Love’s Labour’s Lost – October 2008 (2)

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Cressida Brown

Company: RSC Understudies

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 21st October 2008

This public understudies performance started in much the same way as the regular performance, with Dumaine/Longaville arriving about ten minutes before the nominal curtain-up, and Berowne putting in an appearance with a few minutes to go for his regular snooze. But then we had the pleasure of an introductory comment or two from the director, Cressida Brown (with a name like that, she had to do something involved with Shakespeare). She told us the usual stuff about why they do public understudies performances, and how little time they had had to rehearse for this one, as it’s the last production of the three that this company are doing. She warned us that some of the understudies were doubling up, such as David Ajala playing both Dumaine and Longaville, so occasionally characters would be talking to themselves on stage. She mentioned some of the knock-on effects of an actor being hors de combat, as it were, and in general gave us a good warm up for the main action.

Tom Davey was now playing the king of Navarre (Longaville in the regular cast), and did a fine job, though of course he hadn’t had the time to work up as much of the comic business as the original. David Ajala (Lord) did a fantastic job as both Dumaine and Longaville, managing to clearly differentiate both characters – Longaville stiff and formal (and with a hat), and Dumaine more soft and cuddly, and bareheaded. There was a lot of humour in the way he swapped between the roles at times, especially when he had to run round the back of the auditorium to make another entrance, even getting a laugh and applause for that alone. Robert Curtis (Forester) as Berowne was less expressive, but very clear on the text, and he seemed to relax into the part more in the second half, as a number of them did.

Keith Osborn (Marcadé) played Dull, and was fine, but Ryan Gage (Lord) as Costard was, if anything, better than the original. His lines came across more clearly, his comic business was clearer, and he was generally more expressive in the part. I could see him having a long career playing Shakespearean clowns, as well as other comedy. Don Armado was played by Samuel Dutton, the puppeteer from Little Angel, who gave a splendid performance, clearly distinguished from Joe Dixon’s, and almost as entertaining. Instead of size and bluster, he gave us pretentiousness and a clear delivery of the lines. He didn’t have a purple costume – sombre black was all the costume department could come up with – so he had to put all the braggadocio into the performance, which he did very well. Moth was played by Kathryn Drysdale, one of the princess’s women normally, and she did a very good job. I’m sure I got more of the page’s wit partly because I’d seen this production before, but her performance certainly helped.

The princess was played by Natalie Walter, the other of the princess’s women, and she did a fine job as well, coming across as more flirty and less serious than Mariah Gale. Andrea Harris (Lady) doubled Rosaline and Jaquenetta, which meant that Jaquenetta didn’t appear in the final scene, two months gone, but that didn’t affect the performance. Her Jaquenetta was more explicit when churning the milk, but otherwise was much as before, while her Rosaline was still pretty feisty, and a good match for Berowne. Riann Steele (Jaquenetta) played both of the princess’s ladies – Katherine and Maria – and also managed to get two different personalities across, one of which was remarkably like Natalie Walter’s performance. Fortunately, she didn’t have to run round the theatre to swap roles, but we still enjoyed and appreciated the changeovers. Boyet was played by Sam Alexander, normally Dumaine, and he also did an excellent job for such little rehearsal, with less comic business, but plenty of clarity in his speech.

The double act of Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel was played by Roderick Smith and Ewen Cummins (Dull) respectively, and they both did a decent job, especially as Worthies. David Tennant also doubled up today, playing both the Forester, as advertised, and also Marcadé, who was due to be played by Joe Dixon. Nina Sosanya made a brief appearance as a lady(?) in breeches, who sat on the swing when the ladies were gathering for the second half scene with the presents, and various stage crew filled in as stool carriers, etc.

This was a good fun performance. OK, we weren’t expecting too much, as we knew there were going to be limitations given the circumstances, but the standard of performance was so high, and the audience was so willing to enjoy themselves, that the afternoon passed very quickly and very enjoyably. I also got the chance to correct some of my mistakes in my earlier notes, as I was reminded of how things are actually done in this production.

