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

Love’s Labour’s Lost – October 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 7th October 2008

Wow! Another production where we had to talk down our expectations to avoid disappointment, only to have all expectations completely blown away by a stunning production. Ignore the critics, this performance made almost every part of the dialogue intelligible, which is a major accomplishment.

As an appetiser to the main course, we went to a pre-show director’s talk. Greg Doran was as interesting as usual, and we learned a great deal about the production, including the slightly unsavoury information that a “dish clout” was a reference to a sanitary towel in Shakespeare’s day. In fact, this play is apparently full of the filthiest language and references of all the canon, which came as a surprise to me, as Will has never seemed shy of making a coarse or crude joke in most of his other work.

Apart from the filth, there’s a scene where Don Armado, Moth and Costard do some fancy stuff with language, and in the rehearsal process they realised that they were playing with the rhythms of speech, so it seemed natural to use rap as the modern equivalent. When we saw the scene, I have to say it worked well for me, although if anything it was on the short side to get the point across fully. The political position of Navarre within France, and the actual existence of several of the characters in the records of a battle, was touched on, although I’ve forgotten some of the details now.

The choice of Nina Sosanya was also mentioned, as there are many references to Rosaline’s complexion and colour in the text, and it was felt that only a black actress could really carry this part off. There was also a fair bit of information about the different levels of maturity of the men and the women, with the women coming out on top. The choice of costumes was also mentioned –  this production has gone for Elizabethan, and very nice it looks too.

Now for the production itself. The set was bare except for the (almost inevitable) mirrored back wall and a massive tree, which spread its roots and branches wide across the stage towards the back. Long strands of vari-coloured glass leaves (more likely to be Perspex?) hung down over the stage, looking gorgeous, especially as we’d seen so much autumnal beauty on the drive up. The longer strands were raised at the beginning to allow the actors to get on the stage – why were they hung so low in the first place? – and it all looked beautiful. The bulk of both the French and Navarre courts were dressed in off-white, but Berowne and Rosaline wore significantly different clothes. Berowne was in fetching light blue doublet and hose, while the material of Rosaline’s dress had a lovely multi-coloured floral pattern on a deep blue background, which made the flowers glow when the light caught them. It was clear these were two outsiders, emphasised by David Tennant’s use of his native accent and the casting of Nina Sosanya as mentioned above.

The actors for the opening scene – the king’s would-be fellow students –  arrived gradually before the actual start. Dumaine arrived first with a guitar or lute, and sat tuning and strumming for a bit, then Longaville joined him, and started nibbling at the remnants of their picnic which were strewn all over the blanket. Berowne also turned up ahead of time, but wasn’t so keen for company, so he just lay down to one side with his hat over his face and took a short nap. This allowed the king to burst onto the scene and wake him up by dropping the chest he was carrying, and almost bellowing “Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives…”, etc. (Yes, that is the opening line, and yes, I did have to look it up.) It was an excellent speech, which got across the braggadocio of the king and at least two of his lords. Berowne looked distinctly unimpressed by it all, and remarkably keen to ditch all the tough bits of the three years’ abstinence (fasting, no women, very little sleep, etc.), but he agrees to it at long last, and in this production they actually do sign a piece of paper.

Naturally, they’re all shocked to remember that the King of France’s daughter is arriving that very day to speak with the king, and given that, if he did so, he would have to “endure such public shame as the rest of the court can possibly devise”, the king grabs the quill back sharpish, and amends the article so he can get away with doing his kingly duty unscathed. The signed declaration is then pinned to the tree.

Dull arrives with Costard and a letter from Don Armado concerning Costard’s illicit canoodling with Jaquenetta. Dull, played by Ewen Cummins, was stolid and slow. An older Dull than some, he smoked a pipe, and was a noticeable presence, even though he spoke little. His later comment about not understanding a word of what was said got a good laugh, especially as the audience had been inundated with Latin and flowery prose for a good while before that.

The king and his cronies read out Don Armado’s preposterously worded letter with every sign of appreciation. They’re clearly a bunch of youthful, vigorous fops, with hardly a brain cell between them, and that one belonging to Berowne. The king shows a bit of anger with Costard when he ticks him off, which sets him up nicely for his own comeuppance later on.

