Measure For Measure – March 2009


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Jamie Glover

Company: Theatre Royal Plymouth

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 24th March 2009

This was the first Shakespeare play directed by Jamie Glover, and it’s a pretty good start to this phase of his career. Also present tonight were his mum and dad (Isla Blair and Julian Glover), Penelope Keith, Charles Kay and Greg Doran, whom Steve spotted giving someone a big hug afterwards – presumably young Jamie. So it must have been a pretty nerve-wracking first night at Guildford for everyone and I think they handled it very well.

The set consisted of a brick wall along the back with an entrance either side, topped with a row of wooden shutters which could be opened a number of ways to show the windows and create the different locations. There were two pillars on each side of the stage and a plain, flagged floor. Desks, chairs, etc. were brought on as needed, but sparingly. The costumes were Victorian and the whole effect was very sombre, with only the prostitute’s clothes providing a splash of colour. The walls even ran with water to make the place look dank and unpleasant. The lighting worked very well to change the location, although occasionally a character’s face would be in shadow when they were talking with someone else, which hopefully they can correct.

Alistair McGowan was playing the Duke and opened the play with what seemed like a melodramatic style, lurking mysteriously by the pillars and then starting with fright when his court appeared. His tendency to wave his arms around wasn’t the worst I’ve seen and although I would prefer him to rein that back a bit, I soon got used to his style and started to enjoy the performance. His animation also emphasised the stillness and lack of expression of Angelo, which is a useful point to make.

I found the dialogue in the opening scenes a bit brisk for easy understanding, but with Lucio’s arrival at the nunnery it calmed down and I found I was very keen to listen as the story unfolded. That made the somewhat excessive amount of coughing a bit annoying, and I may have rated this performance even higher if it hadn’t been for those distractions which mainly seemed to come from the younger audience members. Too much TV, not enough theatre going perhaps.

Anyway, the story rattled on at a good pace (the whole performance came in at just over two and a half hours, including interval) and I found I heard many of the lines afresh tonight. The comments about the dowries came across clearly, which made me think that if that society hadn’t put such an emphasis on the commercial aspects of marriage there wouldn’t have been such a need for fornication in the first place. Or at least it would have been the legitimate kind, although I also agree with Pompey that it’s a “vice” that will never be stamped out till humanity has left the planet for good.

The scene with Pompey, Froth and Elbow in front of the judges was the best I’ve ever seen. We’re fond of Robert Goodale anyway, and his rendition of a Dogberry type constable was absolutely perfect. I could totally believe that he thought he was saying the right word every time while committing some wonderfully funny verbal faux pas. Froth was a straightforward dimwit with no attempt made to pad his character out excessively, and Pompey got his lines across really well all through the play. I also liked the fact that, with limited numbers, Elbow is frequently on stage as one of the officers, even if he doesn’t get any extra lines.

From reading the program notes I was very aware that this play was written during the reign of James VI and I, and it seems to be designed to pander to the king’s interest in theology. It’s as if Shakespeare has expanded the second half of The Merchant Of Venice, adding a lot more detail to the arguments and changing the context to a sexual rather than a religious or financial one. With this production, I found I could hear the debate raging very clearly, and that more than anything else hooked me and kept me engrossed. There wasn’t such a focus on the psychological elements of the characters and I felt the balance was just about right. The personal aspects, particularly with Isabella, were an important part of the debate – these characters had to make these points because of their situation – and I wanted very much to know how it would turn out. Which is bizarre, as I know, or thought I knew this play pretty well. That’s why we keep coming back, of course.

Emma Lowndes as Isabella gave a very complete performance. Not as stiff as some Isabellas at the start, she was still fairly upright and virginal. She seemed to find her voice and her emotions in pleading her brother’s case with Angelo, and after all she’d been through I felt she’d grown up a lot and seen aspects of life that she would never have encountered if she’d shut herself away in a nunnery. At the end she was left on stage, having gone through the emotional upheaval of having lost her brother only to find him again and then the Duke’s unbelievably clumsy proposal, and I could see she would be in emotional turmoil, not knowing what to do next. No wonder she doesn’t say anything. The Duke returns to wait at the door for her and as the lights go down she appears to be getting ready to get up and make her move, but which way will she go? With him, or back off to the cloister? It’s a nice touch to leave the matter undecided, and I suspect that she might need time to make a decision herself.

Jason Merrells as Angelo gave us all of that character’s uprightness followed by the descent into viciousness, pretty clearly. He had a wonderful guilty shiftiness in the final scene, forcing a false smile and then showing his nasty temper when given a chance to complete the apparent cover-up of his fall from grace. I still feel Mariana’s got her work cut out making a half-way decent man out of the scraps she’s left with at the end, but redemption is everything in this play so she’ll probably manage it.