Apart from the performances themselves, I didn’t notice too many changes from the regular cast. I thought the ladies didn’t join in the teasing of Don Armado this time –  they seemed to be more concerned to stop the blokes throwing this bloody napkin around. I realised for the first time that someone has a line which echoes the “l’envoy” that Moth gives to Don Armado’s original motto. They make some comment about the men being four, and Moth had added a line to the motto about the goose making four. I also remembered what fun it was during the Russian scene, when the king and his men huddle together after each unexpected response from the woman they believe to be the princess. The way they confer to come up with a group answer was very amusing, and just as funny even when there were only three present.

Afterwards there was a talk from the director of the understudies run, Cressida Brown. We learned that some actors prefer not to know what the main actor playing the part is doing, while others are happy to pinch as much as they can, especially when it’s a small part. She’d chosen this production for the public understudies performance, as it had the least time to prepare, and she wanted to give the hard-working cast a carrot to look forward to. The costume department couldn’t stretch to a full re-working for this production, so they had to improvise as much as possible, though for the other productions the understudies have the full kit. She had to snatch what time she could with the actors, as they were so busy with other things, but she found she could arrange time with one actor or small group here and there, and so it all came together.

It was a very enjoyable afternoon, and a lovely way to round it off.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Leaving – October 2008

6/10

By Vaclav Havel

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 16th October 2008

The set was a country garden. There was a pergola beside me with ivy trailing around it, a stone arched doorway far right, more bits of shrubbery round the walls, and a female nude in the stonework over the entranceway. A swing hung down towards the stone arched doorway, there was a round patio table with metal chairs in front of us, and a wooden bench to the left. The floor was part stone flagged, part brown carpet, which may represent dead lawn.

The play was about a Chancellor who has left office, and how things change once he’s no longer in power, especially as his political opponents are now in charge. Vilem Rieger, played by Geoffrey Beevers, is a middle aged man who had massive popular support when he took office, but now his legacy is coming under scrutiny. He has a long-time companion Irina, who herself has a ‘friend’ called Monika, and he lives with them and his mother in one of the official residences. A couple of former aides are helping him to pack up his things, although he feels he should be allowed to carry on staying in the house. His mother, known only as Grandma, potters about, making unfortunate comments, and there’s also a manservant, Oswald, who’s so old and rickety he should really be retired. Along with this group, there are Rieger’s two daughters, Zuzana and Vlasta, Patrick Klein, a member of the opposition party now in power, who manages to make a miraculous climb up the greasy pole right to the top in the course of the play, some journalists interviewing the great man now he’s no longer so great, and a political scientist Bea, who’s simply drawn to power and is willing to do the usual sort of things to latch on to the top dog. She starts off being attracted to Rieger, then drops him like a hot potato when Klein takes over. And before I forget, there’s also Vlasta’s husband Albin, who says little but is still scolded for being a chatterbox, and who streaks across the stage at one point, completely nude. He’s also wheeled on in the same state, having spent the night in the garden. And there’s a gardener who basically comes on to announce the various political changes in the country, like the gardeners in Richard II.

In fact, this play deliberately references other plays, specifically The Cherry Orchard and King Lear. Oswald is clearly Firs, the old servant who gets left behind when the family leaves, and who lies down on the sofa to die – Oswald does much the same thing. Both plays have a cherry orchard, but while the orchard in Chekov’s play is only being chopped down at the end, this orchard is being chain-sawed from a much earlier point. The King Lear references are abundant, as when Rieger finds he no longer has any influence, and is not only going to be booted out of the house, but may find himself in even deeper trouble. He ends up having to back the new regime, who have adopted his slogans and buzzwords, even though it’s clear they don’t intend to do anything about them. It was interesting to see that Irina, who seemed to be an older version of Bea, only staying with Rieger because he was powerful, actually stays loyal to him until this point, when he throws away his principles and supports the new power elite, specifically Klein. Once he does that, she leaves with Monika, although it’s possible Klein and Monika might develop a ‘special relationship’ themselves.

There’s also a Lear connection with the daughters. Zuzana is confident her boyfriend (French?) can put them up for a while, but later we hear that he’s been arrested on suspicion of something or other. Vlasta starts by offering her father a place to stay in their flat, then changes her mind as the pressure mounts. It may have been Albin’s (Albany) disagreement with that which led to her telling him to shut up as he was talking too much, and presumably triggered his bizarre behaviour.