Having heard his prose style, we now see the man and his page. Joe Dixon plays Don Armado, with Zoe Thorne as the page, Moth, and it’s a wonderfully comic pairing. She just about comes up to his waist, and has a cheeky impish face. With both of them dressed identically in lavish purple outfits, and pacing majestically onto the stage, page mimicking master, it was funny enough just seeing them. Then they got talking, and the dialogue became a bit difficult to follow, partly because Joe Dixon is using an extravagant Spanish accent for this role. However, the attitudes and responses still came across clearly. Moth was running rings round his master, who was in love with Jaquenetta.

At this point, Jaquenetta, Costard and Dull turn up, so Don Armado and Moth retreat to the tree. Jaquenetta is a busy girl – she has a milk churn with her, and sets it down so she can do a bit of churning. The way she plunged that handle up and down, and up and down, had more than Don Armado’s eyes bulging. He had to fan himself when he was talking to her, only it wasn’t his face that he was trying to cool down. After she leaves with Dull, and Costard and Moth have also left, Don Armado throws himself to the ground so he can kiss the patch of stage she walked over. This man is so far gone, he’s going to make the king and his men look sensible, and what would be the fun of that?

Now all we need is for the women to arrive, and so they do. The princess of France (she doesn’t appear to have a name) arrives with her servant, Boyet, and three of her women. While Boyet heads off to check what’s happening at court (they’ve heard of the king’s vow to avoid women for three years), the princess and her ladies discuss the other men who are with the king. All three ladies seem smitten with one or other of the king’s supporters, but the princess is unmoved. When the king himself arrives, she keeps her back to him, annoyed that she’s expected to stay out in the open instead of being given proper hospitality. It’s like being told to pitch a tent in Green Park instead of being invited into Buck House. They swap formalities for a short while, as the other men and women check each other out, and then the princess turns round, and bingo! They’re in love too.

While the king looks over a written note of the princess’s suit, Berowne tries to chat up Rosaline, and gets nowhere very fast. She’s not impressed, even though she seemed to fancy him, but these women know how to value themselves. Berowne may look a bit tasty, but she’s got to check out his other attributes (oh, do behave) before she can commit.

The king and princess aren’t able to resolve the issue of the return of Aquitaine immediately – they need some papers which are still in transit and will arrive tomorrow – so the king welcomes the princess and her entourage to the field, and heads off with his men. Despite the circumstances, the princess seems happier with her lodgings than she did earlier – I wonder what can have changed her mind? As she and her women retire to the tree, Boyet is summoned by each of the king’s follower’s to confirm what their eyes have already told them – the identity of each of the queen’s women. Shock, horror! These men are in love! And with the queen’s women! What will become of their vows now? They used the side and front entrances to the stage, with Dumaine and Longaville doing “psst” noises to attract Boyet’s attention, and Berowne snapping his fingers. Boyet, played by Mark Hadfield, did a masterful job of keeping a straight face during all this. I notice from my text that once the men have gone the ladies unmask, and this would make more sense of the questions. Here they were bare faced, and it made the men seem even stupider. So that’s alright then.

The next scene brings back Don Armado and his page. Don Armado is playing a guitar, and is so preoccupied with this and making a grand entrance, that he nearly walks into the long tree branch that sweeps across most of the stage. He steps neatly to one side, accompanied by Moth and our laughter, and continues to play. Moth has a small rattling instrument, and is clearly bored at having to play it every so often; he picks his nose while he’s waiting for his next turn. Don Armado sends Moth to fetch Costard, as he wants to use him as a postman, and on his arrival, with a nasty bruise on his shin, we get the rapping dialogue amongst Don Armado, Moth and Costard. This passed surprisingly quickly and pleasantly, and I even got some idea of what they were talking about – “l’envoy”, which, if I understand rightly, is, in effect, a punchline.

