I Found My Horn – October 2009

8/10

By Jonathan Guy Lewis and Jasper Rees, adapted from the book by Jasper Rees

Directed by Harry Burton

Company: Sweet Spot Theatre

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Saturday 31st October 2009

This was much better than either of us expected or hoped. I’m familiar with the Flanders and Swann track, but this play was a different beast altogether. Based on Jasper Rees’s experiences of re-learning the French horn and taking us up to his solo performance before an assembled throng of French horn players after just a year of practice, this piece took us through a roller-coaster of emotions. There were glimpses of his time in the school orchestra, a trip to ‘horn camp’ in the States where he was confronted by some superb players, the run up to the final performance and of course the performance itself. Despite being a bit ropy at the start, once he let go of his fears and realised it couldn’t get any worse he started to relax and enjoy himself. His playing improved considerably.

Although based on Jasper’s book about his experiences, the part of Jasper was in fact performed by Jonathan Guy Lewis whom Jasper describes in the program notes as “rather better than me”. He certainly covered a range of parts, from the school orchestra’s conductor through to a semi-crippled but still brilliant German horn player who was the teacher at the camp. Jasper’s teenage sons featured occasionally as well, and all this with only a couple of costume changes. It was a superb performance and much appreciated by everyone.

The other great thing about a play like this is that the music tends to be bloody brilliant as well. And so it was. It left me wanting to log on to Amazon and buy some CDs immediately, so I’m glad the excerpts were identified in the program. Makes searching easier. We would happily see this again.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Rain Man – October 2009

8/10

Adapted from the screenplay by Dan Gordon

Directed by Robin Herford

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 28th OCtober 2009

This was a very good adaptation of the screenplay and the performances, particularly of the two leads, were excellent. I cried. What more could I ask for?

The story included all the main points from the film though some scenes were dropped, such as the actual driving, and some were condensed or reported, so that for example the burning scene in the flat was mentioned at the court ordered review of Raymond’s situation. We still got the wheeling and dealing at the start, the delivery of the bad news to Charlie (not that his father’s dead, but that he just gets the car and the rose bushes) the kidnapping and attempted flight via, well, flight, the road trip and visit to Las Vegas and the final review meeting. All the way through both Neil Morrissey as Raymond and Oliver Chris as Charlie gave us perfectly judged performances. Raymond had lots of twitches and a tendency to look up and away, while Charlie was a seriously unpleasant bastard to start with but gradually softened as he discovered who Raymond really was to become just an average bastard by the end. And on the way Raymond gets some decent clothes, a dance with a beautiful woman, a kiss and a chance to drive his father’s car. He does miss out on a date with a dancing hooker, of course, but that’s probably for the best.

I don’t remember the film giving me such a strong sense that Charlie has actually done his brother some good by taking him out for a while, though as with the film we could see how Charlie benefited from his anger coming up against an immovable object. The adaptation had also been updated to include more recent plane crashes including one of the ones that hit the twin towers, which really got Raymond going. From memory, I think Qantas has now lost its perfect record on accidents so updating the dialogue is a double edged sword, but it still worked fine on stage.

The set was very flexible, with panels sliding on and off for walls and the ‘spare’ cast doing furniture removal duty. It all went very smoothly, and it was nice to see the understudies actually get something to do as extras in the public scenes. We both enjoyed this very much, and as I said before, I cried. Brilliant.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall – October 2009

6/10

Based on the war memoirs of Spike Milligan, adapted for the stage by Ben Power and Tim Carroll

Directed by Tim Carroll

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Saturday 24th October 2009

This was a wonderful music-and-humour-fest of Spike Milligan’s writings, at least the part relating to his war experiences. The singing and dancing were superb, the humour was patchy, but still very good, and the anarchic style fitted very well with the style of the writing. My biggest problem was that I simply couldn’t make out a lot of the lines, as some of them were spoken, or even shouted while the band was playing, and this either drowned out the words or made them hard to distinguish. It seemed to be easier during the second half – don’t know if this was because they changed the balance or because we were more adjusted to it.

There was one bit of audience participation during the second half – trepidation amongst those of us (like me!) foolish enough to sit on the centre aisle – but a lovely young lady called Genevieve was tonight’s lucky participant. She correctly guessed, by looking at a playing card, which card it was! Much applause.

All the cast were hugely talented, of course, but the central role of Spike was played by a newcomer, Sholto Morgan, and if this is anything to go by, he’s got a great career ahead of him. Sadly, talent alone is not enough, so I just hope he gets the breaks he deserves. He conveyed Spike’s gangliness and wide-eyed innocent mischievousness brilliantly, as well as playing a mean trumpet.

