Aristo – September 2008


By Martin Sherman

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Monday 29th September 2008

I enjoyed this play very much. More so than the several people who left during the first half, or didn’t return after the interval. There was some swearing, and some sexual language which might not be considered appropriate before the watershed, but this is theatre, and we’re all supposed to be grown-ups, so I had no problem with it. In fact, given Aristotle Onassis’s reputation for coarseness, we were probably getting the polite version.

It did take me a short time to get into this play at first. The mildly pornographic story of Aristo’s encounter with a Turkish lieutenant certainly livened things up, and I warmed to the characters from then on. After the opening scene, with Onassis and Jackie on board his yacht, the curtain at the back of the stage slid aside, and a platform came forward with seven people on it, two of them musicians. I realised fairly quickly that this was the chorus, and that we were being given a Greek dramatic structure as well as subject matter. The music was Greek, too, and very good.

The first to speak was Costa, played by Julius D’Silva, who had stepped up to this role replacing another indisposed actor. His prior role, as Theo, was played by Hywel Morgan, another super sub, as he’d stepped in to play the captain and many other parts in Our Man In Havana (August 2007). Anyway, Costa goes into a long spiel about Aristo’s past, the women he’s slept with, the other men they’ve slept with, the marriages, the divorces, the plotting, the business deals, the loves, the hates, etc., etc. It was pretty complicated, but I just about kept tabs on it all, and Costa’s delivery brought out a lot of the humour. Then the technical wizardry started up.

To explain. At the start of the play, the set looked very simple. There was white planking everywhere, and a long rectangular pool, with actual water, along the front of the stage (well guarded during the interval). A flat white wall at the back had a long rectangular window, with a white curtain drawn across it. The sound of Greek music could be heard coming from behind this curtain. There were a couple of chairs, and that’s about it, apart from a door far left, almost completely hidden in the gloom over that way. Once the curtain was drawn back, and the platform came forward, the rest of the white wall was used as a projection screen, allowing for extra settings without much effort. In particular, it was used to create the idyllic island that Aristo used as a retreat, and also to show diagrams of the complicated connections between the many people involved in Aristo’s story, like now, when Costa has been explaining it all to us. The names appeared on the wall, with Onassis in the centre, and with lots and lots of lines drawn everywhere between the people. The chorus all turned and pointed to it, which was very funny. Costa then had even more names to give us, and got a deserved round of applause when he’d finished his stint, as it was mind-boggling how he remembered it all.

Yanni then took over. Played by John Hodgkinson (Absurdia, August 2007), he was instructed to be brief by Costa, which was a bit cheeky considering how long he’d wittered on for. But it soon became clear that brevity was not in Yanni’s repertoire. He kept prefacing the actual information by phrases like “if you’ll permit me to say this”, and “if I can put it this way”, which slowed things up tremendously, but also gave us some good laughs. Yanni was the financial chap, while Costa was the right hand man. Theo didn’t come into it until later, when Aristo asked him how his son, Aristo’s that is, was doing running a plane company. Aristo is furious when Theo describes his son as “nice”, and claims he’s liked by everyone. Not what Onassis expects from his son, obviously.

We also get to meet Maria Callas. She storms on, refusing to be left out of the litany of lovers, and we even get to hear a few snippets of her marvellous singing earlier in her career. It’s a lovely performance by Diana Quick, culminating in the second half in a marvellous cursing sequence followed by an “I wish them all the luck” for Onassis and Jackie’s marriage, which got one of the best laughs of the evening.

Apart from that, we get a brisk review of the tensions between Aristo and the Kennedy clan, his wooing of Jacqueline Kennedy before the death of her husband, and their subsequent marriage, and we’re taken into the speculative area of his involvement in the death of Bobby Kennedy. With this foray into assassination, the tide turns, and Aristo himself becomes one of the hunted. His son is killed in a helicopter crash, and now the man is convinced “they” are out to get him. It’s a study of a particular type of larger-than-life hero, a man who takes on the world and wins, doing what he feels he needs to do for business success. I was very aware during the scenes with his son, Alexander, that it would be impossible for his son to be anything like his father, because Aristo had such hard challenges as young man, while Alexander had been relatively pampered. Hard-won wealth creates its own generation gap.

Robert Lindsay as Aristotle Socrates Onassis was in fine form, showing us his character’s ruthlessness and cunning, along with his charm and passion for life (or should that be sex?). There was plenty of opportunity to sing and dance, including one Greek dance that all the men joined in, hopping over the pool one after another. There were a number of occasions when I felt I was watching the man himself, but occasionally the accent slipped a bit, and brought me back to reality. The changes of mood were very well done, as Aristo was a roller coaster of emotions. Living with him would have tested a saint, and he didn’t seem keen to surround himself with those.