I’m coming to the tentative conclusion that Shakespeare wanted his plays to end happily for some reason (popular appeal, perhaps?) and didn’t care about the ‘realities’ of the situation he’d left his characters in as much as we seem to. For example, Mariana is married to Angelo, a man who’d repudiated her and was intending to semi-rape another woman, Olivia (Twelfth Night) is married to Sebastian, a man she hardly knows but has mistaken for his disguised twin sister, etc. I suspect if he came back today he’d be amazed and hopefully amused at the amount of analysis that had been done on perfectly straightforward plays, even on misprints, although he might be a bit annoyed to find they were out of copyright and he was no longer making money on them.

All the other performances were fine (nice to see George Anton on stage again) and Lucio (Patrick Kennedy) was in fine form, irritating the Duke beautifully. I was having some sniffle moments in the final scene – Mariana acknowledging her husband, Isabella choosing to plead for Angelo’s life – and despite the moving nature of these events, Shakespeare, and the cast it must be said, did a fine job turning immediately to humour in the form of Lucio’s interruptions without spoiling my involvement in the play. Life’s like that. It only remains to mention Clifford Rose as Escalus doing a fine job as usual, and I’m almost done.

An excellent production all round, shame about the audience, and we look forward to more opportunities to see work from this source (and perhaps even get down to the West Country to experience it in situ).

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

Julius Caesar – March 2009


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: SATTF

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Thursday 19th March 2009

Here we are, back at the Tobacco Factory, and it feels a longer gap than just a year. The place is much the same but the entrance to the auditorium has been moved. We now enter via the southwest corner, which is more straightforward and may help the ventilation(?). The only other set dressing is hexagonal grilles round the base of each pillar. Now for the play.

The Elizabethan costumes reminded me of the significance of this play in Shakespeare’s day – discussing politics publicly was a dangerous, but important part of that society. The fact that the two patricians at the start are dressed in the sombre black I associate with the Puritans adds to the effect; they are, after all, about to spoil the working men’s fun. The cobbler was entertaining, and I understood many more of his references about mending soles (souls) and how provocative such comments could have been.

Mark Anthony was a little difficult to understand at first, partly the grief and partly something strange in his accent that I haven’t been able to pin down yet. He was much better in the second half. I especially liked the way the rabble (all six of them) drowned out the start of Mark Anthony’s famous speech. “Friends, Romans, countrymen” was completely lost in the hubbub, and it took till “The evil that men do lives after them” before I could hear what he was saying. A little cowardly, perhaps? Or just showing how difficult his task was after Brutus had convinced the populace that Caesar had deserved to die? I think the latter, and here Mark Anthony did his job so well that he had to stop the riot twice before he finally unleashed the frenzied mob on Rome.

I noticed how in this production, the conspirators got things badly wrong in the first half. They assumed that Caesar was the problem, and yet it became clear that the people were the real source of Caesar’s power. Even though they were being manipulated, they could make or break the political careers of the ‘ruling’ classes. There was also an emphasis on the conspirators’ perception of their assassination as reducing the amount of time for Caesar to fear death. Yet Caesar had made it clear that he didn’t fear death, or anything else for that matter. Did the man protest too much, or was he being accurate? (Personally, I wouldn’t believe any of this shower if they told me the sky was blue on a sunny day.)

These ironies and contrasts were brought out throughout the performance. Calpurnia is barren (a dreadful thing for a Roman wife) while Portia is pregnant. Caesar is surrounded by false friends, while Brutus can hardly find anyone to help him die. Brutus accuses Caesar of putting the Republic at risk through wanting to be king, yet ends up acting so autocratically that he might as well have put a crown on his own head. His behaviour before the battle was so authoritarian that despite Brutus and Cassius’ strong friendship, it was clear the Republicans were doomed.

The Empire, however, was in much stronger fettle, even with the glaringly obvious fault lines. Lepidus is indeed a feeble makeweight, whom Anthony derides at great length while Octavius watches and listens. It dawned on me that Anthony is inadvertently talking about the way Octavius sees him, a bit like a fox telling a crocodile about the silly bunny he’s going to have for his lunch, not realising the crocodile is eyeing him up for dinner. At the end, with Brutus to bury, Octavius bagsies the body – from Anthony’s reaction he’s not happy with that, and is beginning to realise what a shrewd political animal he’s up against – and while Octavius leaves in one direction, Anthony, looking grim, heads off in another. All is not well in paradise.

Calpurnia was a little weak, I thought, but the other performances were good, with all the main characters being strong. Brutus’ deception when he denies knowing of Portia’s death struck me as a way of showing his strength to his generals, something Cassius understands although he doubts his own ability to carry it off so well.

The interval was taken after the assassination, to get the body off and the stage cleaned up. Something, a scabbard probably, flew into the audience as the conspirators made for Caesar – Steve headed it behind him (over ‘ere son, on me ‘ead), and it was retrieved during the interval.