I suspect the wide open spaces of the Festival Theatre may have been a bit too much for this production – perhaps the Minerva would have suited it better? – but at least it got a good audience, who were very appreciative of both the fun and the talent on display. Good luck for the rest of the run.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Caucasian Chalk Circle – October 2009

3/10

By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Alistair Beaton

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Company: Shared Experience

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 21st October 2009

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. This wasn’t advertised as a schools matinee but that’s effectively what it was. The vast majority of the audience, at least in the stalls, were teenagers. This made the audience unbalanced and at times I felt completely out of touch with most of the people around me, which didn’t help me to feel involved with the production. For example, there’s a short scene where a senior soldier tells off a junior soldier because although he restrained and beat up the husband while the senior man raped the wife, he clearly didn’t enjoy it as a good soldier should. The kids screamed with laughter at every use of the word ‘dickhead’, they gasped and squirmed when the soldier very coarsely mentioned raping the wife, but the humour about the standards of the common soldier, which we found funny, evidently passed them by. They continued to laugh at every sexual innuendo, verbal or physical, and while I found some of it very funny myself I also felt at times that I was at a pantomime with a lot of little kids.

With all these distractions it took till nearly the end of the first half before I fully engaged with the story. The first section, the prologue, was very good, with an official type talking to villagers returning to their war-ravaged land, and trying to persuade them that the land should be given to those who could make the best use of it. Only in this case, he’s referring to consolidation of the small subsistence plots into big enough farms for the agri-businesses to move in and make a killing. The villagers aren’t sure what choice to make, so they decide to put on a play which deals with all of the issues being debated, and which will help them come to a conclusion. It’s called The Chalk Circle, and since they’re in the Caucasus, it becomes The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

The story then unfolds of a rich and important man, who has a wife and a baby son. He lives in a country which is at war, and seems to have been at war for a very long time, but he’s doing very nicely for himself all the same. One Easter Sunday, some rebels rebel, he’s captured and killed, and his widow runs for her life, leaving their baby son Michael behind. Actually, the widow had to be carried away kicking and screaming because she couldn’t bring along five large suitcases full of fancy clothes. She spent so much time trying to get her servants to pack properly, she nearly got caught herself. It’s clear where her priorities lie, and it’s not with the baby.

Realising that the rebels will want to kill the baby as well, all the other servants run off, leaving Grisha to look after him. They’ve told her to go as well, and abandon the baby, but she can’t. Eventually, when the soldiers arrive, and it’s clear the baby will be killed if it’s found, she runs off, taking little Michael with her. The rest of the first half is the story of how she evades capture, including the brutal bashing in of the rapist soldier’s head (she’s vicious when she’s protecting the baby), and an arranged marriage with a man from the next valley along from her brother. This poor chap is on his death bed when the extremely drunk Welsh priest ties the knot, and the wedding party is busily turning into funeral wake when news comes that the war is over, and that they won’t be taking away any more of the young men to be soldiers. You’ve never seen a dead man recover so fast. Oops. Now Grisha’s married to one man, in love with another (a soldier wooed and won her before the trouble broke out), and bringing up a baby that’s neither hers nor either of theirs.

So ended the first half. I started to enjoy myself from the wedding scene onward – the Welsh priest was such joy to watch – even though I’d spent most of the first half wondering if I should just cut my losses and go for a coffee while Steve finished the play for both of us. Talking it over with him afterwards, we decided it was mainly the audience that gave us the difficulties, and given that things improved in the second half that may well be true. The youngsters certainly seemed to have calmed down a lot, though we noticed a lot of gaps in the stalls where older audience members had been sitting. The story picked up again, too, though in a strange way. We followed Grisha and Michael a bit further, with Michael being played by a lovely little dark-skinned puppet – an example of colour-blind casting even in the puppetry department. We saw how unpleasant Grisha’s husband was (squeals from the youngsters as a man, naked but for a pair of underpants took to the stage), then she met her soldier again across the river, and just as she’s trying to reassure him that the baby isn’t hers, she has to claim it is to stop the soldiers taking it. But they do, nevertheless.