There’s a load more stuff going on as one of the former aides plots to get himself into a good position in the new government, while the other worries about accounting for paper clips and a bust of Gandhi. Klein keeps turning up, each time with a more impressive job, until he’s finally made it to the top. He buys the residence, and plans to chop down the orchard and build a condo complex with facilities such as pubs, restaurants, shops, cinemas, and, of course, a posh brothel, located in the grand old house itself. He’ll be living in one of his other villas by then, as he’s cannily snapped up a job lot going cheap as the incoming party tries to balance the books. There’s also a lot of references to the Gambaccis, a Mafia-like family with fingers in more pies than they have fingers, if you see what I mean. All in all, this play gives us a complex and absurd picture of a country going to the dogs once a new party takes control, despite having had a good, if ineffective, leader for many years.

The autobiographical aspects are enhanced in this production because the author himself reads some entertaining notes during the performance – a disembodied voice telling us about the writing process, what the author intended at this point, how an actor should say a line, and generally giving us a humorous take on the whole process of writing a play. There’s a lovely spell when the stage has been left empty, and after quite a long pause, Havel talks about the difficulty of judging just how long to leave the stage unpeopled before the audience think the play’s finished and start leaving. Although I found his delivery a bit monotonous, I did enjoy his comments; the long boring bits were worth listening to for the punchlines.

I found myself enjoying this much more than I would have expected. I thought it might be a bit dull, but I now realise that Vaclav Havel probably wouldn’t know how to do dull. Although it obviously referred to Czech politics (Patrick Klein has the same initials as the chap who succeeded Havel), there were a lot of echoes of our own political scene, with Tony Blair having left office not so long ago. In the post-show chat, there were a couple of contributions from Czech ladies; an older woman who had lived through much of the massive changes that country has been through, and a younger woman who confirmed that she saw the play as essentially Czech in nature. She reckoned non-Czechs wouldn’t be able to get as much out of it, but even so, this production was apparently funnier than the original done in the Czech Republic.

There were only a few of the usual questions, what with these comments and questions about the nudity, etc. Someone asked about Irina being such a bitch, but I think the general feeling was that the characters all had some redeeming qualities, and that they weren’t just heroes and villains. I am definitely looking forward to the rest of the Havel season now.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Magic Flute – October 2008

8/10

By Mozart

Directed by Mark Dornford-May

Company: Impempe Yomlingo

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 14th October 2008

This was the first production we’d seen by this South African based company. Hopefully, it won’t be the last. It was also Steve’s first sight of The Magic Flute, and after the first half he took my advice and read the Synopsis for Act 2. It’s a weird plot at the best of times, and with no guarantee that we’d get much in English I felt it was wise to remind myself of the story beforehand, even though I had seen it on stage before.

I will just record here the singers who took the lead parts for this performance. Tamino – Sonwabo Ntshata; Papageno – Lizo Tshaka; Queen of the Night – Bongiwe Mapassa; Pamina – Zolina Ngejane; Sarastro – Sebastian Zokoza; Monostatos – Malungisa Balintulo; Papagena – Asanda Ndlwana.

This adaptation of The Magic Flute took us into a South African township setting to tell us the story from that perspective, using Mozart’s music in combination with African rhythms and harmonies, African dancing, and with the cast playing just about everything on adapted marimbas. It was an eclectic and exciting mix. The lyrics and dialogue (there was no recitative) was in a mixture of languages, including English, but slipping from one to the other easily. As a general point, I find that I prefer the operas I see not to be in English. Trained opera singers have to use Italian vowel sounds when singing, as these use an open throat to minimise the strain on the voice. English sung with these vowels is usually unintelligible, and so rather than straining to make out what they’re singing, I prefer to regard the voice as another instrument and just relax and let the beautiful sounds wash over and through me, taking me on the emotional journey of the piece. For this reason, I make sure I know what’s going on in each scene so I can follow the plot, but without having to hear any words. This has worked well for me in the past, and I see no reason to change things now. Although I did find I could make out some of the words during the sung bits, I found I could switch off that part of my brain for most of the performance, and just enjoy myself as usual. The dialogue was easier to get, and I quite liked the pithy comments they came out with at times.