Another good performance from SATTF, though not as strong as last year’s. We’re booked for Antony and Cleopatra in a few weeks, so it will be interesting to see how these productions relate to each other.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

War Horse – March 2009

Experience: 9/10

By Michael Morpurgo

Directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 17th March 2009

This was a very emotional experience. I sobbed when Joey the foal gave way to Joey the horse, then when Joey gave his all to win the ploughing competition, and I wasn’t entirely dry-eyed during the first, traumatic cavalry charge. And this was just the first half. After the interval, I deployed tissues on a number of occasions; Topthorn’s death didn’t move me quite so much, but there were plenty of other opportunities to increase the profits of Kleenex – Joey volunteering to pull the ambulance for one. The finale, with Joey saving his own life by responding to Albert, was almost embarrassing as I struggled to keep quiet and avoid disturbing the neighbours. But it was a marvellous release of all the emotions stirred up by this powerful piece.

I suspected there had been a few changes, and checking last year’s notes has confirmed this. The biggest change, apart from most of the cast being different, was that Emilie, the little girl in France, was played by an actress this time instead of a puppet, and magical though the puppet was I feel this version worked even better.

From our backstage tour last summer, we had learned that the horses were being rebuilt to make them lighter as well stronger and hopefully better able to take the wear and tear of regular performance. I certainly noticed the difference – the animals seemed lighter, and Topthorn was carrying a lot less condition this year. Steve reckoned they got him in from the paddock earlier this time. Maybe because of this, or perhaps because we were a lot closer, I noticed the horses moving around a lot more. They seemed to be more flexible and more responsive to whatever was going on.

The other puppets were much as before. The goose was just as annoying and the nasty crow had competition for the eyeballs this time. The cast changes didn’t affect the performance too much. I preferred Angus Wright as the German officer; Patrick O’Kane played the part reasonably well but his performance occasionally seemed over the top, with much larger physical movements than necessary. They might have been intended to carry to the back of the auditorium, but then why weren’t the other actors to scale? Albert was played by Kit Harington this time and I found it harder to spot him in the crowd initially. His father was in competition with his own brother – a definite change from last time – which made his father more sympathetic this time, I felt. Still unpleasant but understandably so, as he was the one excluded by his family. Albert’s mother was evidently an Irishwoman who had married into a Cornish family, and had picked up a few traces of the Cornish accent but still used her original brogue whenever possible. The Song Man was the understudy today but I didn’t notice any drop in quality in that department.

An excellent revival and I wish it well for the West End run too.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

Lloyd George Knew My Father – March 2009


By William Douglas Home

Directed by Richard Digby Day

Company: Theatre Royal Bath Productions

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 16th March 2009

This was great fun. It took a little while to get going and I found it hard to make out some of the dialogue in the first scene, but it soon warmed up and the audience was certainly appreciative.

We’d probably seen this play way back, Steve certainly had, and the plot seemed familiar. A road is going to be built across some countryside close to the family seat of the Boothroyds, and the wife, Sheila, decides to kill herself at the exact moment the first sod is lifted as a protest. The bulldozers move in on Monday morning and the play starts over Saturday breakfast, served by the faithful old retainer Robertson, in the drawing room. The whole family is present for the weekend including the son and heir Hubert, who happens to be an MP, his wife Maud, their daughter Sally and her boyfriend or fiancé Simon, a journalist.

The play is set in the early 1960s, although the environmental topic makes it seem surprisingly modern. The set is a marvellous country house drawing room with tall panelled walls, tall window to our left, big carved fireplace to the right and tall wooden double doors centre back. The furniture comprises the mandatory window seat, a sofa with an accumulation of varied throws and a table behind, a piano back right, a small desk front right, a tall Chinese lacquer cabinet beside the doors and a sprinkling of chairs.

Edward Fox played General Sir William Boothroyd, Sheila’s husband and a veteran of the First World War, amongst others. He’s very deaf, and constantly brings up all sorts of stories from his younger days which are very funny. At least, we appreciated them, though of course the family had heard them all before and his timing wasn’t always helpful. Edward Fox’s performance was wonderful; he can do so much with his expression, with or without dialogue, and for me the evening really took off in the second scene with his meanderings about a chap who had thought he was a camel, or perhaps it was a dromedary, a ramble so far from the point that it led his son to destroy a china flower pot through an over-vigorous mime (it’s complicated).

The play shows us the different reactions and concerns of the family members. Maud is highly emotional and distressed at the thought of Sheila killing herself, yet at the end, as she and her husband are leaving, she thanks her hostess for a wonderful weekend and I got the impression she’s telling the truth. Her husband is at least as much concerned about his job and the family money as he is about his mother. One of the best laughs came in the last scene, when he’s dismissed the idea of attempting to talk to his mother through her locked bedroom door only to be told that his mother intends to leave all of her money to Sally so that she can marry Simon. Hubert is up those stairs like a bullet from a gun, accompanied by much laughter from us.