Don Armado gives Costard a letter to take to Jaquenetta, and a small amount of money for his trouble. Three farthings, in fact, which he refers to as a “remuneration”, although his accent turns the word inside out. Then Berowne turns up, and also gives Costard a letter, which he wants Costard to give to Rosaline. For this task, he pays Costard a “guerdon” (I’ve got nothing). The “guerdon” is apparently  a shilling, and Costard makes his feelings vis-à-vis “remuneration” and “gardon” very clear before he exits, leaving the stage to Berowne. This is his chance to win us over, to make us feel for his desperate plight, his lovesick suffering. So what does he do? He insults all the ladies present by comparing us to “a German clock, still a-repairing, ever out of frame…”. David Tennant picked one lady in the audience to address these scurrilous comments to, but we knew he meant all of us. Mind you, she’s the one that got the wink at the end.

Knowing that Costard isn’t the brightest chap, and that he has two love letters to give to two different women, we can see comic possibilities a mile off. The good news is that we don’t have to wait that long, as the next scene gives us the pleasure of seeing Costard deliver Don Armado’s letter to the princess, believing her to be the correct recipient of it. Actually, she snatches it out of his hand, planning to embarrass Rosaline. Boyet reads it out, and the women react in a more scornful way to Don Armado’s flowery prose. It’s a nice contrast with the men’s responses in the earlier scene, and tells us all we need to know about the two groups. Men dumb, women smart. After some more word play, all leave, and we get to meet Holofernes, a schoolmaster, and Sir Nathaniel, a curate, both older gentlemen, and both somewhat grubby in the costume department. Dull is with them.

The princess and her women had been hunting deer before the previous scene, and now Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel are discussing the killing of a deer in that hunt. There’s a lot of quibbling about the precise terms to be used, and we get the impression of Holofernes as a real pedant, not as learned or as wise as he likes to think he is, but full of self importance nonetheless. Sir Nathaniel is more reasonable, but easily led, and in the company of Holofernes, always likely to be led astray. Dull says little, but does come out with some good Malapropisms, such as mangling “allusion” into “collusion” and “pollusion”.

Costard and Jaquenetta turn up, as she needs someone to read her the letter that Costard has brought her. Oops. Sir Nathaniel reads it out and we can hear that it’s of a much better quality than Don Armado’s. Holofernes is scathing about it however, at least when he’s not ogling Jaquenetta. It’s clear that when he “teaches boys the horn-book”, he has extensive experience of the subject, at least in his dreams. Anyway, Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel realise that, as the letter has been sent by Berowne, he’s in breach of his vow, and send Jaquenetta to the king to hand it over. Holofernes then undertakes, over dinner, to explain to Sir Nathaniel why the verses were very poor.

Now comes Will’s second best comedic scene of all the plays (number one for me is the ring scene at the end of The Merchant Of Venice, in case you’re interested). One by one the King and his men, starting with Berowne, arrive on stage to present their attempts at love poetry to us. As each arrives, the one on stage hides, until Berowne (up the tree), the king (behind some tree branches that conveniently dropped lower), and Longaville (behind the tree) are watching Dumaine bring on a very large book. It’s so big, it can conceal the small guitar (or similar instrument) he’s using to practise his love song. We’ve already established he’s the musician of the group, and soon he’s strumming away and singing a pretty little ditty, which the others join in. Then we get the series of denouncements, first by Longaville, then the king, and finally by Berowne, with each guilty party looking suitably abashed by their discovery. Only Berowne rampages unchallenged, lashing the others with his tongue, until Jaquenetta arrives bearing a letter which he immediately recognises. He tries to run away, but the king stops that manoeuvre. However, when the king asks Berowne to read the letter out, he grabs it and, tearing it up, stuffs as much as he can into his mouth to destroy the evidence. They gather the remaining pieces together, and discover enough damning evidence from those few fragments to force a confession from Berowne that he, too, is in love. Then follows some banter about Berowne’s love which contains a lot of the descriptions of Rosaline that led Greg Doran to cast a black actress in the part.

