The Merry Wives Of Windsor – September 2008

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Globe Theatre

Date: Wednesday 10th September 2008

This is another production where I need to spend some time describing the set. Two walkways led out from either side of the stage, and each curved round and came in front of the stage, joining up with a large rectangular platform. Each walkway joined this platform at the sides, but staggered, and with stairs leading down to the pit beside them. The centre of the platform was simple wooden slats to begin with, but during some scenes, the central section rotated to bring up a small knot garden, with a love seat in the middle and a small flower bed in each corner. Very pretty. During the interval, the blank side was replaced with the stump of Herne’s oak, which stayed out of sight till the final scenes, so the garden was on view for most of this half. To give access to the small area between the stage and the platform, there were sections of the walkway which lifted up, I think. Apart from this, the stage was bare, but had the usual tables and chairs brought on as required.

We were in the upper gallery for the first time, and well round the side, so our view was much more restricted than I’m used to at the Globe. (We booked too late – again.) We were facing the right-hand pillar, and much of the performance was hidden by this. We couldn’t see the stage on the near side of the pillar at all, unless we stood up and risked falling on top of the people in front of us, and even then we couldn’t get more than a glimpse. The roof over the stage cut off most of the balcony, so I’m glad these seats were cheaper than usual.

This production, in Elizabethan dress, seemed to concentrate more on the two wives and their revenge on Falstaff. Not that the other parts were lacking in any way, but with Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward as the two wives, and Christopher Benjamin as Falstaff, they were able to get full value out of the marvellous writing. This is the first Merry Wives we’ve seen since the musical version back in January 2007, and the first ‘regular’ one since the touring production in the Swan in 2003! I feel sure I’ve missed one somewhere, but that’s what our records say. Anyway, this version was very musical as well, and occasionally I found this a distraction, as the music started playing a few times before the dialogue had stopped and pretty much drowned it out.

It was a fairly standard production, and apart from Bardolph being completely cut, there were no remarkable stagings to mention, but the performances were very good, and had I been able to see more of them I would probably have rated this higher. As it was, I thoroughly enjoyed the tricks played on Falstaff, especially the way the two wives were practically incontinent with laughter as they played their ‘roles’ to perfection. That is, they were so over the top that only a fool like Falstaff would believe them, which made the whole thing much funnier. There was some poking and slapping that got a bit out of hand, but it didn’t ruin the ladies’ relationship in the long run. Andrew Havill as Ford/Brook was also excellent, and did a great job with his tortured expressions as the husband learns of his wife’s presumed unfaithfulness. At one point he ducked behind the far pillar, and although I couldn’t see much of him, it was clear he was throwing a serious strop before returning, much calmer, to continue talking with Falstaff.

Despite the difficulties, the dialogue was generally clear, although I felt some of the actors weren’t always including the upper gallery with their performances. I heard the lines about Falstaff sending his page to Mrs Page for the first time tonight (how did I miss them for all these years?), and Mistress Quickly’s prolonged discourse about Mrs Ford’s many lovers was marvellous, with Falstaff itching for her to get to the point. His “be brief” was said with feeling, and got a good laugh. Later on, during the wooing, his difficulties in getting up and down from a kneeling position were good fun, and I reckoned this story not only gave Queen Elizabeth another chance to enjoy Falstaff on stage, but also had relevance to her as a woman who had rebuffed many suitors herself. She probably wished they’d all been as easy to get rid of as Falstaff.

So, not the greatest view, but still an enjoyable performance, and a much better use of the extended stage. We’ll book earlier next time to avoid disappointment.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Lady Vanishes – September 2008

6/10

Adapted by Andrew Taylor from the screenplay of the Hitchcock film by Launder and Gilliat, which was based on the novel “The Wheel Spins” by Ethel Lina White

Directed by Mark Sterling

Company: Jill Freud and Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 9th September 2008

The set for this was absolutely amazing. The first scenes take place in the small hotel, and we see, from the left, a door, two tiny bedrooms with the beds being more like chairs, both on a diagonal, then a wall with a shuttered window, and on the right the hotel reception desk with a telephone. The backdrop is jagged mountains. For the train, the cast move the bedrooms and window section round, and in a few moments we have the interior of a train. Another section was brought on to the left, and the whole contraption was fastened together, so that the train could be moved right or left as needed to keep the action as central as possible. For the final scene, the train parts were turned around so that we could see Iris and Gilbert arriving at Victoria, but I’ll get on to that bit later.