Sally and Simon obviously represent the younger generation, and are supportive of Granny’s right to kill herself, especially in protest at the ravaging of the countryside. Simon even helps by getting the story and a photograph of Sheila beside her freshly dug grave into the Sunday papers. Only The Observer stands aloof. The servant’s newspapers are scrutinised as well and they’ve all given the story front page status. A phone call from the Panorama production team sets up an interview for that afternoon, and the only downside is that Sheila won’t see it broadcast.

The final morning sees everyone up and about apart from Sheila, with Sir William all togged up in his finest military plumage. The bulldozers move in and everyone stands silent, mourning the death of their beloved relative, only for Sheila to walk in the door a few moments later and just carry on as normal. The others leave to go about their business, and her final admission to her husband is that she couldn’t kill herself because she loved him too much, despite a short fling with one of his junior officers many years ago.

It’s an enjoyable piece, not as dated as some, and with a light touch in dealing with the English upper classes’ eccentricities. The performances were all very good, and although I don’t expect to see it again anytime soon, definitely worth reviving.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

Twelfth Night – March 2009


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Grandage

Donmar in the West End

Venue: Wyndham’s Theatre

Date: Saturday 7th March 2009

Well, this was quite an amazing experience from the word go. A couple of fatalities in the Norbury area a couple of weeks ago kept us from seeing this production as originally booked. The only available alternative performance was the last Saturday matinee, and the only seats for two were in Box 1. I’d never been in a box before – neither had Steve – but despite the restricted view we decided it was worth it to be able to see this production. Now, sitting here, I can safely say these are the best restricted view seats I’ve ever sat in. The box is the size of a (very) small bedsit, the actors will be within spitting distance (not that I plan on doing any such thing) and if I learn forward (very carefully) I can see almost every part of the stage, including some parts few other eyes can reach. I’m thoroughly enjoying myself and the performance hasn’t even started yet!

The set had scumbled wooden louvered doors floor to ceiling in autumnal colours, all along the back and round the side, with broad wooden floorboards, a bit rough and nibbled at the ends, covering the stage. These represented the seashore and large country house aspects of the play very well. During the play the doors at the back rose up and we could see the stage behind. Another set of doors were lowered down, in a concave arch, and for some scenes they were removed altogether. For furniture, there was just a chaise brought on and off and a windbreak used in the letter discovery scene, but otherwise the stage was bare and characters often sat on the floor. I realised after a while that the floor was also curved, dipping down from the sides towards the centre. From our angle, I had no idea of the rake.

The costumes were of uncertain period – Steve reckoned Edwardian, similar to Chichester’s production last year, while I thought they might be a little later. Either way, they were more up-to-date than Elizabethan. Feste wore a tattered patchwork coat over scruffy top and trousers, while Orsino wore very little until the latter scenes – pyjama bottoms and a robe, which hung open most of the time revealing a well honed torso, with good muscle definition and a nice covering of hair……. Sorry, where was I? Both Viola and Sebastian wore military-style outfits with short jackets, striped trousers and a sash at the waist. At the start Viola wore a tattered dress, fitted to the waist then full to the floor with a lacy overskirt; the sea-green colour made her look like a mermaid. Olivia started out in a black dress likewise fitting on top and spreading below, which also had a small bustle. Once smitten, she changed into a slash neck striped top, casual cream trousers and cream and tan shoes – very smart. Maria was in a black number with spots, the sailors were dressed as such, Sebastian wore a knitted one-piece swimsuit for his main scene with Antonio, Malvolio was in sombre black until adopting a natty yachting outfit with shorts and cross-gartered yellow stockings and the remaining men’s outfits were light-coloured suits. Actually, I reckon Steve’s right about the Edwardian period now I’ve listed it all.

This production managed to start with both a reference to the shipwreck and the regular opening line. At first there was the sound of thunder, then shortly afterwards Orsino came through the doors and started the opening speech. This Orsino looked pretty rough. He was obviously neglecting himself due to being in the pangs of love, and he was really determined to get Olivia to marry him.  The next scene had the sea captain carrying Viola on to the stage (how they must pray for a light actress) and he was already taking the male clothes out of the bag while she was finding out where she was and who lived there. I didn’t find the emotional aspects of her situation coming across so much this time, and Victoria Hamilton, although excellent with her facial expressions, did lack some of the vocal clarity of the rest of the cast. Being so much to one side I lost some of her dialogue when she was facing away from us, though the rest of the cast were fine.

Olivia may have looked to be in strict mourning, but her sense of humour soon peeked through the clouds when Feste got to work. She was obviously fond of him and not too unkind when she reproved Malvolio either. A kind person with a good sense of humour, but absolutely determined not to marry Orsino (relishing her freedom  now she’s her own woman, perhaps, grief or no grief) and equally determined that the household routine was not to be disturbed. (A smart move – look what happens in Uncle Vanya.) Malvolio was suitably stern, and there may have been some looks passed between him and Feste, but on the whole his antics were restricted to the letter scene and the yellow stockings scene.