Although the railing has been good fun, now the lovers turn their attention to the serious business of how to get out of their vows. (Note that the option of keeping their vows doesn’t actually occur to them.) It’s Berowne’s job, as keeper of their collective brain cell, to resolve this problem, so the others leave the stage to him as they sit down across the front of it to hear his weighty verdict. In truth, it’s all flim-flam, but it’s what they want to hear, so he gets away with it. And as we want to see what they get up to next in pursuit of their loves, we’re happy too. Interval.

The second half starts with Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel after dinner, and very pleased with themselves, meeting up with Don Armado and his flotilla of Moth and Dull. Don Armado has been sent to arrange some entertainment for the visiting princess, and they decide to present the Nine Worthies later that day. The fun in this scene is firstly in the preposterous language, with Don Armado informing the somewhat horrified schoolmaster that the prince often played with his “excrement” with his fingers (meaning his moustaches), and secondly in the over-the-top performance of Joe Dixon as Don Armado. Again, I missed some of the language, but not much, and I found this scene much more entertaining than usual.

Now we get to see the princess and her entourage again. They’re sitting around on cushions, and checking out the gifts sent to them by the king and the other men. They compare notes, and the men don’t do too well out of it. Then Boyet arrives to inform them that he’s overheard the king and his crew planning a secret visit to the women they adore. Instead of turning up as themselves, they plan to arrive disguised as Russians. Boyet can hardly get the story out, he’s laughing so much. The princess decides they’ll play a trick themselves, and gets the women to swap gifts and hide their faces, which they do by lifting their skirts over their heads, like massive hoods. They certainly manage to conceal themselves, although it looks a bit cumbersome, and I wasn’t sure that the gifts were actually visible.

The men are dressed in Russian garb of Elizabethan times (apparently), and look absolutely ridiculous, with bulky coats and long beards. After a hilarious mock Russian dance routine that looked more like something the less gifted contestants on The Generation Game would do, they try to find the lady of their dreams by checking out the gifts they’ve sent, and of course Rosaline takes the lead, as she’s playing the princess. The wooing done, the Russians leave, and the women swap favours again, so that the men, returning without their disguises, will be fooled all the more.

When the men do turn up, the women make fun of them, as expected, and then Costard arrives to ask whether the Three Worthies can come on or not. They agree, and so the nobles take their seats to enjoy the pageant. Pompey does alright, but Alexander has a bad time of it, drying completely and having to be escorted off, and then Moth and Holofernes arrive as Judas Maccabeus and a young Hercules. Moth does the serpent strangling just fine, and wisely gets off stage before the heckling of Judas really gets into its stride. This is very like the heckling towards the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but here the men are seen as unpleasant, and the women are clearly not happy with their behaviour, although they do join in the teasing of Don Armado a short while later. He turns up as Hector, and is being hectored by the men, when Costard informs the company that Jaquenetta is pregnant, by Don Armado. When Costard challenges him, he refuses to remove his jacket as he has no shirt on, but he does have the “dish-clout” of Jaquenetta’s under his jacket, and this the men remove and start throwing around, with the women joining in.

This is becoming very unpleasant, and then the messenger from the French court arrives with the news of the King of France’s death, and the mood changes completely. The men are keen to get the ladies’ agreement to marriage before they head off, but the women are too smart for that. Once the new queen has set a task for her would-be husband, the others follow suit, and so the attempted wooing has been unsuccessful for this time. The play ends with a song, in praise of the owl and the cuckoo, sung by the Three Worthies cast, and then all leave the stage. Only Berowne and Rosaline linger on the two walkways, and see the owl flying around the stage – it’s a puppet worked by Samuel Dutton of Little Angel. It’s a haunting way to end this production. The play has such a strange change of mood at the end, and this finale sums it up perfectly, while allowing for the possibility that these lovers will get together after a year has passed. Or not, as the case may be.

This play is all about the language, and this production actually makes a lot of it understandable, which is no mean feat. The recognition of crudity in the language is not overdone, although the tampon tossing incident may not be to everyone’s taste, but the real joy is in the way the characters are brought to life and made entertaining while spouting some of the most difficult dialogue Will could devise, sonnets included. It’s a real treat, and we’re seeing it again (yippee!). Life is good.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band Changed My Life Forever – October 2008

6/10

By Patrick Prior

Directed by Jim Dunk

Company: Isosceles

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 3rd October 2008

What a title! With a name like that, we just had to see this one, and after seeing such a gem last week, I had to make sure my expectations weren’t too high tonight.