With a small touring company, the parts had to be rationed, so Iris, the Margaret Lockwood part from the film, only had one friend with her in the eastern alps. The lawyer who’s hoping to become a judge, and his mistress were also absent, but Charters and Caldicott were definitely present (do I hear cheering?). They brought all the usual humour with them, from the opening scene when the hotel manager gets round to speaking in English last, so the only room left for them is the maid’s, through the telephone call from London, to the absolutely ridiculous request Miss Froy makes for the sugar. I have to confess that these two characters are a bit like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for me – I can never remember which is which – but one of them takes the gun at the end, while the other helps drive the train back to safety. The nuns on the train were a bit confusing at first, but I got the hang of them eventually, and the story rattled along at a good pace.

The effects were naturally limited too, but effective. The lights went out when the train went through tunnels, there was steam wafting around the place from time to time, and the scene in the luggage car, with the magician escaping from his false-bottomed trunk, was pretty spectacular. I was quite relieved that they didn’t try to jiggle about to demonstrate that the train was actually moving; I’d probably have been sick after a short time of that, and I’m quite happy to engage my imagination for something like this.

Some minor plot changes were necessary. Iris gets her bash on the head when the porter carrying luggage to the train comes through the hotel door just as she’s picking up a bag on the other side. And the turning point for Gilbert came when the steward carried a bucket of rubbish through the train with the herbal tea packet prominently displayed on top. Other than this, the story seemed much as I remembered it from the film, though we didn’t get to see the folk dancing.

Penelope Rawlins as Iris was good as a discontented rich girl heading back to London for a marriage she felt was necessary but not desirable. Jill Freud played Miss Froy, and despite having quite shrewd eyes, managed to convince her fellow travellers that she was a dotty old lady who rambled on about nothing very much. Paul Leonard as Gilbert was older than I expected, and although he had the right sort of amiable and quirky  personality, I didn’t quite buy the attraction between him and Iris, not in terms of ditching the marriage plans, anyway. Clive Flint and Jonathan Jones did Charters and Caldicott to perfection – makes you proud to be British – and the rest of the cast, which included three acting ASMs, provided us with a large range of other characters very effectively.

The final scene in this version has Gilbert and Iris arriving back at Victoria, and Iris deciding she doesn’t want to marry the other chap. Gilbert is so happy he forgets the tune that Miss Froy asked him to memorise. Just then, a whole group of nuns turn up, Miss Froy among them, humming the very tune. They recognise her, and it’s happy reunion time. End of play. I had a good sob, of course, which made the evening all the more enjoyable. I don’t know how people would find this if they hadn’t seen the movie, but as it’s one of my all time favourites, I really lapped this up. Although not as jokey as the stage version of The 39 Steps, this has always been one of Hitchcock’s funniest movies, and I think that helped it translate to the stage so well.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Millionairess – September 2008

6/10

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Michael Friend

Company: Michael Friend Productions

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 5th September 2008

The set for the first scene comprised a green baize floor, several straight-backed chairs, with three in a row along the back, a desk to our right with a telephone and box file, and behind it was a part wall with a window made up of small panes. The only other thing I could see at the start was a big wastepaper basket under the desk. This was the office of a solicitor called Sagamore, and he was visited in the opening scene by a series of people whose lives were intertwined. The first was Epifania, a rich heiress, who nevertheless considered herself a pauper. Her father had been worth over 100 million pounds, but lost a lot of his money before he died, so she was left a measly 30 million pounds. Enough for most people, but a real come-down for her.

