Verdict – May 2011


By: Agatha Christie

Directed by: Joe Harmston

Company: The Agatha Christie Theatre Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday, 30th May 2011

This was a perfectly reasonable touring production; nothing spectacular, but decent performances all round. I’m an Agatha Christie fan myself, and although I recognize that she’s not the greatest writer, I do think she’s better than her critics admit. That said, there were one or two areas which I felt didn’t work so well tonight, and I’ll start at the beginning with the whole idea of using tableaux. It’s a dated style of theatre, and one I don’t particularly care for, as it can often lead to confusion. The play tonight started with Mrs Roper, the cleaning lady, standing centre back, spot lit for several seconds while the rest of the set was in gloom. I had no idea who she was at this point, so what was that for?

I’ll describe the set now, to save complications. It’s an unusual layout, so pay attention. To the left was a huge set of shelves crammed with books. Leaning against this was a wide ladder, and when the lights go up after the opening tableau, there’s a chap sitting at the top of the ladder, reading a book. In front of the shelves stood a pot plant stand and another table, which was next to Anya’s wheelchair when she was on stage. To the right of the shelves was an opening showing more bookshelves – this led to Anya’s room. To the right of this the stage was split into two levels. On the same level middle right was a desk with two chairs, one behind and one in front, and there was another chair and side table to the right of it. Behind these stood a dresser(?) of some kind with a drinks tray on it.

Across the middle of the stage stretched two wide steps, with a raised area behind. There was an opening off left which led to the front door, another opening in the middle which led to the rest of the house, and a large window to the right. There was a dividing door which was normally pulled back, but for one crucial scene it was drawn almost fully across the top of the stairs. There were books everywhere, a tray with water jug and glasses on the side table front right, and a telephone on the desk. Now read on (or not if you don’t want to know the plot).

The opening scene between Mrs Roper and the young man on the ladder, Lester Cole, set the scene a bit, so we know we’re in Professor Hendryk’s study (no idea what subject he teaches), and that he’s somewhat charismatic. When Lisa Koletzky turns up (Susan Penhaligon), we also learn that she’s chosen to look after Anya Hendryk, who’s been an invalid for five years, although Lisa’s training as a physicist would allow her to get a job anywhere. With her accent, it’s clear she and the Hendryks are middle European, and without knowing the time period accurately, images of them fleeing Nazi persecution flitted across my mind. However, the period is 1958, and anyway this isn’t a political play, it’s about the destructive possibilities of kindness and compassion.

It turns out that the professor’s kindness to a colleague he didn’t even like meant that he and his wife, Anya, had to leave their comfortable home and friends and move to London, where she is housebound, lonely and fretful (to put it mildly) and he has to work long hours to keep them in some degree of comfort. It’s not helped by his principled choice of providing extra tuition to poor students who show promise, and turning down rich students who may not be so able.

One such rich girl is the catalyst for his downfall. The professor has already turned Helen Rollander down, but she turns up, well, barges in really, while the professor, Anya, Lisa and Doctor Stoner, Anya’s doctor, are having a cup of coffee together. Helen demands that the professor take her on for extra tuition. She’s beyond tactless, this girl, with hints of budding sociopathology (we watch too much TV) and an obvious crush on the prof. The visit upsets Anya, who goes back to her room, and although the professor finally gets Helen to leave, her father, Sir William Rollander strolls in shortly afterwards with a much more persuasive offer.

Anya suffers from something-or-other sclerosis, which is apparently incurable. She’s confined to bed or a wheelchair, her hands have started to shake more, and she naturally gets cranky and depressed, with a side order of guilt because she feels she’s a burden to everyone. The prof still loves her, though, and it’s this that Sir William uses to get what he, or rather his daughter, wants. He can guarantee access to a select trial of a new antibiotic which has had good results in treating Anya’s disease in the US. The prof will do anything to help his wife – he’s still feeling guilty that he caused them to leave their former home – so he reluctantly agrees to take Helen on. She pops back in to pick up some books – she’d been waiting in the car while daddy worked his magic – and we suspected the massive volumes the prof gave her wouldn’t be read as thoroughly as he might wish.