When Cesario arrived and asks which of the two women present was the mistress of the house, only Olivia had her veil on and was sitting on the chaise longue. Maria was standing up behind her, so Viola’s question showed more cheekiness than usual, as often Olivia gets Maria to veil herself as well. Their banter put Maria out as well, and the dispute with Olivia about the wooing got quite sparky. However, Viola’s passion for Orsino, expressed in her words to Olivia, noticeably thawed the ice, and Olivia is quick to check out the youth’s credentials (not the physical ones).

Sebastian and Antonio made their first appearance, and although there was no obvious signs of the homosexuality that dogs many a production, it was clear that Antonio was smitten. Sebastian was as straightforward as his sister, and with their matching costumes, he was easy to identify. Incidentally, Olivia was still sitting on the chaise during this scene,the lights lowered on that part of the stage, and didn’t leave till this scene was over. I have no idea why.

Viola’s deductions from the ring that Malvolio ‘returns’ to her were nicely done. She figured out the message and was more appalled than amused by it, clearly feeling that there would be trouble ahead until Time sorts things out (she’s not wrong).

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew were an excellent pairing. We’d already seen them drunk in the morning, now we got to see them even drunker at night. Sir Toby was a rogue, but it seemsedbe less out of malice than out of the bottle. He might make a decent husband to Maria, and they certainly match each other in practical jokes. I was very aware this time that Sir Toby’s ploy to get Sir Andrew to challenge Cesario to a duel was the complementary trick to Maria’s letter – wooing by japes, as it were. Sir Andrew, played by Guy Henry, was suitably foppish without being ridiculously over the top. His dancing was very funny, and his reaction of surprise and delight when he finally realised what Maria intended with the letter was excellent.

Sir Toby was much smarter than Sir Andrew, and realised almost as soon as Maria mentioned the idea what she was planning. She clearly thought of the idea as she was talking, and worked it out in front of them. Malvolio has certainly been unpleasant to all of them, although I felt this time, as I often do, that late night carousing when others are trying to sleep is not the most considerate way to treat one’s fellow human beings. (I once shared a flat with four students when I was a working woman, so I say this with feeling and some experience of the subject.) Anyway, playing this joke on Malvolio didn’t seem so unkind as it sometimes does; the man needed to be taken down a peg or two, although how it turned out is another matter.

As to the singing, I must mention that Zubin Varla was very good with all of Feste’s songs. Not the strongest voice, perhaps, but smooth, light and very pleasant. The tunes used gave a sense of Elizabethan style (at least they did to me) and they also included an attempt at the final verse of the Twelve Days Of Christmas, with the trio failing miserably to remember the words until the five gold rings part, and then breaking out into raucous song.

The relationship between Orsino and Cesario/Viola became clearer with the next scene as they listened to Feste’s song, Come Away Death. He wasn’t fancying him/her as in some other productions, but he was very fond of him/her and casually laid his head on his/her leg while the music played. She was a bundle of nerves, desperate to be this close to him as a woman but terrified of revealing herself. She still managed to come up with some good reasoning about women’s faithfulness and ability to love.

Now for the wonderful letter scene. I am coming to the conclusion that this scene is so well written that it would be hard not to have the audience in stitches, but I don’t want to imply that the actors have an easy time of it, nor that they aren’t doing a fantastic job. This lot did an excellent job, starting with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s arrival. Sir Toby was carrying a bag with some bottles(?) while Sir Andrew had a folded up windbreak over his shoulder. Casting Ron Cook as Sir Toby had one practical advantage here, as Guy Henry could swing the windbreak round and have it pass over Sir Toby’s head nicely, much to our amusement. They set it up in the part of the stage we couldn’t see so well – back right – but we got enough of the performance to enjoy it. The letter was left sticking up between two floorboards and Maria took the place of Fabian, joining the two knights behind the windbreak.

Derek Jacobi as Malvolio played the whole scene very straight. He was preening himself and practising how to be even more pompous and arrogant as ever, while the hidden threesome made their comments and popped up from behind their shelter from time to time. At one point they were all three peeping out from the side of it, as in the silent comedy films.

Malvolio actually stepped over the letter before registering its presence, which was funny, and then the reading was just hilarious. His agony over the cryptic M-O-A-I was followed by the delight of realising that his name began with ‘M’, and the subsequent struggle to relate the sequence of letters was soon abandoned as the prose part gave him the absolute conviction that all his dreams had come true. The smiling took some time to get, with many a contortion appropriate to a face that hadn’t practised the technique for many a year, but his final breakthrough into a hideous grimace was warmly received by one and all. Exit Malvolio followed shortly afterwards by the eavesdroppers, and then by us for the interval.