Elizabeth McGovern played Jacqueline, and gave her a kind of dreamy quality. She never seemed to be fully there, even when sober, and certainly not when drunk. I could see the marriage would fail, as she was simply a trophy for Onassis, a way of getting one up on the Kennedy clan, as well as all other men on the planet, and there wouldn’t be anything in it for her other than the money, once Onassis no longer had to woo her into marriage. She came across as someone who wasn’t intellectually gifted, but had spent so much time around those in power that she understood how things worked, and wasn’t particularly bothered by morals. I quite liked this representation of her.

Alexander, Aristo’s son (Joe Marsh), was going through those difficult teenage years, made all the more difficult by his father’s wealth and power. How do you rebel against the man who has everything? And who can seduce you with a helicopter, or expensive car, without worrying where the next mortgage payment’s coming from? Life’s tough just below the top. The chorus, especially his nanny, made it clear he was for the chop, but he did show us another side to Aristo’s character when he was around.

His nanny (June Watson) and another maid in the Onassis household (Denise Black) completed the chorus. Denise did a lot of the singing, and has a very fine voice. I liked the way the chorus talked among themselves, giving us different points of view about the various events, as well as giving us the necessary information about the people. Their prayers to the gods were clear reminders of the cultural background of the main character, and I felt that that culture had a very strong presence in both his life and this play. No plates were broken, but that’s about all that was missing. It was a really good evening, with only a few spells that flagged a bit, and I was very glad to have seen it.

Post-show discussion 1st October 2008

We couldn’t get to this night’s performance, so we came over just for the post-show discussion anyway. Almost all the cast came out, eventually, and we had the writer and director there too, so it was an interesting chat. We learned that the understudies we saw on Monday had only had about a week to learn all those lines, so the achievement was all the more remarkable. The subject of audience involvement came up as usual, and tonight’s audience had apparently been quieter than most, which some reckoned was because there was so much information to take in. Robert Lindsay was asked about what had got him into Onassis’s character, and replied “sex drive”, which made us laugh, though it was evidently true. I forget most of the other points now, sadly, but I remember we laughed a lot, and the cast seemed to be a good unit, though somewhat tired after their exertions.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

The Walworth Farce – September 2008


By Enda Walsh

Directed by Mikel Murfi

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Saturday 27th September 2008

I should have known. A play by an Irish writer, about three Irish blokes in a tatty London flat, and me not one for liking the Irish style. It was bound to end in disappointment, and although I did my best to like what I saw, the dreariness, brutality and lack of humour won out. My favourite part was the lights going out at the end of the play.

Both Steve and I reckoned this was a crude Irish knock-off of The Homecoming (February 2008). Clearly influenced by Pinter, the play mixed the surreal and the violent, and left us with no idea of the playwright’s intentions. Despite the title it wasn’t funny enough to be a farce, it didn’t show enough of ‘real’ human nature to engage me on that level, and apart from a few throwaway lines about the situation of Irish folk in today’s London, it wasn’t socially relevant either. It certainly gave the actors some fun parts, and they did their jobs with enthusiasm and a lot of energy, but it wasn’t sufficient for me.

The story of the play is that of a father and his two adult sons, who spend almost all their time in the flat re-enacting the story of how they got there. This isn’t the best performance they’ve given, as the younger son picked up the wrong bag at Tesco’s, so they’re without some of the necessary food props for their story. The father is seriously abusive, and uses both violence and the threat of what’s ‘out there’ to keep his two boys chained to him like animals.

As the acted story limps along, we get glimpses of the real one behind it. The father killed his own brother and sister-in-law after their mother’s funeral, and had to run from the police. He ended up in this flat in the Walworth Road, and somehow his two young sons arrived on his doorstep a short while later, possibly to bring him home (although why would their mother have let them go and then not tried to find them when they didn’t return?). He takes them in and to calm them down tells them a story. This goes on for a few days, then one of the boys asks a question, and the great lie comes to life, taking over their lives in the process. For years they’ve gone through a fake version of what happened, with just enough of the truth incorporated to keep it at bay. The father plays himself, while the boys play a lot of other parts, including their younger selves and a number of women. But this time they’re interrupted with more serious consequences.

The checkout girl at Tesco’s had been friendly with the shopping son, and even suggested they go to Brighton the next day. He was so rattled he picked up the wrong bag, and she arrives just before the interval to deliver the right bag. My first thought was of Jenny Jules turning up at The Homecoming – not the same actress, but a young black woman, not too dissimilar. She gets drawn into their storytelling, forcibly, and despite trying to get help from her Mum on her mobile, she isn’t able to get away till near the end.

The older son seems to have grasped that his younger brother not only wants to leave the flat, but might actually be able to survive in the outside world. He decides to kill their father, but winds up his brother by telling him he’s going to kill the girl instead. After stabbing Dad, he releases his brother from the cupboard at just the right time so that the younger man will stab him as he apparently tries to stab the woman. With two of the nutters dead she heads for the door, and dashes out into the rain. So, what will the younger brother do?