Two guys turn up for an audition for a tour of tribute acts for one-hit wonders of the 60s. Eric, already at the place, is warming up on his keyboard when Bob arrives and starts identifying the songs in so much detail that it’s clear he’s something of a nerd. At first he and Eric don’t hit it off, but as time passes, and the rest of Eric’s band don’t turn up, they start singing some of the old hits, to fit in with their conversation, and the ice is broken.

Bob intends to become a world-wide Viv Stanshall impersonator. He’s the BDDDB’s greatest fan, and when he got a redundancy payoff after nearly thirty years in the same job, he decided to use the money to launch his new career. His wife reckoned the money would be better spent on starting up their own business, so they went their separate ways, his ex taking half of everything, including the redundancy money. He’s now living with his mother in her council flat, and giving informal performances in her  sitting room.

Eric’s been rocking for many years, never quite making it into a successful band, though he claims that he was very nearly one of the Dreamers (as in Freddie and). He’s on his third marriage, and I wondered if there was some connection between his band not turning up and his wife being home alone. To be fair, he had had a row with the band the night before – artistic differences – so it may be simpler than it looked. Bob has been making some phone calls and just before the interval he received one which was clearly giving him bad news – I suspect he’s not long for the tribute industry. With Eric off getting them coffee from a nearby café, the first half ends with Bob carefully removing his blond wig, so that he can bury his head in his hands and have a good cry.

The second half starts with Eric arriving back with the coffee and finding Bob in this state. He’s concerned for him, but Bob keeps insisting he’s alright, as men do, and puts it down to nerves about the audition. Eric tries to help by giving him a shot of whisky, and reckons that Bob still hasn’t got over losing his wife, Juliet – cue for song. Then Eric gets a phone call from his band, and isn’t happy. We can guess what’s happened. The two men keep on at each other until all is revealed. Bob has prostate cancer, and Eric’s band has given him the sack. To fulfil Bob’s ambition to leave something that will live on after his death, something that will show the world he existed, Eric suggests that he film Bob doing his Viv Stanshall routine, and then he can put it on the internet for everyone to see for a long, long time. This cheers Bob up, and they finish with a rousing rendition of Urban Spaceman, to celebrate.

This was another lovely piece, with lots of humour, good music (for the most part – I defy anyone to cover My Boy Lollipop successfully), and some moving moments, though not enough to give me the sniffles. Apparently these actors spend their time touring a number of productions, and they put on whichever show the venue wants to see. Tonight was only the second time they’d performed this one, which accounts for some slightly fluffed lines and minor hesitations. (Steve picked up this info during the interval, while the director was chatting to someone else.) Still, it was an enjoyable evening, and I’d certainly be happy to see their stuff again.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Living Together – October 2008

8/10

By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Matthew Warchus

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 1st October 2008

I’ve been very aware of the changes to the RSC’s theatres in Stratford, and I’m looking forward to seeing their new main house when it opens, but although I must have read that the Old Vic was being transformed for these Ayckbourn plays, I didn’t register just how major the change would be. It’s what I’ve wanted to see in these old-fashioned London theatres for years, and now it’s happened, if only on a temporary basis. Jubilate!

As it happens, we were probably sitting in much the same place as we normally do, but this time we were only a few feet from the stage (and probably sitting on top of our heads). A big circular platform stood in the front of the auditorium, with seats on two levels behind it, where the stage used to be, and a few seats round the side. The bulk of the seats were in the usual place, but the stalls were lifted higher and raked right up to the circle balcony. We were in the second row, just to the right of the centre aisle, and on the same level as the front row, so other people’s heads were always going to be feature of this performance. The seats were mainly the old ones with new covers, so comfort hadn’t increased, although the leg room had definitely improved.