She’s totally spoilt, but savvy about money, and she wanted to make her will before committing suicide. Sagamore made no pretence to know anything, but managed to persuade her to give up her plan to kill herself by giving her explicit instructions on how to make a lethal cyanide potion. Her husband Alistair and his preferred woman, Patricia, arrived and join in the discussion, if I can call it that, followed by one of Epifania’s favourite’s, Adrian. The scene unfolded in an erratic way, as most of the characters ended up forgetting what they came to see Sagamore about originally.

Not that that was a problem for us. We learned about the reason why Epifania married Alistair, and why she was determined to kill herself and curse him by leaving him all her money. Her father, whom she totally revered, told her to test any man who wanted to marry her, in order to weed out undesirables. She was to give them two hundred and fifty pounds, and tell them to come back in six months with fifty thousand. Some had tried and failed, some had refused even to try, but Alistair, a good looking boxing champ who also played tennis, managed it. Unfortunately, he did it through a con, and as they spent more time together it became very clear that they were not at all compatible, although his good looks and her money obviously helped. He took to seeing Patricia, and Epifania spent a lot of time with Adrian, although it might be more accurate to say he spent time with her, as he liked his meals and she had a very good cook.

The con that Alistair used wasn’t entirely clear to me, but it seemed to involve writing cheques for money that Alistair and his partner-in-crime didn’t have, then writing more duff cheques to cover those, until the money started rolling in and they could cover all their initial outlay easily. Their project was putting a musical on the London stage, and, miraculously, they managed to find one that made money. Not as easy as you might think, looking at the West End listings nowadays. Anyway, that’s how Alistair got fifty thousand together in such a short time, although if he and his partner had been caught out, he’d have been in jail for a long time. One other thing we found out was that Epifania was a judo expert, and that Alistair had punched her in the solar plexus in self defence after she attacked him.

The second scene was set in a tatty pub, the Pig and Whistle. The wall and windows were moved over to our left, and turned round to reveal the pub sign and a seat underneath the window. The table was brought back on with a cloth, and another chair completed the setup. Adrian threw a minor strop because the food wasn’t too good, and Epifania used her judo skills to throw him down the stairs. This led to her meeting with an Egyptian doctor, a Muslim, or Mohammedan as they were then called, who works in a hospital in order to earn just enough money so that he can treat poor Muslims for free. She took a fancy to him, but it turns out his mother, on her death bed, made him promise to set a test for any woman who wanted to marry him. He was to give her 200 piastres (about 35 shillings), and with only that and the clothes she stood up in, she would have to make her own living for six months. Epifania accepted the challenge – she had to get her chauffeur to sub them both – and was confident that she’ll succeed. (The chauffeur had just returned from taking Adrian to the local cottage hospital, so that his injuries could be treated.)

The third scene, immediately after the interval, showed us the workshop of a couple who were employing a bunch of women at sweatshop wages making clothes. Epifania wants a job, but at first they took her for an inspector, and offered to pay her two and six a week if she left them alone. She was willing to take their money, although she bargained the price up to five bob, but when she found out how the system worked – a lorry brought them cloth and took away the finished goods – she realised she could buy out the middlemen and the business could start making some real money. The wife didn’t want anything to do with her new-fangled ideas, but the husband, possibly because he was used to being bossed about by strong women, decided to take the risk. From Epifania’s behaviour, it’s clear she learned a lot from her father, and she certainly knew her employment law. We could be confident that she’d change their fortunes before the play was out. She reckoned she only needed to spend an afternoon a week with them, so she set off to get a paying job for the rest of the week – a scullery maid at an hotel, for example.