He wanders round like a zombie, redoing a few parts of the story, silently. He’s already taken all his father’s money, so he’s not completely lost it. Then he gets his coat on, takes the bag of shopping, and appears to be heading out the door. Instead he shuts and bolts it, and stands, with his back to the door and arms outstretched. And that’s how it ended.

This description makes it sound better than it was. I did get a sense of the sadness of these boys’ lives, brought up to repeat this weird story endlessly, but it was so unreal that I could neither take it seriously nor find it particularly funny. There was some humour, especially in the second half, but overall I think I’ll avoid Irish stuff in future, unless there’s some really good reason to see it.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

The Drawer Boy – September 2008


By: Michael Healy

Directed by: Gavin Stride

Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford

Date: Friday 26th September 2008

This was a fantastic experience, and although we’ve seen a lot of good stuff at this small theatre, this was probably the best of them all. My heartstrings weren’t just tugged, a piano’s worth of them were pulled right out of me as we went on this emotional rollercoaster, and I don’t expect to get them back anytime soon. Exquisite agony. And there was a good deal of humour as well, to lighten the load. Heaven.

The set was quite elaborate for the Mill Studio. At the back were two blue sheets, hung one in front of the other, to allow for an exit to the farm proper. In front was the farmhouse kitchen, cut away so we could get a good view of anyone approaching from the direction of the farm. There was a stoop to our left, and a door to the rest of the house on our right. The kitchen had a sink next to the stoop, a stove to the right of that, then the fridge. A table stood by the wall along from the door, with butter and jam on it, and there was a bread bin underneath it. There was a small table with a telephone beside the door. A larger table stood in the middle of the floor, with two chairs and box to sit on. Above the sink was a window, and through this we could see tall stalks of corn growing. Outside there was a stool and a trestle stand which Morgan used as a seat.

The three characters are Angus, Morgan and Miles. Angus is a simple, gentle character. From the start he’s a character we care about, even before we learn about his accident during the war and how it left him with no memory. Morgan is his life-long friend who takes care of him, and he shows a great deal of love in the way he handles Angus’s little ways. Miles is a young actor, part of a collective who have descended on this small farming community to learn about the farmer’s lives and devise a play based on what they find. Miles is not the sharpest tool in the box. He shows so little aptitude for the farming life that after hitting Morgan with the tractor, Morgan gives him nothing but spurious time-wasting jobs to do. Like gravel washing. He fell for every tall story Morgan told him, including the one about rotating the crops during the night, so that the corn that got the morning sun could get the afternoon sun as well. Over time, as Miles gets to know more about these men than Morgan bargained for, he brings to the surface some long-buried secrets, and we get to go through this painful journey with them.

As Angus has no ability to retain memories of anything since his accident, Morgan has been telling him the story of their lives every day for years. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, and well told tonight, under the stars. (I won’t get it right, but here’s the gist.) Morgan tells Angus the story of two boys, one who could draw and was really smart, and one who was a farming boy and was his friend. They grew up together. The one who could draw, the drawer boy of the title, drew pictures of a cabin, and they built it themselves. Then the war came and they both went off to fight. They went to England and met two English girls, one tall, the other taller. The tall girl liked the farming boy, and the taller one liked the drawer boy. They made plans to marry and live together in a double house. One day the drawer boy was outside during a bombing raid, and a front door hit him when a shell exploded in the empty house he was looking at. When the war was over, they all went back home, and they married. Then the women were out driving a big black car that they’d bought, and had an accident. Both were killed, and their bodies were buried at the top of the highest hill in the place. Then the two men lived together in the house.

It’s a sad enough story, but even more moving as told properly in the play. Miles was listening in, and took notes, and in the next scene we see the results. Angus and Morgan have been to a rehearsal by the collective, and see Miles doing this story. Angus is delighted – he recognised the story and that Miles was playing Morgan – but Morgan is furious that their personal story has been used like this, and is in the process of sending Miles packing, when Angus starts to remember things. Up to now, he’s not remembered Miles’s name at all, and Miles has learned to introduce himself whenever Angus walks into the room, or even turns around and catches sight of him after a gap. Now Angus not only remembers his name, he starts to remember why Miles is there, and insists that he stays.

This took us up to the interval. After the interval, we get the gravel washing scene, where we come in part way through Miles telling Angus the story of Hamlet. It sounded as though Miles is talking about himself at first, but we soon picked up on the plot (handy that we’ve just seen the play a couple of nights ago), and Angus seemed to be fascinated by this story. I was concerned that he was confusing reality and fiction, but he always seemed to get a foot back on solid ground when he needed to, a remarkable achievement for someone in his condition.