The second half was heralded by Feste coming onto stage with a drum and playing it for quite a few minutes. It was very pleasant, and gradually built up as we got closer to the restart. Cesario entered at the back and stood listening for a while, until the drumming stopped. The question about the tabor was even more relevant this time. Viola’s comments about the difficulties of earning a living as a fool were cut, the first actual cut I’d noticed, although with a running time of two and a half hours there had to be lots. Olivia brought out a mat to lie on – planning some sunbathing from the looks of it – and even got Cesario to sit beside her on it for a short while. Olivia was much more sprightly, even flirtatious – so much for grieving over her brother. She didn’t actually jump Cesario’s bones but she looked like she wanted to. She wasn’t happy at being rebuffed again, and as she left Sir Andrew was also in the process of leaving, carrying his bag. Sir Toby, stealing most of Fabian’s lines, persuaded him to stay and lured him into challenging Cesario. After they left, Sebastian arrived in his swimsuit and started drying himself while he chatted to Antonio.

The next scene is the second comedy classic – the arrival of Malvolio in yellow stockings and cross-gartered. It’s always fun to see how they do this, and today was no exception. Having mastered the smile, Malvolio has matched it with a pair of knee-length shorts, a captain’s jacket and hat, yellow socks and a pair of x-shaped garters below each knee. The effect was as repulsive as it sounds and therefore extremely funny. Olivia was appalled and soon ran off to see Cesario, leaving Malvolio to the not-so-tender care of the very people who wished him ill.

After Malvolio left, Sir Andrew brought his challenge, and the reactions from Sir Toby and Maria told us all we need to know about how badly he’d written it. The interchanges with the two reluctant duellists seemed shorter than usual, and I felt they got less out of them than before, but the ‘fight’ was still good fun. Antonio entered and was arrested, and Cesario’s refusal to give him his purse started the long chain of events that leads to the ‘happy’ ending. It can be difficult to show why Viola doesn’t just accept that her brother is in fact alive and well, similar to the problem in The Comedy Of Errors, but here I thought she was so convinced that her brother was dead that she hesitated to believe it in case it turned out not to be true.

Now Sebastian really did turn up, and after fighting Sir Andrew briefly and almost fighting Sir Toby, Olivia turned up and stopped all this silly boys’ stuff. Then came probably the shortest bit of wooing in any of the plays, if you don’t count the amount of effort that’s gone into courting Cesario, and Olivia was absolutely delighted when Sebastian very quickly agreed to anything she wanted. Yippee!

The darkened room that Malvolio is in was represented by a hinged trapdoor raised about a foot off the floor. I think there were bars at this ‘window’, but it was dark so I couldn’t see very well. The gulling of Malvolio was much as usual, and this time it was very clear that Sir Toby knew he was out of favour and wanted to put an end to the joke. To differentiate between Sir Topaz and himself, Feste turned somersaults over the trapdoor – very impressive.

After the short scene where Sebastian agreed to go and marry Olivia, Orsino turned up at her door and has some banter with Feste, who went off to call Olivia. Antonio arrived, guarded, and then Olivia turned up, still determined not to marry Orsino. It was clear she favoured Cesario and that Orsino knew this. He and Cesario were only halfway across the stage towards the killing grounds when Olivia’s “husband” brought them back, and Cesario found he/she has a lot of explaining to do. Not that he/she has a clue how to go about it.

Sir Andrew’s arrival with a bloody head led to more confusion; when he saw the person he thought he was fighting where he doesn’t expect him to be, he was startled and also scared, keeping well away from Cesario just in case. I don’t remember if Sir Toby spotted him as well, but the knights were soon removed and as Sebastian ran on to the stage he and Viola changed places, he at the front, she at the back. The rest of the characters were gobsmacked, and the truth finally came out. Viola and Sebastian were together in the middle of the stage, and when Orsino went over to them to offer marriage to Viola, he took her by the arm and walked over to Olivia. At first I thought they were avoiding the mistaken identity option, but no. He left Viola with Olivia and walked back to Sebastian to make his proposal. Oops. It’s soon sorted, though, and then Malvolio’s letter was read out, I forget by whom, as Feste is appropriately inappropriate when he tried to read it. Malvolio was in a dirty version of the same outfit when he came on, and his “I’ll be revenged…” was said quietly to Feste first (he had just reminded him of the insult to his clowning abilities) and then he opened out the “on the whole pack of you” to include the wider group. I think that during Feste’s final song, we saw Sir Andrew leaving, bag packed, followed by Sir Toby and Maria, or Lady Maria I suppose by then, but I couldn’t swear to it. At any rate, we applauded for quite a while, as we’d enjoyed ourselves so much.

This was a straightforward, clear production, which pretty much allowed the text to do the work. The performances were very good, and the staging as simple and direct as I would expect from the Donmar. Despite cutting the comments about a fool’s job not being easy, I still found I was very aware of the difficult position of the servants in this  society and how much easier life was for the aristocrats. Good fun, and I’m very glad we booked again to see it.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

Where There’s A Will – March 2009


By Georges Feydeau, adapted by Nicki Frei

Directed by Peter Hall

Company: English Touring Theatre

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 6th March 2009

This was a good adaptation of a Feydeau farce, with perfectly good staging and performances. It took the audience a while to warm up to the production and I felt there was a lot of humour going unrewarded in the early stages, but after the interval the laughs came more readily and it ended up as a good evening’s entertainment.