That’s pretty much it for the first act, apart from confirmation that Lisa, a cousin of Anya’s, is also in love with Hendryk herself, which is her main reason for choosing to be there, and that the prof loves her as well, desperately but unattainably. In the second act, we see Helen confirming that she’s not much of a student, just a selfish, spoilt girl with the hots for the professor and a neo-Nazi attitude towards culling the useless members of the population, such as the professor’s wife, for example. With everyone else either out or about to leave, Helen uncharacteristically volunteers to sit with Anya till Lisa gets back – alarm bells are ringing. The doctor gives the prof a lift to his lecture, Mrs Roper pops out for yet another packet of tea (she’s the only one who drinks it), and so the cute cuddly bunny is left alone with the hungry python. What will happen next, we wonder?

It doesn’t take long. After a short exchange, where both women seem to find something in common, the clock chimes, and Anya exclaims that she needs her medicine. Helen offers to get it for her – four drops in a glass of water – and Anya obligingly tells her that it’s dangerous stuff and she mustn’t take too much, only four drops. Helen may not be the greatest intellectual on the planet, but she can add two and two, and so we see her tip the whole bottle (it’s a small one) into the glass. Anya comments on how strong it tastes, but Helen assures her it was only four drops, so she obligingly knocks it back. Within a couple of minutes, she’s dead.

Now Helen has to cover her tracks, which she seems to do pretty well. She puts her gloves on, takes the glass and empty bottle over to the table by the wheelchair, wipes them clean and then puts Anya’s prints on them. Then she heads off, only to return a few moments later, perhaps in response to our silent screams of ‘you’ve forgotten the water jug’. She puts that right, then leaves, and from the way she sets herself up to walk out of the door – head high, calm, self-assured – it’s clear she’s headed for a life of crime in the future, killing anyone who gets in her way. Always assuming she gets away with it this time, of course.

Shortly afterwards, Mrs Roper returns, and fails to notice the dead body cluttering up the living room. (Honestly, you just can’t get the staff nowadays!) She heads into Anya’s room to do some work (yes, I know, it shocked me too), so when Lisa gets back and does realise that Anya’s dead, Mrs Roper hasn’t seen her come in. There may well have been another tableau before the interval, but I don’t remember the details.

The second half begins with a tableau of the doctor, Lisa, the prof and young Cole, all standing on set with their coats on. When the action starts, they’ve just come back from the inquest into Anya’s death, which recorded an open verdict. Other than Cole, who’s come back with them to try and help, no one believes it was suicide, and the prof in particular believes it was a tragic accident. Lisa heads into Anya’s room to start clearing out her stuff – may sound cold, but she was just being practical – and later she and Cole take a couple of parcels to the mission, that period’s version of the charity shop. The doctor also leaves, and so the prof is alone when Helen comes to call. She’s nervous at first, but soon bounds back to full confidence as she declares her love for the prof and that there’s nothing to keep them apart now that his wife’s dead! She’s said some breathtakingly callous things already, but this takes the whole biscuit factory. He’s dismissive of her at first, so to show him how much she deserves his love, she confesses all to him – crazy, or what? When he realises what she’s done, he’s horrified, of course, and finally shows some anger. He makes it absolutely clear that he has no feelings of that sort for her, and she’s terribly upset. For once, when he tells her to leave, she goes, in tears.

Now you, I and the next person would probably call the police immediately if we found ourselves in this situation, but the prof is made of finer stuff. He reckons the poor child (who’s twenty-two, by the way) has never had a chance to develop such qualities as compassion, etc., but that there’s still a good person underneath her insensitivity, selfishness and murderous intent. The doctor sums it up more accurately later on, I feel, when he describes Helen as a cruel little bitch – that brought a small gasp from the audience.

This is where the central theme of the piece is brought out. Lisa comes back, and the prof tells her about Helen’s confession. She’s insistent that he call the police straightaway, but he points out that grassing up Helen (he didn’t use that actual phrase) wouldn’t bring Anya back, so to avoid blighting a young woman’s life, he won’t say anything. Why she doesn’t just pick up the phone herself, I don’t know, but soon the two of them turn their attention to their own, unacknowledged love for each other, and at long last they embrace each other for the first time. Unfortunately, Mrs Roper spots this through the translucent glass of the dividing door, which had been moved across at the start of the scene, and the tableau here has the two lovers, moving apart when they realise she’s there, and staring at her as she watches them.