The final scene was back at the pub six months later, only this time it was called something different (The Cardinal’s Hat?) and looked a lot posher. Alistair and Patricia were staying for a holiday, and asked the hotel manageress what had caused the changes to the place. She told them the following story. Her parents and grandparents, going back generations, had always run the pub on old-fashioned lines, and although it suited them, she felt it was too seedy for her taste. One day, about six months earlier, a woman had turned up and insisted on becoming a scullery maid with them. On her first day, she broke several plates, and the mother had complained. The scullery maid went off somewhere and came back with a whole service of beautiful plates, for next to nothing. From then on, she gradually took over the place, suggesting improvements, changing the décor, the clientele, and finally buying the manageress’s parents out altogether. They were able to retire, but at a price, with one of them having had a stroke, and both of them missing the way things used to be. She stayed on as manageress, and was really happy with the ways things were now. She let slip the name of the new boss, and yes, you’ve guessed it, it was Epifania. Alistair was horrified, and wanted to leave immediately, but Patricia calmed him down, and the manageress insisted that Epifania was rarely there these days. However, two other guests did turn up. One was Adrian, finally able to get about again after the most appalling problems with his various treatments, and the other was Sagamore.

Despite the manageress’s assurance, Epifania did indeed turn up, as we knew she would. It’s time for her to meet up with the doctor, who was also there but was shown up after all the other guests. At first Epifania was threatening to sue Patricia for taking her husband away – alienating his affections – but Patricia manageed to defeat that by pointing out that as she has no money, Epifania wouldn’t be able to get any from her, and she’d be only too happy to declare her love for Alistair publicly, so that people could see that she’d taken such an attractive and successful man from the richest woman in Europe. Backed up by Sagamore’s astute observations on the futility of such an action, and her own vanity, Epifania gave way, but then turned her attention to the doctor. She told him of her success, and he tried to counter with the story of his abysmal failure. He took the money and gave it to the widow of his old mentor, a chap who developed some technical thingummyjig which he didn’t patent, and so now private companies were making lots of money from it. He negotiated with these companies to give the old woman a pension, but with the costs of the funeral, the old dear was two hundred and fifty pounds short, hence the gift. Epifania counters this by reckoning that with the invention making so much money, she could consider the gift as a retrospective investment in the development of the whatever, so he’s actually passed the test. To the doctor’s own amazement, he realised he may have to marry her after all. However he did have one consolation. When he first got there, he checked her pulse, and found it to be one of the strongest he’d ever known. So wonderful was this pulse that he found it seductive in the extreme. At least he’ll get to feel it every day once they’re married.

This was a hugely enjoyable play, wordy, as with so many of Shaw’s, but with lots of good lines, and some interesting observations on the social conditions of the time. I don’t know how far into their tour this was, but there were a few fluffed lines, so I assume it’s early rather than late. I was very impressed with the performances, which seemed of a pretty high standard, and despite the low budget, the set and costumes were very effective. I wasn’t sure at first if Amanda Sterkenburg was putting on an accent as Epifania, but from her CV she’s Dutch, so I guess that was either her basic accent, or a general European one. I don’t remember if we’re told where Epifania comes from originally, but there are a number of references to her being European, and she reminded me a lot of Bluntschli from Arms and the Man, the Swiss hotelier. Like him, she has a clear-eyed view of the world and tremendous organisational skills, though I don’t think he was quite as enamoured with money as she is.

We had a good time, and would certainly see other productions by this company, as well as other productions of this play.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Run For Your Wife – September 2008

6/10

By Ray Cooney

Directed by Ian Dickens

Company: Ian Dickens Productions

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Thursday 4th September 2008

This is a very well-written farce with lots of complications, so you have to pay attention to remember who’s said what to whom. We’d seen it back in the early 1980s, with Eric Sykes in the lead role, and enjoyed it enormously. We were keen to see how well it had survived the years.

The plot concerns a taxi driver called John Smith, who has two wives happily living a few minutes’ drive apart in London. Neither knows about the other, and John’s worked very hard to keep it that way. Unfortunately, one night he helps an old woman who’s being mugged, getting a bash on the head himself in the process, and from the woman he’s trying to help! The next morning, delivered to the ‘wrong’ house from the hospital, he finds that he’s a hero, and if his picture gets into the papers, his double life will become exceedingly single and behind bars to boot! His neighbour from the upstairs flat, Stanley Gardner, helps him out as best he can once John’s explained the situation, and all sorts of mayhem ensues. The police are already involved, as the Mrs Smith from Streatham has reported her husband missing, while the Wimbledon police were involved because of the foiled mugging, so two police officers have to be kept satisfied. Not an easy job. Then the telephone number of the Streatham house is left on a piece of paper at the Wimbledon house, so calls are going back and forth with massive confusion and lots of laughs as a result.