The set was mainly a large wooden ramp in the middle of the stage, with spaces on either side for the marimbas. Behind these was scaffolding with another level or two, and they also used trapdoors in the ramp for the dragon and the trials of fire and water. There were stools for the gathering of tribal elders, a screen of cloth which dropped down from the scaffolding for projected stuff, and nothing much else except the performances and the costumes, which ranged from Supremes outfits for the three female spirits to African tribal costumes, and included a chorus of pink singing birds.

For the overture, the conductor stood on the stage, and the screen dropped down, so that we could see a projection of what he was doing, as he faced the back of the stage. I found the marimbas interesting, but I was aware that with only one instrument, we were missing a lot of the texture of the music that a regular orchestra can give. We were soon into the opera itself, though, and here the marimbas worked very well when accompanying the singing. (They did have some metal drums to use as well, but these weren’t used very often.) There were some problems with the lighting for one side of the marimbas, so it was all the more impressive that they kept it all together.

The standard of singing was pretty good. Pamina was superb; she had a rich strong voice and hit all the notes cleanly without straining. Some of the others were a little weak at the extremes of their range, but it all worked very well with the performances, and the dancing more than made up for it. They used all sorts of rhythms during the piece, with one number sounding more like a cabaret song, which was appropriate in context. The three Spirits were dressed as the Supremes, and for one of their songs, when they persuade Pamina not to kill herself (she thinks Pamino has gone off her), they’re done up in pink negligees and carrying pink teddy bears. When Pamina cheers up, she takes one of the teddies, so the Spirits have to jostle amongst themselves for the remaining two, until a helpful cast member throws another teddy bear on stage.

Given the unusual instrumentation, it was no surprise that the magic flute wasn’t a flute, and Papageno’s magic bells weren’t bells. It was a surprise that the flute was represented by a trumpet (played by the conductor, and very well too), while the bells were done using partly filled bottles. The whole performance was so lively that the evening flew past, and after rapturous applause, they treated us to an encore of African music with some great dancing to round off the evening. Great fun, and I do hope they come back again sometime soon.

For the post-show, we were joined by the conductor, Mandisi Dyantyis, and Pauline Malefane who is one of the earliest members of the group and sang Carmen in their first production. Mark Dornford-May joined us later. To begin with, Mandisi and Pauline told us how this piece had come about, with the group working through several ideas till it became clear that Flute was the one to do. They wanted to tell stories that people in the townships could relate to, and so they kept it simple. Everyone who came along was auditioned, so there are a number of singers in the group with no classical training, or any training for that matter. If they could sing, they were in. Everyone also had to learn the marimbas, and with little grasp of musical notation, that was a tough job for most of them. But Mandisi kept at it, and eventually things fell into place.

The marimbas themselves had to be modified, as traditional marimbas couldn’t manage all the notes they needed –  the black notes had to be added. (As I type this, I see the irony.) They have more projects planned. They workshop first and then decide what to develop. They’re looking at doing a history of apartheid in South Africa, but they’re not sure exactly which period to look at.

They’re enjoying Britain. It’s taking some time to establish their audience in South Africa, but over here the theatres have been full. We learned how Pauline had been picked from the chorus to sing Carmen. Basically, it’s such a demanding role, with a very wide range, that the director thought they’d have to get a classically trained singer for it, but she would have to be black. The only black opera singer they could find was Swedish, but after she’d been rehearsing with them for a few weeks, it was clear that her voice wasn’t up to the standard of most of the others, even though they were untrained. With only a few weeks to go, they had to make a tough choice, and when they tested the chorus members, they found Pauline was up to the job. She was suitably modest about the whole thing –  there’s a great feeling of ensemble with this company.

I was sorry to see that when Mark Dornford-May turned up, the other two became a lot quieter, as their enthusiasm and energy, even after a performance, were lovely to be around. Still, they’re getting the talent out there, where people can be opened up to new ideas and different ways of doing things, so congratulations to them all.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Absurd Person Singular – October 2008

8/10

By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Alan Strachan

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 13th October 2008

I liked this even more than I expected to. As is typical of Ayckbourn, this is a very good comedy, and this production is very well cast, so we had a great time.