In the following scene, the prof has just returned with the doctor a few hours later, and both Lisa and the doc go through the arguments again to try and persuade the prof to report Helen’s confession to the police. He’s still adamant that he won’t, and so, like some Greek tragedy, the consequences of his choice kick into action. A police inspector arrives, with his sergeant, and asks some more questions. They now reckon it was murder – any idea who could have done it? That sort of thing. The prof still refuses to implicate Helen. As a result, the police arrest Lisa. Mrs Roper has reported what she’s seen between the two of them, plus she found Lisa standing over the dead body with no alibi for what happened before that. Now the prof decides to come clean, but it’s too late. Not only does it sound bad, that he’s trying to implicate another woman when his lover is under threat, but it turns out that the evening paper he bought when he was out with the doctor earlier carried the story of Helen Rollander’s death! She’d been so distressed by the prof’s rejection that she’d run out into the road without looking and been flattened by a lorry. You couldn’t make this stuff up! (Um, actually……)

With Helen not available to change her story – that she left at Anya’s request before Mrs Roper got back – Lisa is arrested and tried for murder. The final scene shows the prof, doctor and Cole waiting for the eponymous result of the trial. The phone keeps ringing, but it’s always the press looking for something to print. There’s speculation about the verdict, but ultimately this scene is about the final confrontation between the prof and Lisa after the doctor and Cole have headed back to the court house.

Despite the evidence, somewhat miraculously Lisa was acquitted, and now she’s come back to collect a few things before starting a new life somewhere else. The prof is devastated – he wants to develop their relationship – but the writing was on the wall in the earlier scene when the professor allowed Lisa to be arrested without immediately offering the Helen option to the police. It still wouldn’t’ve worked, but at least he would have demonstrated loyalty to her instead of to his idealised principles. Ah well. She leaves, the doctor comes and goes, and then the prof is left alone to endure the anguish he’s created for himself. He puts on a record of the Tristan And Isolde song that was an integral part of his first meeting with Lisa, and sits down on the floor to weep.

That’s the end of the action, but the final tableau involves Lisa coming back on to stand at the rear of the stage, still in her coat and carrying her suitcase, with her and the prof spot lit. Curtain. This final tableau caused some confusion within the audience. Some thought she’d come back, some that it was just his fantasy, while others, like me, thought it was just to emphasise the final situation – that’s what these tableaux usually do, after all. I have no objection whatever to ambiguity, but in this case I felt the confusion undercut the resolution of the play, and we’d have been better off without it. Still, we did enjoy ourselves, and the rest of the audience seemed appreciative too.

So what else didn’t work so well? Writing this, I’m aware how creaky the plot is in places, but the writing and acting were both good enough to keep the ship afloat. Cole’s character was a bit of a puzzle. His purpose in the opening scene was to show the professor’s compassionate nature; when Cole finally confessed to selling one of the books the prof had loaned him, so that he could take a special girl out on a date, the prof lets him off the hook, glad that he’s owned up to it, demonstrating his unusual approach to ethics. Fair enough, but thereafter Cole is a bit of a spare wheel, always hanging round, and frankly without much reason for it and with very little to contribute. No reflection on the actor, of course – Agatha has to take responsibility for this one.

The part of Mrs Roper, on the other hand, is a little gem; a nasally charwoman who likes helping herself to the prof’s cigarettes as well as the tea, and ready to bitch and pry at a moment’s notice. It was a lovely performance from Elizabeth Power, and as well as the comic relief, she instigates one of the crucial turning points of the story.

The other performances were all fine, and the play built up a nice degree of tension towards the end. Although we’d seen this play back in 1984, I didn’t remember it as such, though I was confident about which way the story was going, so perhaps the memories were closer to the surface than I realised. I found the delivery a little patchy at times, so I missed some of the dialogue; I think that was mainly down to the accents, although Susan Penhaligon was fine throughout.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Hamlet – May 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Conrad Nelson

Company: Northern Broadsides

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Saturday 28th May 2011

It was interesting to see this only a couple of days after Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. The set had two ramps slanting across the stage at right angles, with stool-steps behind, for easy access as well as seating. The back of the forward ramp, which ran right to left, had an inbuilt piano, which was used to good effect, while the ramp on the left, which ran roughly back to front, included a nifty two-door grave, reminiscent of an Andersen shelter (more on that story later). Around the back were some strange wire thingies – several pairs of wires stretched floor to flies, with a large trapezium of white material between them at about the level of the balcony. A strip of dark gray Lurex was wrapped around the base of these wires, with some grouped together and some pairs done individually. Only the central group was different – the fabric was plain black, and for the second half it was pulled up to form the arras behind which Polonius hid; the rest of the strips only came up two or three feet. There were a couple of chairs for Claudius and Gertrude during the play scene, and various other implements were brought on as needed, but that was pretty much it.