The set shows the two houses simultaneously, with separate front doors, and combined living rooms. It was a little confusing at times, but on the whole I could remember who was where. Thank god the cast kept track! The whole lot end up in Streatham, where eventually John Smith confesses all to the police. Trouble is, after all the stories he and Stanley have been spinning, they don’t believe him! End of play.

This cast did very well, and we both enjoyed ourselves a lot. David Callister, a stalwart of Ian Dickens productions, played John Smith, with Mervyn Hayes as Stanley. The gay hairdresser from the flat above the Streatham place was played by Paul Henry, and the entire cast did a great job keeping up the pace. This farce has definitely got the legs to run and run.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Piaf – September 2008

5/10

By Pam Gems

Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Wednesday 3rd September 2008

The set was very simple, as often happens at the Donmar. An elaborately carved rectangular stone arch framed the very back of the stage, while the back wall looked like it belonged in one of those underground tunnels that Don Wildman is always investigating on Cities of the Underworld. It was dark, with an unfinished texture, and just the word ‘Piaf’ in faint lettering running down the lower right hand side. The floor had cobbles and rough concrete to match.

We were in the back row again(!) – must book earlier next time – so we were actually feet away from the action, instead of inches! Never mind, this didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the play. What did spoil it a bit was the way a perfectly good bio-drama, with songs (she was famous for her singing after all) had been edited down to a Greatest Hits compilation, with a few bits of dialogue tying it together. [And I read in the play text that it was the author herself who did this!]

To be fair, the performance of Elena Roger as Piaf was excellent. She aged herself tremendously over the course of the play, with only a little help from makeup and wigs. Her singing voice was powerful and could easily tackle Piaf’s songs, and she was also small, which helped the impersonation. The rest of the cast also sang well, and we know them to be good actors from past experience, but with so little for any of them to do this time around, you’d be forgiven for thinking that neither the author nor the director had any of our confidence in them.

I liked the finale very much. From the point when her old mate Toine turned up, with Piaf looking at death’s door, to the closing chords of ‘Je ne regrette rein’, the emotional impact that had been conspicuously absent so far suddenly hit me, and as the music for her final song started up, my tears began to flow. It was enough to leave me feeling reasonably happy with the production, but I still don’t know why they had to cut out so much good stuff. I particularly missed Piaf and Toine’s discussion of crabs (the genital variety).

In fact, apart from a couple of good jokes, the humour had largely disappeared. This was a determinedly bleak view of a woman who had faced many tough times, and proved herself to be even tougher. She drank like a fish and got hooked on drugs after one of her car accidents – she would let reckless young men drive her about. Many of the men in her life just used her as a money machine, and she had a habit of cutting herself off from anyone who really cared for her. Even so, there was still a spirit there that could fight back against the odds, and a talent that could captivate thousands. Where was that spirit today? I felt the whole production had been made deliberately unsentimental, with very little warmth, and practically no time to get to know the characters and relate to them. This is why it took till nearly the end of the performance for me to feel engaged with it. It didn’t help that the dialogue was often too rushed for me to make it out, even when it was in English, and the songs, though sung very well, didn’t move me much at all.

Having said all that, it obviously pleased a lot of Piaf fans, with several standing at the end, and I did enjoy it well enough to give it 5/10. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see this again though, unless it’s closer to the original version, which we saw many years ago and enjoyed better than this.

P.S. I caught up with some reports of Pam Gems’ comments. Apparently she was adding in new information about Piaf’s relationships and her activities during the war that weren’t available last time. Doesn’t change my opinion, but interesting all the same.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me