Angus wants to hear their story again, and wants Miles to tell it like he did at the rehearsal. Miles feels awkward about this, knowing that it’s Morgan’s story to tell, and that Morgan still isn’t happy with him for telling it. He gets Angus to tell the story, prompting him when he needs it. As they get to the end, Angus becomes concerned about where the double house is, and where the two girls are buried, and why Morgan has never taken him there. He starts insisting that they go there, now, and Morgan can’t seem to distract him anymore. Finally Angus just ups and heads off on his own in the middle of the night, with Morgan heading off to search for him, and Miles left in the kitchen to wait.

With Angus not yet back the next day, Miles and Morgan are not getting on. It’s clear there’s more to Morgan’s reluctance to take Angus to the hilltop than he’s admitting, and finally Miles realises that it’s just a story, and that Morgan’s been lying to Angus all along. Unfortunately, Angus hears this comment as he stands outside the kitchen window, and throws a great big wobbly. For a while I thought he’d completely lost it, as he starts talking about Morgan as “him”, and claims “he” killed Angus’s father and married his mother. I thought he’d taken the Hamlet story and started believing it was his, but in fact he was just upset that Morgan wouldn’t admit that he’d lied, nor tell him why. And perhaps there was a bit of spite there too.

So now we’re set up for the final unravelling of what actually happened all those years ago. There was a slight hiatus at this point during tonight’s performance, as Ian Blower, who played Morgan, had only had a week to rehearse after replacing another actor who had broken his ankle. He carried a clipboard from time to time – to be honest, although the director had made an announcement at the start about this, I hadn’t actually noticed any problems with any of the parts up to now. But this was a big speech, and it had awkward variations on the earlier story, making it harder to learn, I’m sure. The correct speech wasn’t on the clipboard, and the director and another assistant were involved getting the right bits of paper for him. Once they did, we got to hear the full tale, and although some impetus was lost, we soon got back into it. (Steve felt it didn’t affect the performance at all – men!)

The real story was that Morgan talked Angus out of going to university, and persuaded him to join up. They saw some horrific things near the start of their service – three men being burned to death – and decided to take a back seat as often as possible, even firing their guns into the air to waste ammunition. They’d met the girls in England as before, but the reason Angus was out in the open when the bomb fell was that Morgan had sent him out to fetch a bottle of brandy which Sally, the taller girl, had in her car. It was a piece of shrapnel that got Angus, in the back of his head, and then no memory.

When they all got to Canada, Sally decided to wait until Angus was better before getting married. The double house wasn’t built, but they did buy the farm, and lived in the house that came with it. One day, when Sally was baking bread, Angus hit her for no reason. She realised there was no chance of him getting better, and so she and her friend left for England. Angus had been asleep when they left, and when he woke up he knew something was wrong and spent ages searching the house. Finally Morgan grabbed him to stop him running upstairs one more time, and told him the story about the car crash to give Angus some peace, which it did. From there, it became easier for both of them to stick to Morgan’s version of events, and so he carried on lying.

There were many emotional moments during this play, but when Angus says to Morgan “you must have hated me then” or similar, once he realises that his hitting Sally has caused Morgan to lose the love of his life, I just wanted to sob for ages. I can still feel the tears now. To say that to a friend who caused him to have no memory, was tremendously moving. After this, Angus seems to settle back into the previous setup, and Miles heads off to another rehearsal. He’d been to milk the cows, and apparently broke the milking machine, so milked all the cows by hand to give them some relief. Without a bucket. Morgan heads off to see how much damage he’s done, and is delighted to find that he actually got the machine to work, and that the vat is full. With his delight still ringing in our ears, Angus takes the plans for the double house and pins them up on the back of the door, where they had been previously. It’s a worrying sign – how much will he now expect, and how hard is Morgan going to have to work to keep him happy? But at least we know all, and I don’t just mean the story.

This was such a moving play, with plenty of understanding and compassion for the characters, that it was a real privilege to be watching it. Like Calendar Girls, it’s the kind of play that makes me glad to be human. There were no heroes, but the mistakes that were made were normal for young men, and their relationship was full of caring, which tempered the guilt Morgan must certainly have felt at times. Both Morgan and Angus will stay with us for a long time. Miles, on the other hand, will not be allowed through the door, though if the acting doesn’t work out, he can always get a job milking cows.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Hamlet – September 2008


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 24th September 2008

We were really keen to see this production again after our first viewing back in August. The performance didn’t disappoint, but there were some factors which took the edge of our enjoyment. Firstly, the seats were two of the narrowest you can get in this theatre, and we’re not two of the narrowest people on the planet, so we were wedged up against each other, and our neighbours, for the whole of the play. This meant I wasn’t as relaxed as I like to be. Secondly, there were so many people coughing during the first two hours that I found it harder to concentrate and really get caught up in the story, even though it was being told so well. At least the second half was quieter, and even in the first half, a lot of those coughing seemed to realise they could wait till a scene change, so the distraction level wasn’t so bad. I also realised that the circle seats are very creaky, and my hearing aids don’t handle that kind of intermittent background noise very well, so that was something of a problem for me – Steve didn’t notice it all.