We’d seen this play before and recognised it within a few minutes of the start. Angèle’s second husband is finding it very difficult to put up with his wife’s obsessive suspicion that he’s having an affair. Her first husband cheated on her left, right and centre, but she was very naïve and trusting, so it came as a terrible blow when she discovered his infidelity. Now she’s gone the other way, convinced that every man cheats on his wife, and armed with her first husband’s journal of excuses, she’s determined to catch husband number 2 in flagrante, even if it means embarrassing him by interrupting an official meeting (he’s a politician).

Despite her watchfulness, her husband is still managing to see his mistress whenever her husband goes away on business. He does this by hypnotising his wife, leaving her asleep in the sitting-room with the lights turned down and the doors locked. He gets an opportunity to do this during the play (lucky for us, eh?) but what he doesn’t know is that the coachman and the maid have taken to using the sitting-room for their trysts when everyone is out, as signalled by the room being dark. There’s an extra complication (they can never keep it simple, these farceurs) with the arrival of an old friend of Angèle’s first husband, who had himself fallen in love with Angèle (unreciprocated) and to spare his friend had left for the Far East. Now he’s back, and the news of his friend’s death fills him with hope that Angèle will finally be his. When he finds out he’s too late, he’s distraught, but he hangs around long enough to discover the new  husband’s trick and to try and make use of it himself. With the husband arriving home early, being chased by his mistress’s husband, the scene is set for a lot of fun as each character struggles to come out on top, or at least not get killed.

The performances were all good. Tony Gardner as the first husband’s friend turned out to have a talent for physical comedy, getting himself into all sorts of funny poses as well as delivering his lines really well. His realisation that Angèle, believing her experiences to be a dream, was about to reveal to her husband his own impassioned declarations of love, was wonderfully expressed through his body language and judicious use of “ooh la la”.

The set was as it needed to be for this piece, with double doors to a balcony centre back, double doors to the room back left, two chaises right and left of the middle, assorted furniture appropriate to the setting, and doors either side at the front. Very much as we remembered from the past.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

England People Very Nice – March 2009


By Richard Bean

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 3rd March 2009

Set: dominating the stage at the start is a big rectangular block of boards. Actually, it’s a double-decker set of doors, with six across the top, and the two on the right hand side of the bottom row turned horizontal. I expected something like the top one opening up to become a stall or some such, and I wasn’t far off. In front of these doors there’s a bigger raised area of floorboards. To the right of that and round the front are the wide black floorboards, while on the left the stage seems to be bare – I could see the line of the revolve quite clearly.

Behind the doors, many of which are open at the start, a mesh fence spreads across the stage from wing to wing, with two openings, one on each side. Through the fence and the open doors we can see rails of clothes, presumably costumes, and possibly some of the props. A set of stairs runs up behind the doors. There’s a drum kit to the right of the doors and some other musical instruments in that corner, and a red plastic chair, standard issue, centre stage. The whole effect is stripped down, as if the production is laying something bare.

Before the start, the cast gradually drift onto the rear of the stage, though one chap does come and sit on the red plastic chair. He’s working on his laptop and then he puts it aside and looks at some papers – photos perhaps, or artwork. Then there’s an announcement, telling the cast to assemble on stage, and we’re into the action for real.

Or not, as it happens. The play uses a framing device; all these people are at a detention centre, either working there or potential immigrants. They’ve been devising a play about the English response to successive waves of immigrants since the Romans, and they’re just about to give us their dress rehearsal. First though, the director, Philippa, gives some notes, and this gives us a chance to meet some of the “real” characters, as well as prepping us very nicely for some of the jokes, particularly the “fucking _____” gag, which worked particularly well, and the “wagon” joke, which only worked because it didn’t.

The director’s priceless pearls are regularly interrupted by an annoying man who turns out to be a Palestinian, Taher. He’s unpopular with everyone, and is banned from mentioning Israel – I sensed the backstory involved a lot of aggravation during the rehearsal process. Despite the interruptions, and the shock discovery that the “Imam” has shaved off his beard the night before the performance (he stuck it all back together to make a fake one), the dress rehearsal goes ahead as planned.

It’s at this point that the multimedia aspect of the production becomes apparent. We’ve been told that Elmar, the chap with the laptop, has done some animations for their play (he regularly won a silver something-or-other in Azerbaijan), and these are projected onto the block of doors and the back wall throughout the play to add to the story. The first section deals with the original Brits, living their primitive lives, and being taken over by the Romans, who kill the man and ravish the woman (they didn’t have a lot of original Brits to work with). Then the Roman soldiers are killed by the Angles and Saxons, and it’s all much the same thing. This is all done to a jolly song, while the animation shows these successive invaders running up behind the previous lot, and then the next lot of actors come on to hew and slash, before shagging the woman. As the dead bodies mount up, the animation shows them filling the screen. We both liked this use of multimedia from the word go, as it didn’t distract from the performance at all, just gave it a more immediate effect as well as adding to the humour.