I have no idea what the wire and cloth arrangements were meant to be, but at the start, we soon realised we were in the Second World War period. It started with a public service announcement about switching off all phones, done in the plummy tones and formal language of such things, and then the opening scene was preceded by an air raid siren; this made me think that the wire sculptures might represent search lights, but apart from that fleeting thought, nothing much came of them. There was also a piper at the start – fine playing, but no idea why.

The first scene was done in near darkness, with torches, and Francisco was standing right beside me for his few lines. The strong northern accents were well to the fore from the off, although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were Scottish, and Hamlet had spent so long in Wittenberg that he often lapsed into RP with odd flashes of ‘up north’. For once, it’s Horatio who asks what all the warlike preparations are for, and Marcellus or Bernardo who tells him – this makes much more sense than the usual format. The ghost appears on the balcony, wearing a fetching white cape and a fencing mask, while waving his sword around in slow motion. Although it gives the lie to the later reports to Hamlet about the ghost’s expression, etc., this staging did have the advantage of allowing them to show the ghost flitting around a lot with the use of some poles and duplicate capes and masks – the ghost appeared on either side of the stage before disappearing altogether.

The next scene began with a lively jazz number, which perked things up no end. Actually, it started with one man coming on, hat pulled down, with his jacket slung over his shoulder. He walked slowly to the end of the ramp on the right, lifted the piano lid, sat down, and played a chord. Slowly, deliberately, repeating it once. I thought, oh, it’s the death march, and then he picked up the beat, the tune began to swing, and as the lights came up the rest of the band came on stage to treat us to a great little jazz number. Ophelia, in a gorgeous evening dress with more swags than a Palladium curtain, stood at a microphone on the ramp in front of the pianist, and sang the songs from her mad scene – ‘valentine’ and ‘how should I your true love know’ – all nice and lovely in this context. Gertrude arrives on the other ramp, and sashays about a bit, to applause from the court. Turns out Claudius was the piano player. Hamlet played double bass, Polonius the cello, and the rest all seem to be playing anything and everything from time to time. Talented bunch. This upbeat start to the scene makes Claudius’s speech much lighter in tone, and he comes across as a pretty good guy. Cornelius  has become Cornelia again, while Fortinbras is referred to as ‘she’ – I wasn’t sure I’d heard it right first time round, but we even get to see and hear her in this production, so there’s no mistake.

All this while, after the music stopped, Hamlet has been sulking over near us, sitting on the corner of the ramp. When he gets involved, he simply stands up to say his lines, putting some heat into the “Tis not my inky cloak” bit, but otherwise seeming a bit static. Left to himself for the “too, too solid flesh” speech, he does start to move around, dropping to his knees and other signs of suffering. The dialogue came across well enough, though.

The scene with Horatio was fine, as was Laertes’s leave-taking. Ophelia can be quite snappy in this production, and it comes out here as well as in the mad scene. Polonius needed to refer to a little notebook for some of his precepts, a reflection on the character rather than the actor, but judging by Laertes’s reaction to the contents of the envelope Polonius gives him, he’s a generous man to his children.

The platform scenes had some problems, mostly in the second phase, when Hamlet talks with his father’s ghost. The ghost appeared on the balcony at first, and disappeared quite quickly, but came through the rear entrance onto the ramp almost before Horatio and Marcellus had finished making their exits that way. Whenever the ghost was on stage, they played church-type music in the background – organ playing, choir singing – but this time it was loud enough to drown out a lot of Hamlet’s lines. Of course, it didn’t help that his back was turned to us for most of this scene, but one way and another I hardly heard a word he said. The ghost was loud and clear, and mercifully short compared to usual. Hamlet is much different after this encounter – much more lively and energetic. He also has his father’s sword, which the ghost gives him – strange ghost, this – which is handy for the swearing scene. He also scrawls something in chalk on the right-hand ramp which I couldn’t see, but it related to “meet it is I set it down”, so I assume the word ‘villain’ was in there at least. Nobody else seems to see this, or the other stuff he writes later, and I wasn’t taken with it as a staging choice.