The play covers three consecutive Christmas Eve gatherings, but we see only the kitchens. The first act is in the kitchen of Jane (Sara Crowe) and Sidney (Matthew Cottle); she’s into cleaning, he’s a handy man with a general store. They’re social climbers who are social misfits in terms of the people they’ve invited over for drinks. They’re so nervous that they end up behaving in completely bizarre ways, such as standing outside in the rain so as not to let on that you’ve had to go out and get some tonic water.

The second kitchen belongs to Eva (Honeysuckle Weeks) and Geoffrey (Marc Bannerman), and is a total mess. Eva doesn’t say a word until she starts singing at the end of the scene, having spent most of it trying to commit suicide and being hampered by the well-meaning assistance of her guests for the evening. Jane cleans her cooker, Sidney attempts to unblock her sink, and Ronald tries to repair the ceiling light fitting, electrocuting himself in the process. It’s darker than the first scene (and not just because the lights go out), but incredibly funny as well, for all the misery. Honeysuckle Weeks showed remarkable agility in taking all sorts of tumbles.

The third scene is set in Marion (Deborah Grant) and Ronald’s (David Griffin) kitchen. Here the social turnaround is complete, as Jane and Sidney are doing very well now his business has taken off, while Marion’s alcoholism is rampant and Ronald the bank manager is having to suck up to his most important customer, Sidney. Geoffrey also needs Sidney’s help, as he’s an architect who could do with some work from the new shopping centre/megastore Sidney’s involved in.

The humour is only partly about the social manoeuvrings, though. There’s a lot of physical comedy, especially in the second act when Eva is trying to kill herself and nobody notices. She keeps leaving goodbye notes on the kitchen table, only for the other characters to grab a bit of paper for something, and so she has to do it all again. Finally she skewers the note to the table with an enormous knife, before attempting to hang herself from the light fitting. This is what leads Ronald to attempt to fix the light fitting, as they all assume that that was what she was trying to do. It’s a really funny scene, which is amazing given the subject matter, and full of wonderful comic touches, such as Eva picking the clothes pegs off the washing line to get her rope.

The final act gives Marion a chance to play grab-the-gin-bottle, which was brilliantly funny, but otherwise it’s much darker, as the characters who were on top in the first act now find themselves at the mercy of the ever cheerful Jane and Sidney. They’re the kind of people who don’t go away when there’s no response to the doorbell; they just sneak round the back to see if they can find a way in. Definitely a reason to book a holiday abroad, but make sure they’re not going to do the same thing first!

It was a good fun evening, and I enjoyed seeing an earlier Ayckbourn again.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

An Ideal Husband – October 2008

6/10

By Oscar Wilde

Directed by Mark Piper (original direction directed by Peter Hall)

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 10th October 2008

This was a revival of the production which toured some time ago, I believe. I thought we had seen it then, but I can’t find any sign of it in our records. Anyway, this revival showed what a good production it was, but sadly the cast didn’t quite match the standard of the original. Tony Britton, although good enough in the later scenes, especially when he could sit down, was struggling to keep up earlier on, while the amount of cosmetic surgery on display for some of the women was a bit of a distraction. Fenella Fielding, in particular, no longer has any elasticity whatsoever, and delivered her lines as carefully as though they might rip something essential. Her timing was still good though, and she got some good laughs, but the power has gone and exits and entrances have to be planned well in advance. Kate O’Mara has still got both power and agility, though her elasticity is also long gone, and the customary lying about one’s age which is so prevalent in Wilde’s work was more a case of necessity here.

Apart from these performances, the actors were still good enough for the parts, although older than one might wish in some cases. Steve reckoned the cast was about ten years too old, and I would tend to agree with that assessment. I do hate making these points, but I decided these notes would be warts-and-all, so that’s how it is. Michael Praed gave signs of being able to cope with more than he was given to do, as did Robert Duncan, and Carol Royle was fine as the morally righteous wife whose idealistic temperament is put to the test. There was good support from the other cast members, as society gents and ladies, and Isla Carter did a fine job as Mabel, the young sister who gets Lord Goring in the end. So even though the performance would have benefitted greatly from some fresh blood, we did still enjoy ourselves tonight.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Born In The Gardens – October 2008

6/10

By Peter Nichols

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 9th October 2008

The first half of this play seemed to be by Orton out of Beckett. The set was a large room in a mock Tudor mansion, with a billiards light in the centre of the ceiling, a drum kit centre back, a coffin to the left of that, complete with dead body and floral tributes, a suit of armour back right, and a chair front right facing an old TV on a small table, which had its back to us. There were other chairs and a sideboard, plus a bookcase and standard lamp, etc. The coffin was removed for the second half, which gave them a lot more room. The back wall was dark wood, presumably oak, and panelled.