Right, that’s the down side out of the way. Now for the fun stuff. I liked our position, squashed as it was, because I had a very different view of the play. Not being so close meant I didn’t feel so involved emotionally, but I was much more aware of the interactions between the characters, and there were some things I just hadn’t seen before. There were only a few changes that I noticed, and now that I’m more familiar with the order of events, I’ll try to get that down as best I can, and mention any variations from the earlier performance.

The opening scene is on the battlements, and I was much more aware of the use of the torches to bounce a light up into the face of whoever’s speaking. The glossy floor and mirrored wall at the back meant that there were at least four lots of everything, and not just in this scene. It was harder to spot that the ghost was also played by Patrick Stewart from this angle.

The first court scene starts at the back, as the mirrors open to reveal the royal family acknowledging the applause of their people. A balcony scene, as it were. Hamlet didn’t stand out quite so much from this angle, although I was much more aware of Gertrude managing the event, and glancing across to check on Hamlet from time to time, making sure he doesn’t spoil her big day. Again I had the sense of her trying to give her son a good talking to, but being constrained by the public nature of the occasion.

Hamlet’s “too, too solid flesh” was still good, and leads into the scene where Horatio arrives to tell him of his father’s ghost. After this comes Laertes’ leaving scene, and this was certainly as good as before. From the Circle, I could see Ophelia lying down when Laertes is giving  her his “good” advice, and doing a starfish imitation – the physical equivalent of sticking her fingers in her ears and going “la, la, la, la”. Not a new action, but more clearly seen from the higher position. Polonius was just as good, and so to the next night time venture onto the platform. Hamlet draws a short sword on the others to stop them following him, and the rest of the scene is as before. I wasn’t so sure this time whether they were running away from or towards the sound of the ghost during the swearing part.

I think the next scene was Ophelia reporting Hamlet’s strange behaviour to her father, followed by the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at court. When they leave, Polonius steps forward with the information about the ambassadors’ arrival, and the possibility that he knows why Hamlet is mad. The ambassadors are still dealt with swiftly, and then we get the lovely tediousness of Polonius for a while. He summoned his daughter on stage at the start of this bit, and she’s standing there while all this is going on. They resolve to test out the “mad in love” theory, and as Hamlet is coming along right about that time, Gertrude is sent off, Ophelia is given a book, and Claudius and Polonius hide behind the mirror.

Hamlet does “to be or not to be”, and then Ophelia enters again to give him back his gifts. It’s a difficult scene, especially as Hamlet later claims he loved Ophelia, but I guess we have to allow him some leeway, as he’s had a challenging few days. He hears a noise about halfway through their talk, and realises they’re being spied on, and that’s when he turns nasty towards her. I recognised this as the same response he has to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; he doesn’t know how complicit she is in whatever plots are on the go, so he shuts her out completely. After he leaves, Claudius and Polonius re-enter, leaving the mirror open. Ophelia is sent home, Claudius leaves, and Polonius tackles Hamlet as he comes back on.

When Hamlet sees the open mirror panel, he realises where they were hiding, and goes through it to check behind, but of course, there’s nobody there now. He baits Polonius as usual, and then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turn up, and we’re into the arrival of the actors and Hecuba. After this, the scenes are much as usual, and the break was still spectacular, though not so much of a surprise. The effect with the gunshot that kills Polonius was better this time around, and Ophelia’s mad scenes were riveting. She swung from gentle dottiness to screaming rage in an instant, and all believably. Gertrude’s recognition of the danger in the cup, and her choice to drink anyway, was still powerful, and the play ended in happy tragedy, if I may use that term, as despite all the deaths I felt so uplifted to have seen another excellent performance of this production. One more to go.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Calendar Girls – September 2008


By Tim Firth

Directed by Hamish McColl

Venue: Festival Theatre, Chichester

Date: Tuesday 23rd September 2008

The set for this will take some explaining. There was a rectangular platform on the stage, basic brown with the markings of a badminton court and a piano in the corner. Very village hall. The back wall was dark at the bottom, with a lighter top half, and a curved edge between them representing hills in the distance. As the play started, there was a lone voice singing Jerusalem, and the back wall lifted up so that the characters could come on stage, and the back part of the village hall could come forward, giving us a hatch to the kitchen and some stairs to the outside, as well as some walls to hang bunting on later.