Polonius sends Reynaldo off to France with the usual instructions, although he doesn’t mention drabbing as a potential slur on Laertes’s character, whether from brevity or morality I couldn’t tell. Ophelia’s report on Hamlet’s mad appearance was OK, and it started to bring out the lack of physical contact between father and daughter, unlike her fond embraces with Laertes earlier on. Polonius was more disturbed by the error he’s made in cutting Hamlet off from Ophelia than I’ve seen before, and his concern seemed genuine.

Now for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and if you couldn’t tell them apart before, you wouldn’t have had a hope this time around. Apart from their suits – one a light tan, the other grey – they were identical. Twins or brothers, I’m not sure, but since I focused on their outfits I was fine. Claudius gets it wrong (again!), then we hear from the ambassadors, and finally Polonius struts his stuff with Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia.

For Hamlet’s next entrance, he’s carrying a fishing basket, rod and stool, and wearing a waterproof and hat. He dumps this stuff at the bottom of the ramp, and he’s busy getting things out of the basket while talking to Polonius. The fishmonger reference is therefore apt, though I felt it was a bit contrived. Still, it was fun. He also has a book, which is used for the “Words, words, words” bit, and he chalks “gone fishing” on a small blackboard and props it on a stool, which got a laugh.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have the usual tough time of it, and then Polonius introduces the players. They’re very jolly. One chap in particular is keen to give a speech himself, but it turns out Hamlet wants one that’s not his to give – I thought he looked a bit disappointed. Hamlet’s intro was significantly helped by a prompt from the lady player, and the rest of the speech was very well delivered. I was aware of Hecuba snatching up the blanket to cover her naked body, and I had an unexpected glimpse of a physical aspect to her relationship with Priam. The player wasn’t at all bothered about Hamlet’s request for The Murder of Gonzago, so the general public obviously aren’t suspicious of the succession.

I wasn’t sure when the interval would be taken – not at “the play’s the thing” this time – so we continued with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reporting to the king and queen on their lack of progress. Then there’s the setting up of the confrontation between Ophelia and Hamlet, and then the big one – “To be, or not to be”. OK, everyone wants to find their own way of doing it, but this choice just wasn’t that good. Hamlet uses the chalk again, and scrawls the question on the top of the left-hand ramp. I could see the writing this time, but that really didn’t improve things. He treated the first part of the speech like a pros and cons list, writing under “not to be” such things as “die”, “sleep”, “dream”; all this writing was done with his back to us and it felt more like an old-fashioned classroom talk than a vibrant dynamic speech about Hamlet’s internal philosophical wrestling. He recovered a bit with the latter part of the speech, but on the whole this was not a good version of this important section of the play.

The meeting with Ophelia was much better, with Ophelia being a little snappy again when she tells him “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind”. She’s also very upset at Hamlet’s ranting, sobbing and distraught and in need of a hug when her father and Claudius re-emerge. Polonius isn’t keen, and avoids her altogether. I wasn’t sure if Hamlet was aware of Polonius’s presence after “Where’s your father?” – it just wasn’t clear.

The advice to the players was fine, and with Claudius and Gertrude sitting on the left-hand ramp, the play got underway. The opening mime sequence was a very fresh take to my eyes. Two players brought on a wheelbarrow, placing it well up on the right-hand ramp, and they were wearing smocks. With some music and ‘effects’ – they used a watering can, I think – first one row of flowers stood up in the barrow, then the next, and finally the man sorts of leans down and rests his head on the flowers to have a kip. The woman leaves, and another chap comes on with the poison, and actually invites Claudius to come on stage and pour it into the sleeping man’s ear! It was all very jokey, and I could see why Claudius wouldn’t be too worried by it. In fact, it was entertaining enough that I wasn’t watching the court’s reactions at all. When the dumb show king dies, he literally kicked the bucket. Yes, literally! There was a bucket on the ramp, he stood up, staggered about a bit, then stopped to deliberately kick the bucket off the ramp, and then collapsed and died. It was very good fun.