This quick series of invaders slows right down when a town crier announces from the upper storey that the French king has kicked the Protestants out of his kingdom, so there will be a lot of “frogs” coming London’s way. As the Huguenots are skilled cloth manufacturers, the local weavers are soon up in arms about the detrimental effect they’re having on local workers, while the French build themselves a church, and plan to civilise the English. This church, and the subsequent synagogue and mosque, are drawn in animation, with the appropriate symbol appearing physically above the roof. There’s the beginning of an eternal love story which echoes through the ages when Norfolk Danny, a silk weaver in Spitalfields, is persuaded to give shelter to a Frenchwoman, Camille, and her brother, also a weaver. The situation gets ugly when the weavers guild find this out, and when they interrupt Danny’s coitus to smash his loom, he stabs one of the men who attacks Camille, leading to his eventual hanging (and the “wagon” joke). This was shown on the screens behind, a good use of the film media.

Meanwhile, another set of characters have been introduced to us who will also echo down the years. The lower horizontal door slid forwards and becomes a bar, a table and chairs are brought on to the left of the stage, and we’re in the generic pub, with Fred Ridgeway as the landlord Laurie, Sophie Stanton as the barmaid Ida, and Trevor Laird as the pub regular Rennie, latterly from Barbados. Ida is the source of the “fucking ______” jokes, with the blank being filled with “frogs”, “Micks”, “yids” and a few other derogatory terms. The humour was in Sophie’s delivery of the lines (excellent), especially in the second half, when she holds a long pause after the “fucking”, gets the laugh anyway, and then compounds it by adding “yanks”. If we hadn’t guessed before, we knew at that point that we were up to the Second World War.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This first time it’s the “frogs” she’s upset about. Rennie tells us a number of French folk have moved in above him, and provides the insider’s view of life with the French (too unsavoury to repeat here). He’s an unlucky fellow, because the same thing happens when the Irish turn up (keep pigs), the Jews, and the Asians. (The Irish don’t build their own church, by the way; they have to worship in secret at “art appreciation classes”.)

Anyway, things come to a head when war breaks out between Britain and France. The leader of the French community changes his accent and starts talking colloquial English, and then I think they all move to Redbridge(?), leaving room for the new incomers, the Irish (but I might have got that wrong).

When the Irish arrive, Ida is now the granddaughter of a French immigrant, and we get to see how these groups have assimilated themselves, and laugh at the funny side. Later on, this same point is made about the other groups, but I think it came across most strongly this first time, possibly because that early tranche of immigrants was too long ago for anyone to get upset about now, unlike some of the later groups. The cycles repeat themselves, with the previous set of immigrants complaining about the new lot, and the only variation I could see was that the English Jews were equally as unhappy about the Jewish incomers as the non-Jewish residents.

The final group are the Muslims, and here the tension rises a bit as some of the Muslim community become militant, and start aggressively attacking the parts of British culture they don’t like (most of it, from what I could see). The play does show that not all Muslims take this hard-line stance; there are clear references to the Wahibi sect as the cause of the problem, and the Imam who arrives to take over from his more tolerant predecessor has two hooks for hands. This is the final wave of immigration they can show, and brings us up-to-date, with a pair of twins being born to a Pakistani man and a British woman from an adulterous relationship. The idea of the children, especially the boy, being our hope for the future was floated, but couldn’t be resolved within the scope of this piece.

The overall idea of the play within the play was that love conquers all, and can bring disparate and even warring communities together. Despite this happy ending, the context play ends with the guard handing out letters to the immigrants to tell them if they’ve made it into Britain. Some do, some don’t, and some don’t get a letter. This had a sobering effect, and I found myself, in the final moment, recognising that the director can walk out of the “detention centre” and go wherever she likes, while even those who have been accepted by Immigration will be limited in what they can do to begin with. Those turned down have few, if any, choices.

I didn’t find the play particularly racist, but then I don’t have the sensibilities of some people or groups, nor a readiness to take offence. I don’t know how I would have reacted to jokes about the Scots or Welsh, mind you. I do think this play had a specific scope – to show the effects of immigration on English culture and society over a long period, using a particular area, Spitalfields, to focus the drama, and then widening the focus to show us the reality of today. I appreciated the humour, and I suspect some of the critics were taking it (and themselves?) too seriously, as some folk did with Till Death Do Us Part, thinking that Alf Garnett was speaking up for the racists when he was actually a figure of fun. I’m certainly happier that plays like this can be staged, especially at such a high-profile venue, and I only wish more writers with different experiences and points of view would take up the challenge of showing us these subjects from another perspective. We can only hope.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at