Most of the characters formed up on the platform and began doing something which could pass for tai chi, while Elaine C Smith, as Cora, carried on singing Jerusalem on her own, varying the words a little as she got onto the second verse. From here, we follow the lives of these six women as they learn of John’s illness and death, and do their naked photo shoot to make the charity calendar. All of that takes up the first half, and while the story is much as expected, there are important differences. For a start, they’re only allowed to mention six of the women because the others no longer want anything to do with the story. And the nude bits had to be done with care, as the Festival Theatre is a seriously thrust stage, and the audience were almost completely surrounding them. There was very little detail on show, but plenty of humour as the ladies bared their flesh for the camera. The final shot, for December, had them all draped over the piano singing carols, and ended the first half.

The second half followed the amazing popularity of the calendar, and the effect it had on their lives and relationships. The play didn’t cover the trip to America, understandably, but we still got the bust up between Chris and Annie over Chris’s desire for the limelight. The final scene had all the women visiting a section of hillside where sunflower seeds had been planted, and admiring the blooms. For this, the platform was tilted – this had already been done once or twice for outdoor scenes – and the cast opened up the flaps which were covering the flowers, and lifted them up. It may have taken a bit of time, but the effect was lovely, especially through my tears. A couple of tourists arrived and want to take a picture, and the women are quite taken down when they find out it’s not the glamorous calendar girls they want, but the sunflowers.

I loved the way this play covered much the same story as the film, but brought out different aspects of the story. The lives of the other women came much more to the fore, and that gave it more balance. It was also easier to see how difficult it must have been in that small community to have made that choice and actually posed for the calendar. The performances were excellent, and it was more of an ensemble piece than the film. It’s not often now that a play really celebrates what it is to be human, warts and all, and I felt uplifted to have seen this tonight, as well as enjoying several lots of sniffles. As someone commented in the post-show, there just aren’t the dramas in any medium showing us these sorts of lives, or women of these ages and these backgrounds, and allowing them to have a voice. This one will fill that gap for many years to come, I’m sure.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Brief Lives – September 2008


By John Aubrey, adapted and directed by Patrick Garland

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 22nd September 2008

Roy Dotrice’s John Aubrey is a delightful old codger, busily complaining about how the country has gone to the dogs, and telling us it wasn’t like that in Queen Elizabeth’s day. As he wasn’t even born in Queen Elizabeth’s day, this was funnier than it might seem. He had a sweet old man laugh – a ‘he-he-he’ – that was funny and endearing.

Set in Aubrey’s lodgings in London during the 1690s, the old man takes us on a general ramble through events throughout his life, including the Civil War and his early days and education. There are stories of folk remedies and strange cures by doctors, and a delicacy of vocabulary when referring to “ravishing”. Sex is fine, apparently, but “ravishing” is not to be taken lightly. There’s a lot of humour in his clumsiness – throwing his warm milk over his shoulder as he tells a story, for example – and in the general squalor and unsanitary conditions of the time. Was that a rat he fished out of his chamber pot, drowned? Actually, no, it was the end of his belt, but it could well have been a rat in that place.

In the second half he told us some stories of real people, some better known than others, and mixing well known history with juicy bits of gossip. Throughout the play there were noises from the street and the flat above, which fed into the stories or at least into his grumbling. It was enjoyable, but seemed a bit dated, although I don’t mind seeing a more gentle form of entertainment such as this from time to time.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Murder With Love – September 2008


By Francis Durbridge

Directed by Ian Dickens, co-directed by Leslie Grantham

Company: Ian Dickens Productions

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Friday 19th September 2008

An unpleasant character called Larry Campbell is given an apparently fatal heart attack, and is then killed later by being bludgeoned to death with a statue of Aphrodite. It’s a rum do, especially as we’ve seen a lawyer called Ryder plan to enter Campbell’s flat with an illegally obtained key and kill him using a revolver. It’s his attempt to carry out this plan that leads to Campbell’s heart attack, so we’re all surprised to find out the actual details of the murder which the police are investigating. The first half ended with the police inspector, Cleaver, producing the deadly statue, which we saw Campbell bring in to his flat at the beginning, and announcing that it was found in the boot of Ryder’s car. Looks like some devious stuff going on here. I did suggest to Steve that the director did it, as Marcus Hutton, who played Campbell, had quite a few long pauses in the first act while he reflected on what his next line might be. (Just joking.) (About the murder, that is, not the pauses.)

The second half showed us what really happened, though the plot has more turns than a corkscrew, and I really didn’t see the final twist coming at all. There were no “good” characters in this story, as just about everyone had at least one skeleton in their closet. There’s at least three dead bodies, and although the early exposition scenes were a bit lengthy I enjoyed this well enough. These Durbridge thrillers are certainly dated, but as long as I accept them as period pieces they work well enough. I noticed how the author got round the problems of body identification and reporting forensic details so the audience didn’t feel cheated. In fact, the extent to which he covered the forensics surprised me; I thought the fascination for the CSI approach was more recent. Obviously I’ve forgotten how far back it goes.