For the second part, the players did a lovely version of Brief Encounter. The loving couple were Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard to a T, including the little fur stole she wore and the clipped accents, which sounded strange with Shakespeare’s dialogue, but the reference was worth it. When the poisoning happened, Claudius reacted strongly and stalked off, calling for a light. The rest of the scene was pretty standard, and then the interval.

The second half started with the short scene between Claudius and first Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and then Polonius, followed by the attempted reconciliation with heaven. Fine Time Fontayne, as Claudius, gave one of the best performances today, and this speech was particularly well done, leaving him sitting on the front ramp in the appearance of prayer when Hamlet arrives on the scene. Standing close behind Claudius, he’s ready to strike, but has second thoughts. It’s one of those odd things; why should he think that Claudius would go to heaven when he’s committed murder? And a brother’s murder at that? The belief that forgiveness is always available for repentance must have been very strong for the doubts to stand any sort of chance in Hamlet’s mind. Anyway, we want the rest of the play, so fortunately Hamlet decides against taking this perfect opportunity, and heads off to his mother’s room. Claudius is then free to tell us how ineffective his efforts have been, and also leaves the stage.

Hamlet is soon with his mother in her chamber, with Polonius ensconced behind the arras, partially visible to us. This scene seemed a bit flat to me, although the dialogue came across well enough. Gertrude was certainly upset by the whole thing, but I didn’t get any sense that she realised that Claudius was a murderer. And she must have had excellent eyesight, because the two pictures Hamlet was holding up for comparison were rather small, and he was standing several metres away from her during that bit, though of course, she would be able to remember what each man looked like. The ghost was fine, but for once I wondered if it would be possible to drop the physical presence and just hear the ghost’s words, so that the audience could relate more to Gertrude’s point of view, assuming the production has decided that she doesn’t see the ghost, of course. For once, Hamlet doesn’t bid his mother not to do the things he tells her to do, but he does drag Polonius’s body away, thankfully.

Despatching Hamlet to England doesn’t take long, and then we meet Fortinbras and her army, followed quickly by Ophelia’s first mad scene. This wasn’t too bad, with Ophelia throwing papers around and singing snatches of the songs she sang at the start of the play. There’s more menace in her threat that “my brother shall know of it” than usual. Then Laertes arrives, and when Ophelia returns she has a small bunch of flowers in her hand to distribute. She’s already thrown the papers about, and also drops a lot of the flowers, so the stage is beginning to look rather untidy, and gets more cluttered as the play continues.

Horatio reads the letter from Hamlet standing in the balcony, and then Claudius and Laertes seal their pact to kill Hamlet down below. Gertrude reports Ophelia’s death, and then the gravedigger comes on to prepare for Ophelia’s funeral. He opens up the doors to the Andersen shelter, and starts pulling skulls out of it (why are there never any other bones?), leaving one of them perched on his spade, leaning against the wall. Hamlet and Horatio walk on behind him, and as they talk, the gravedigger tosses fresh skulls over his head which they catch. The skull on the spade is Yorick’s.

The funeral is very brief, just a quick up, down and across, and the priest is done. Hamlet and Horatio are crouched by the end of the right-hand ramp, and Hamlet is pretty vigorous in attacking Laertes over who loved Ophelia the most.

Now we’re into the final phase, and Hamlet recounts his adventures at sea to Horatio. The sequence with Osric was good, with Osric’s hat being bent out of shape so that he looked ridiculous when he put it back on. Osric and Reynaldo were one and the same, by the way – Andy Cryer did very well with this part. Osric’s fussiness was clear, and he obviously had a prepared speech – he checked his clipboard from time to time – and was easily flustered by Hamlet’s responses.

The fight scene worked fine. The poisoned cup was set on a stand to the left, the combatants had fencing gear on, and the fighting itself was reasonably good. Hamlet is standing with his back to Laertes, who’s on the ground, when Laertes cuts him on the back of the leg, and then Hamlet’s furious and unstoppable in his determination to get back at Laertes. Even without a sword, he overcomes Laertes and cuts him in return. The queen has already drunk the poison, and it’s all going horribly wrong from Claudius’s point of view. It gets worse. