant Ellen, but her husband Gregory is glad she’s dead. As is Elizabeth Graham, Edwina’s companion for several years, who appears to have divided her time between helping Edwina and falling in love with Gregory. He has reciprocated, and now the two of them are planning a little trip to the Italian lakes with Edwina’s money. Ah ha, we think, they’ve bumped her off so they can enjoy their life together. Case solved.

But along comes a detective, Henry Martin, to announce that the Home Office isn’t entirely satisfied with the death certificate and the funeral, scheduled for the next day, will have to be postponed. Concern from both potential murderers. As the story unwinds, we get to see each of them go through the mental strain of the investigation. However, it soon becomes clear (or does it?) that each of them thinks the other one has killed Edwina. They manoeuvre round one another, and it becomes obvious that their relationship isn’t going to survive. All sorts of accusations are flung back and forth, and it’s fascinating to see these two crumbling under the pressure. Eventually, the dogged persistence of the policeman pays off, and with a nice little test involving a cup of tea the guilty culprit is finally exposed. Relief! (For us, not for the two lovers.)

I sort of guessed the answer early on but got distracted by all the other possibilities they were going through, so I can’t claim to have solved it at all. I don’t often get taken on such a roller-coaster ride by thrillers these days (I’ve seen too many of them) so this was a refreshing change. The performances were all fine, and I heard just about everything. The set was standard Victorian drawing-room; chairs by the fire on our left, table and chairs to the right, doors either side, stairs in far right corner, French windows centre back. There were also some wind chimes by the window, Edwina’s favourites, and after establishing these with a breeze blowing through the open doors early on they occasionally moved about when the doors were closed, just to remind the lovers of Edwina’s presence. Spooky. And good fun.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me