The set combined two spaces – Larry’s flat and Ryder’s office. I recognised Larry’s flat from A Touch Of Danger (September 2007), while Ryder’s office was all leather chairs and wooden furniture. The cast were fine, apart from Larry’s lapses mentioned above. As he was meant to be playing a chap with heart trouble, I wasn’t too sure at first if his memory had failed him or if it was deliberate, but I decided to go for the bitchy option this time. Neil Stacy was in fine form as the lawyer, Ryder, and it was nice to see Harriet Usher again. She played the maid Ida in See How They Run, only three weeks ago. This company certainly has the feel of an old-fashioned rep. This part was completely different, much more cool and sophisticated, though I noticed she still had a lovely throaty chuckle. Michael Kirk played Larry’s creepy brother Roy, the sort of chap who stands with his hands resting on the sides of his legs, and once Larry was gone, he would have been all over Clare, Larry’s lover, if she hadn’t kept brushing him off. Was he the murderer, or just a red herring? Leslie Grantham not only co-directed, he also played the police inspector Cleaver, and did a reasonable job. Not a bad way to spend an evening, all in all.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

My Brilliant Divorce – September 2008


By Geraldine Aron

Directed by Tim Luscombe

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 15th September 2008

This was effectively a one-woman show, as I don’t really count the dog. Dillie Keane, as Angela, takes us on a tour of the ups and downs of an abrupt separation and divorce from a man who wants a younger model of wife. There’s some of the emotional suffering, but mostly it’s a humorous trip, with Angela, the daughter of a doctor, finding her new soul mate in one of the unlikeliest places.

The set was pretty bare, with just a table and chair, and there were back projections which made the setting clear, but it was really all about the central performance. I’ve enjoyed Dillie Keane before, though not in the biblical sense, and expect to enjoy her again next year with Fascinating Aida. Her performance tonight didn’t disappoint. She gave us a range of voices and accents, and her comic timing was impeccable. A very enjoyable evening.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Kicking A Dead Horse – September 2008


By Sam Shephard

Directed by Sam Shephard

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 13th September 2008

This was something of a disappointment. I’ve liked Sam Shepard’s work before – the Almeida did an excellent production of The Late Henry Moss in 2006 – and Stephen Rea is a very good actor, but this play just wasn’t good enough to keep me involved, never mind entertained, for all of seventy minutes.

It’s a surreal piece, dealing with the ‘death’ of the Old West. We see this through the eyes of an art critic who’s come out to the middle of nowhere to get back to his roots, only to have his horse keel over and die once they’re well out of sight of civilisation. The play isn’t exactly a monologue, as Stephen Rea’s character, Hobart Struther, speaks from at least two points of view, the optimistic one who wanted to come back, and the inner critic who’s always wise after the event. He did use different voices for these two aspects of himself, although occasionally I found they weren’t differentiated enough.

The set was excellent. At the start, there’s a blank curved back wall, and several mounds on the stage, with what looked like a plain sheet draped over them. At the very start of the play, some piano music starts up, and as the lights come on, I could see that the cloth on the stage was blue. It begins to slid back, revealing what’s under the mounds, and as I watched, I got the impression the cloth was dancing to the music. It certainly seemed to move in rhythm, and I kept my eyes on it till the last corners flicked down at the back of the stage.

Still on the stage were two mounds of earth (they could have been boulders, but as there was a big pit between them, and no other sign of the contents, I assume the mounds were that dirt), the aforementioned pit right of centre, a dead horse lying behind the pit with its back to us and its head to our left, and a saddle, saddlebags and other riding accoutrements to the left of the stage. Along the back wall were the gentle outlines of American western scenery, looking very distant.

There’s some noises and dirt flying out of the hole, and then the man himself emerges, slowly. He’s not happy with his horse, and kicks it several times through the play, each time accompanied by a drum beat which sounds slightly metallic, like the horse had a steel drum inside it. He tells us his story – art critic, made a lot of money spotting the ignored paintings in pubs and bars out west, and finally he chucks it all in to come back out west, where he was brought up, to become “Authentic” again. Trouble is, his horse dies after some oats went down the wrong way and choked him. So now he’s burying it. Only it refuses to be buried, according to him. Me, I thought he was the one with the problem.

His voices talk him into throwing his western gear into the pit before putting the horse in, including his hat, which I thought was a bit silly. Later, as he scans the horizon with his binoculars, singing a gratingly awful song, a woman glides serenely out of the pit, wearing the hat, and after standing there for a while, unnoticed, puts the hat on his head and glides back into the pit again. Don’t ask me what that was about – I haven’t a clue. She was wearing a slip and nothing else, apart from the hat. I found the song so annoying I was even considering leaving, so it had to be bad.

Finally, with the hat returned to the pit, he gets his rope round the horse’s ankles, and hauls it over onto its back. After a bit more ranting and raving amongst his various selves, he decides to rescue the hat again, and as he’s down there, the horse topples in on top of him. End of play, thank God. It was pretty obvious from a long way out what was going to happen, so stretching it out so long was pointless.