Now the play switches back to that Easter Sunday two years ago when the rebels struck and Grisha had to take Michael away. Only this time, we’re going to hear how one man became their judge. He’s a local scoundrel, an intellectual who can’t be bothered doing a proper job so he poaches rabbits and suchlike instead. He helps the Grand Duke to escape, mainly because he didn’t like the policeman he could have handed him over to. When he’s brought in for poaching, he makes an impassioned speech to the soldiers, assuming this is a popular uprising on behalf of the working man. Turns out it was actually a coup by the fat prince (yes, that’s what it says in the program) to take power, and now he wants to get his son or nephew voted in as the new judge. The soldiers, for all he paid them to kill the revolting peasants, reckon he’s only giving them a vote because he’s not yet securely in power. So they decide to take advantage of the situation and hold auditions for the post of judge. The scoundrel plays the part of the Grand Duke for the purposes of a mock trial, and his impersonation is so good it gets all the soldiers laughing (and us). He then speaks in the Grand Duke’s defence, making all the political points Brecht wanted – the aristocracy don’t take any of the risks themselves, they send other people’s sons off to fight while making fat profits from their military contracts, they don’t even supply a lot of the equipment they’re being paid for, etc., etc., all too depressingly familiar from current events. The soldiers boot out the fat prince’s relative, and elect the scoundrel instead; at least when he takes bribes from the rich he helps the poor with the money and his judicial decisions.

But two years go by, and now the war is over the Grand Duke and Michael’s mother are both returning to claim what’s theirs. There’s a long wrangle over who should have the baby, with two lawyers arguing on the biological mother’s side. One of them lays on the sentiment with a trowel, only to be completely undercut by the other one pointing out that she needs Michael as his father’s son and heir to allow her to gain control of her dead husband’s money and land. Finally the judge opts for the chalk circle test. A chalk circle is drawn on the ground, the puppet is put in the middle with each ‘mother’ holding a hand, and the winner is the one who can pull the baby out of the circle. They have two goes at it, as Grisha complains that she didn’t have a proper grip the first time, but both times she lets the child go so as not to hurt him. I sobbed. (The audience laughed.) Naturally the judge awarded Grisha custody of Michael, and for good measure, ‘mistakenly’ authorises her divorce from her husband, so that she can marry her soldier (instead of allowing an old couple to divorce, who been out of love with each other since they met). I would have sobbed some more, but I’d run out of tissue and the young folk were groaning and ‘eugh’ing at the loving reunion between Grisha and her true love.

So, with a final moral from the judge, who’d returned to being the singing narrator again, about how everything should be given to those who can look after it best, including the land, we were done. Thankfully.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Murder On Air – October 2009

6/10

By Agatha Christie

Directed by Joe Harmston

Company: The Agatha Christie Theatre Company

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Friday 16th October 2009

In similar fashion to the Round The Horne homage currently touring, this ‘play’ was basically a reconstruction of three Agatha Christie radio plays from the 50s, performed with the cast in full evening regalia, and with a wonderful sound effects man to one side. The three radio plays were Personal Call, The Yellow Iris, and after the interval, Butter In A Lordly Dish (it helps to know your Bible for that one).

This version of the production had Susan Penhaligon and Nicky Henson as the guest stars, and Nicky took the part of Poirot in The Yellow Iris (which later morphed into Sparkling Cyanide). The rest of the cast did a great job with their parts, including sound effects (train), background rhubarb, and shocked gasps. There was a piece of attempted humour with the music, as one of the men appeared to lose his instrument and his place, but it fell a bit flat tonight as nobody seemed to notice it and nobody laughed. The house was less than half full, so I think the lack of atmosphere had a lot to do with it.

The stories were fairly predictable. Let’s face it, a soon as you know a chap’s first wife has died in a tragic accident, and he and his second wife are making wills leaving all their dosh to each other, it’s pretty clear what’s happening. Even so, I enjoyed the way the stories were told, especially when two of the actors were talking in cockney accents while they were all dolled up in their finery. For the end of the final story, when the sound effects chap was hitting a nail into a cabbage, he kept doing it, harder and harder, as he made the closing announcement. The cabbage practically disintegrated – Steve even found a bit of cabbage on his coat at the end, and we were back in row H! I also realised why I don’t care to listen to plays on the radio. The voices, despite the actors’ different accents, are too similar. It’s easier for me to keep track of the characters and the scene changes when I can see them.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Power Of Yes – October 2009

8/10

By David Hare

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Thursday 15th October 2009

We decided not to have high hopes for this play after seeing such a fantastic performance of Enron earlier in the year. Surely we couldn’t get two great plays on such closely related subjects in the same year? And we know from experience not to get our expectations up as that usually leads to disappointment.

Well, I’m delighted to report that we both thoroughly enjoyed this new work. David Hare seems to have developed the knack of being entertaining as well as informative and here he manages to get across a great deal of technical detail while giving us many opportunities to laugh at both the people who contributed to this sorry mess, and even the situation itself at times (note to self: never let bailiffs get inside the door, not even to go to the loo!).