The father of the family has died, and the mother, Maud, and her younger son Maurice are waiting for the rest of the family to turn up for the funeral. It’s a small group. Hedley, the elder son, left home many years ago and made a career for himself as a politician. He’s now a back-bench MP with the Labour party, and still trying to make a name for himself. He has a wife, who from the sound of things is almost as crazy as his mother, two kids whom we don’t see, and a mistress, though we don’t find out about her until the second half.

Queenie, the sister, is also Maurice’s twin. She also left home many years ago to live in America, where she became a journalist. She’s incorporated the trip back for the funeral into a three week assignment travelling through Europe to report on the situation there. This is the late 1970s, and most of Europe is going through political and economic changes (is this the only drama we’re going to get now? Economic doom and gloom? God help us!). She phones her chap back in LA, just before the interval, only to find he’s not being as faithful as he thought.

Maurice has stayed at home with his parents all this while, and has developed some strange habits. He talks to his mother by reporting what the cat says, thus allowing him to be nice to her himself, but seriously catty as the cat. He plays jazz records (still vinyl in those days), and accompanies them on his drum kit. He also deals in second hand books of a pornographic nature, judging by the short extract Queenie read from one of them. I noticed that Hedley was so horrified when he read it that he completely forgot to hand it back and shut it in his briefcase instead. Maurice also spends most of his time winding his mother up. She’s a batty old dear, what with preferring to watch the TV with the sound off so she can talk to the people she sees on the screen. She believes the sound is broken, but we learn that it’s actually fine; it’s just Maurice who’s kept it turned down, presumably so that he can play his drums.

Maud is very much the heart and soul of this piece. Played superbly well by Stephanie Cole, she comes across as old, gullible, kind-hearted, and stuck in her ways. Despite Hedley’s best efforts, he can’t get her to move out of the big mansion into a small condominium in London, so that they can sell the property for developers to do what developers do. She’s adamant that she wants to stay where she is so she can go to the local hypermarket and buy lots of things really cheaply. Like tampons. She keeps lots of packets of soup in the freezer that Hedley bought her, so he wouldn’t feel she didn’t appreciate his gift. She keeps using the old gas boiler for heating the water, even though it might blow up any minute (we hear several loud bangs to reinforce this point). I don’t know what she’s meant to represent in terms of the author’s experience of Bristol folk, but she’s enough like so many people’s older female relatives to stay just this side of unbelievable (but only just).

There’s also an incestuous relationship between the twins, which accounts for Queenie wanting her brother to come and stay with her in the States, and we learn about their father’s sexual abuse of Queenie which Maurice walked in on and which caused her to leave home as soon as she could all those years ago. All in all, it’s not a happy family, but at least Maud and Maurice are content with their lot. The play finishes with Maud chatting happily away to the silent TV people, while Maurice plays his drums to an accompanying song.

While I enjoyed this performance, I find this type of play doesn’t get me as involved as more straightforward storytelling. The surreal nature of the piece distances me from the characters, and although I found it very funny in places, there was little to engage me emotionally or mentally. And as I don’t know Bristol at all well, I didn’t get much from those aspects either. Still, the performances were excellent, and the humour was good throughout, especially the confusion between duplex, Durex, condominium and condom. I’d still choose to spend an afternoon watching a play like this over a lot of other options.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Glass Menagerie – October 2008

6/10

By Tennessee Williams

Directed by Braham Murray

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Wednesday 8th October 2008

I was a bit tired after a long day which involved a trip back from Stratford amongst other things, but although that might have lessened my enjoyment of some parts of this production, I still feel it was too unbalanced to do this play full justice, the excellent cast notwithstanding.