There were some good bits. I liked the set, and there were some fun lighting changes, driven by Struther himself. He mentioned it being sunset, and lo, it was sunset. Later he brought about a similarly swift change to daytime. He produced a tent with a mind of its own, and we got some laughs when it kept collapsing. Enjoyable though this was, it’s never a good sign when the props are more entertaining than the cast and dialogue. I also liked the horse well enough, and almost felt like cheering when it fell into the grave.

Stephen Rea’s accent was unusual. I thought I could hear a lot of Irish creeping back into it, but I don’t know if that was intentional. After all, the author himself directed the piece, and presumably he knew what he wanted. The delivery was so monotonous, though, that I didn’t really care; I just wanted it to be over. This was more Beckett than Shepard, and not one I’ll see again in a hurry.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

A Doll’s House – September 2008


By Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Stephen Mulrine

Directed by Peter Hall

Company: Peter Hall Company

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 11th September 2008

This was a marvellous production, with wonderfully detailed performances.  The set design was excellent, courtesy of Simon Higlett, whom we heard giving a talk at Chichester. The set was a cubic frame, with a screen for the back wall. This allowed us to see through to the entrance hall and door, and a corridor running off to the right – Torvald’s study was the first door along. The room itself was sparsely decorated, with a sofa, several chairs, some tables, a small stove, an item which looked like a large candleholder but turned out to be a lamp stand, and an upright piano. A chandelier hung from the right hand side of the ceiling, and there were three doors, one in each of the three invisible walls. (The doors were definitely visible.)

The performances were all excellent. I knew the story well enough now to appreciate some of the finer details. Catherine McCormack as Nora was all edgy nervousness. She got across that character’s attractiveness as well as her childish inability to grasp the way things work. She lives through her emotions; if she feels something strongly, it must be right, and the rest of society must be wrong. Finbar Lynch as Torvald was one of those men who’s tremendously sure of themselves, creepily so, and although he’s fond of Nora, she’s right when she compares herself to a doll that he plays with. Admittedly, he couldn’t possibly know exactly what she’s been up to, but his smugness is just asking to be taken down a peg or eighteen. I loved the way he swung from total anger when he first discovers the truth, to almost ingratiating happiness when the incriminating piece of paper turns up. After her disclosure, Nora was both remarkably still and remarkably quiet, and I could see her growing up and realising how far apart they were as she stood there. There were some other lovely touches, such as Torvald clearing some waste paper off the floor onto the sofa, only for Nora to sweep it all back again so she can sit down. Her action and his reaction told us a lot about both their characters and their relationship. Later on, Torvald wagged his finger to warn Nora not to ask Mrs Linde to stay.

At first I thought Anthony Howell as Krogstad was a bit too honest-looking, but as the plot unfolded I realised that he had to have a fundamentally good character, otherwise Mrs Linde wouldn’t have fallen for him in the first place. She has to talk him round to marrying her in a very short scene later on, and persuade him to return the bond, so if he’s a complete scoundrel, or totally corrupted by life’s hardships, that bit isn’t going to be believable. In the end, I think Anthony Howell judged it just right.

Susie Trayling as Mrs Linde had an unfortunate mismatch between her hair piece and her natural hair – I’m not sure if it was a deliberate mistake to show us the character’s poverty, or accidental. It distracted me a bit during the first act, but I found I could ignore it better after that. She’s an invaluable character, as she allows Nora to tell us what she’s done early on so that we’re in the know, and also counterpoints Nora’s own way of dealing with financial hardship. While Nora broke the law to take care of her husband, Mrs Linde has worked hard to support hers, and with little thanks, it would seem. Nora’s childish glee at how well off she and Torvald will be once he starts his new job in January shows a complete lack of sympathy on her part for her friend’s situation, but it also allows us to see how the people around Nora tend to forgive her.

Christopher Ravenscroft as Doctor Rank did an excellent job. His attraction for Nora was more clearly expressed than I remember seeing before, and the poignancy of the dual conversation after the party was very moving. For once, we got to see the children, although not for long, but it helped to make this a much more rounded production. The presence of the children in the early stages lets us see their importance to Nora, and emphasises the way she cuts herself off from them later on, after Torvald’s hugely judgemental pronouncement about Krogstad’s criminal activity, which mirrors Nora’s own.

This was a very satisfying production to watch, and made me appreciate the sort of impact this play had when it was first staged. I could see why polite Norwegian society would have been shocked, but I could also see how readily other playwrights took up this way of presenting ‘real life’. I recognised Chains Of Dew (April 2008) as a response to this play, and even saw echoes in Dangerous Corner, with the husband’s insistence on finding out the truth no matter the cost. Maybe I’ll see more connections and influences in the future. At any rate, I’ll be interested to see the Donmar’s version next year.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at