The set was uncompromisingly sparse. The screen at the back showed what looked like a charcoal rubbing of wooden floorboards to start with, then all sorts of other images to illustrate the story. I felt particularly nostalgic when the building society names were up there – those were the days. There was another screen nearer the front which was raised and lowered as necessary, and which usually showed at least a portion of the fuller picture on the rear screen, as well as the ‘scene’ headings. There was a blackboard, some chairs and a table that made infrequent appearances but other than that, the stage was bare.

When Anthony Calf as the author walked on from the back of the stage, I was surprised to see how deep the acting space was; with so little furniture it was hard to judge distance. Mind you, they needed the room, as a cast of twenty spread itself out over the stage to give us a chorus-like introduction to the credit crunch. One character even called it a Greek tragedy.

After a short while, most of the cast trooped off and the author was left with a journalist from the Financial Times who was going to tell him the story of how the global financial systems collapsed. As she did, various characters came forward, introduced by a young man or woman, and told us, via the author, their part in the story or how they saw it unfold, and why they’re not to blame. Some of the characters preferred to be anonymous. There were occasional clips of the lower part of Alan Greenspan’s face saying something profound (now known to be untrue) and the characters covered a broad spectrum of interested parties from all walks of life, from the (ex) Chairman of the FSA through politicians, investment bankers, lawyers, economists and journalists to a chap who worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau, helping ordinary folk to deal with their debts. A large number appeared to have been at Harvard, Goldman Sachs and/or the Financial Times.

The character who probably came out best in all of this was George Soros. The author interviewed him, and this was shown at the end of the play so that his views on rampant capitalism were the final impression we were left with. In response to some comments by Alan Greenspan when the two of them had lunch some time before, about the benefits of capitalism being worth the price that had to be paid, Soros pointed out that the people who reap the benefits are not the same people who pay the price. A sobering thought, but unlikely to be a popular one with bankers.

I won’t go through the whole sordid story again here – frankly I couldn’t, as it was one of those things I followed well enough at the time, but couldn’t remember past the curtain call. I did get several ideas very clearly from it. One is that the people involved in banking are so brimful of self confidence (or could that be arrogance?) that they genuinely didn’t believe they had done anything wrong. On the way to the train, I recognised a similarity with Coriolanus. We as a society set bankers and other money men the task of making the country rich, without regulating how they should do that, and with the strange belief that if some people are coining it in then everyone benefits (trickle down theory). In the same way, Coriolanus is unleashed to give Rome military success, but when it comes to the social responsibility aspect neither he nor the bankers give a toss. So we all end up paying for our collective mistakes and ignorance.

Other points included the lack of regulation, the weird delusion that we’d broken through the cycle of boom and bust to a ‘new economics’, and that underpinning all this was a lack of knowledge of, and even interest in, history. Maniacal greed was also exposed, as one of the journalists explained that her friends who now worked in the city weren’t satisfied with only half a million a year. I think she’s also the one who pointed out that many of these financial folk consider they have earned the money instead of the company, and equate good luck with their own genius. And all of this unprecedented growth was founded on cheap labour in China.

There was a hint from George Soros near the end that the old capitalist certainties are changing (already there are moves to have the oil price quoted in a basket of currencies, including the Chinese Yuan) and with so many of the Western economies racking up huge debts he may well be right (he often is). So perhaps the lessons will be learned eventually, just not today.

The performances were all superb, as was to be expected from such a talented cast, and I only mention Anthony Calf in particular because he was not only on stage for almost the entire one and three quarter hours, he also provided the reactions that most of us would have had if we’d investigated the subject; bewilderment, anger, confusion, etc. I also liked his little demonstration of the need for speed in delivering a story, something the writer clearly understands. At one point, a journalist makes a comparison between the self confidence of the bankers and Hare’s own self belief. It’s a fair point in some ways, but then David Hare is unlikely to have been paid an obscene or disproportionate amount of money for writing his play, the enjoyment of his work is a subjective experience, and the measure of his success is bums on seats. The bankers, on the other hand, appear to be reaping rewards out of proportion to their effort or results, and the measure of their success can be clearly identified (if you can make sense of the bank’s accounts, that is). However, the comparison still has some validity, and I like the fact that this play has given me plenty to think about.

And how did it compare to Enron? Well, it didn’t have the singing and dancing nor the ladies’ knickers, but it did get the information across in an equally enjoyable way, so at least that’s two good things to come out of the credit crunch.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me