The set was intriguing. Above the platform hung another large circle, about 3 or 4 feet above it. On both sides was a model of the play’s setting – a country location, with a large old house in the middle, and lots of garden and countryside around it. At the start, this disc rose up to form a high ceiling, and the house in the middle was highlighted, so we could see where we were. The disc also had a clock projected onto it between scenes, to show the passage of time.

The living room was the only set required for this play. There was a fireplace just to our right with a large rug in front of it, a chair, table and telephone further round (anti-clockwise), a space for a doorway to the rest of the house, then the sofa and coffee table, then the door to the garden, then another table with the record player. All the furnishings were 1970s, which made several of them bang up to date, retro being so popular.

There are six characters whom we see over the three plays. Annie lives in the house, looking after her bitch-from-hell mother, and having a puttering sort of relationship with Tom, the local vet. Tom is a rather bland character, who makes magnolia paint look interesting; he’s taken solid and dependable to new lows. With all the pressure she’s under, Annie had arranged to go away secretly for the weekend with her brother-in-law Norman, who’s married to her sister Ruth. This weekend falls through, for reasons which become apparent in one of the other plays, and so Annie and Norman and Tom are all at the house over the weekend. As mother still needed to be taken care of, Annie’s brother Reg and his wife Sarah have also turned up, minus their kids, so it’s a family affair, especially when Ruth arrives following a drunken phone call from Norman.

Not only does Norman get drunk, he also indulges in his favourite pastime of seducing every available woman he can find, which this weekend means that both of his sisters-in-law and his wife are the targets for his charm. Thankfully, mother-in-law seems to be immune. He also gives advice to Tom about how to deal with Annie, and although it seems designed to break them up completely, it actually seems to work, and Annie ends up happier with their relationship than before, at least at the end of this play. Sarah, on the other hand, goes from being a neurotic control freak who can’t stand Norman, nor anyone else, it seems, to a more relaxed happy individual who’s thinking of taking a weekend break in Bournemouth. Her husband recognises the signs. I expect fireworks in the garden as they leave.

They were still in previews, and I did get a sense of some hesitation occasionally, but overall the performances were excellent. Stephen Mangan was a wonderfully shaggy Norman, not as repulsive as some I’ve seen, but certainly immature enough. His comic timing was well to the fore, as in the long pause before he produces the word “magnetic” to describe himself. Amelia Bullimore as his wife, Ruth, does a fine job. There’s less for her to do, of course, as her character doesn’t turn up till the second half, but I got a sense of her focus on her job, and the lack of time for Norman which may partly explain his behaviour. But she also allows herself to be seduced back into bed with him, although this time it’s the rug in front of the fire that they use.

Amanda Root was excellent as Sarah, with nostrils flaring and eyes wide with panic whenever there’s the slightest threat of someone or something edging out of her control. The change to the relaxed version of Sarah was good, and I liked the way Reg finally cottoned on when his wife started talking about taking a weekend break somewhere, on her own. Reg knew all about the abortive weekend with Annie, and wasn’t too stupid to realise what had happened. Paul Ritter played Reg very well, especially as he’s one of the ‘dull’ characters, completely obsessed with developing board games that no-one else understands. Especially Tom.

Tom was played by Ben Miles, and he got across all of Tom’s ….. aarhm ….. well, indecisiveness, I suppose. It was beautifully done. Jessica Hynes, as Annie, was more feisty than some I’ve seen, but still had that depressed air of someone who can’t seem to get away from the burden of looking after her mother. I realised this time that it’s partly her mother’s attitude to clothes and femininity that leads Annie to dress and act the way she does; she doesn’t want to turn into a slapper like her mother. Mind you, she does scrub up well in the second half.

I also got a strong impression of the family unit in this production. It can be complicated working out how all these characters are related at first, but this time I was clear from an early stage. When the three siblings were together, I felt they behaved like brother and sisters, although at that point the heads in front were getting in the way a lot. It’s always so tantalising to see one of these plays and then have to wait for the others, but we couldn’t manage an all-day session , so we’ll just have to be patient. If they’re all up to this standard, we’re in for a treat.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me