Firstly I’ll describe the set. Designed by Simon Higlett, the rear wall of the set leaned drunkenly against the side of the stage, the windows equally skew-whiff. The rest of the set had come home early from the party, though, and so was much better behaved. We sat just off the centre aisle, so to our left was a day bed with jonquils rather absurdly flowering beside it (they looked like daffs to me, but from their use later in the play I deduced what they were meant to be). Near that was a small table which had a typewriter and books, further back was the dresser and dining room table, and the space extended back to create an exit to the (unseen) kitchen. Above this, along the back wall ran a walkway with a metal railing. At the right hand side it became a stairway down to the apartment, with the central props of the railing perpendicular to the angle of descent. To the right of the stairs was another chaise longue, and beside that was the gramophone and records. In front of these was the semi-circular three-tiered stand that held the glass figurines, and above it there were five strands of wires suspended, with copies of the glass animals attached. I suspect this was to make it clear to everyone in the audience, not just those at the front, what was in Laura’s collection, and this symbolic yet practical touch was echoed by a short cascade of boxes down part of the rear wall, towards the corner. When the lighting was bright enough, I realised these had shoes tumbling out of them, representing the boring job that Tom does to support his family, and a nice diagonal counterpoint to the dangling glassware. Later, when it lit up, I spotted the Paradise Club sign to the left of the back wall – it was just too dark over that way to spot it earlier. There were rugs and cushions and knick knacks all dotted round the place, entirely in keeping with the period, and during the interval those kind stage crew folk came and spruced the place up, ready for Laura’s “gentleman caller”. The typewriter and books were cleared away, there were bright new chintz covers for the chairs and even the cushions on the dining chairs, and the table was covered in a beautiful cloth. The ladies’ clothes changed to match. It was very detailed and created a strong sense of the period and specific location, though not necessarily the wider setting.

I hadn’t seen the play for a long time (1998, according to our records), so I’d forgotten that Tom narrates the story. It started with him lighting up the first of many cigarettes (statutory notices adorned every available door on the way in), and telling us that this was not a true story, because it was based on memory, and then giving us the social context of the period, the 1930s. The mention of economic catastrophe inevitably got a good laugh from the audience, and it was certainly a good opening; getting a laugh while connecting us to these characters’ circumstances is an excellent way to get an audience involved – well, it works for me, anyway. Sadly, things didn’t go so well after that.

For me, Brenda Blethyn as Amanda wasn’t believable enough as a woman who had been a real southern belle in her youth. This meant that her character’s grieving for past glories, and mourning over missed opportunities for happiness was transmuted into vanity and fantasy, lessening the emotional impact, and turning her into a thoroughly unpleasant harridan with no redeeming or sympathetic features whatsoever. This was coupled with Emma Hamilton’s  rather robust portrayal of Laura, which underplayed her timidity and suffering, and left me feeling that Laura was essentially fine if only her mother would shut up for a bit. Again, I found it difficult to engage with her character, and with that of her brother Tom. He was another unpleasant chap, driven to drink and extended cinema attendance (or so he claimed) by the dreadful behaviour of their mother. I don’t blame him, but then I wouldn’t want to spend time with him either. Only Jim, the gentleman caller, showed us some degree of recognisable normality, and it was in his scene with Laura that the performance began to find its feet. Jim was able to show his natural self, instead of the life-and-soul-of-the-party persona he’d been demonstrating till now, while Laura was finally able to express some of her feelings to someone not in her family and feel accepted, liked and even loved, at least for a brief moment. I liked this scene very much, though without the build up from the rest of the play it couldn’t be as moving as I’ve experienced before, but it did show us some nice subtle touches in the two performances.

I thought the main problem was the uncertainty as to how accurate Amanda and Tom are about Laura’s problems. This meant I had to consider the play intellectually, to figure out the clues I was being given, rather than being able to engage emotionally with the characters and their situations. This isn’t Pirandello, for heaven’s sake! But it certainly had some sense of playing with reality, presumably based on the opening narration. I also got a whiff of Chekov, in that instead of going into the heavier emotional aspects of the play, the production seemed determined to give us a lighter version, almost a comedy take on the play. There is humour in it, but I’m not convinced the play can take a comedy emphasis to this extent.

I was also aware of how close in time this play was to Arthur Miller’s first efforts, and could see how he might have been influenced by this, especially in relation to Death Of A Salesman. It’s still a good play, and there was enough to enjoy in this performance that I didn’t feel I’d wasted my time, but I do hope I’ll see a version that involves me more than this in the future.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me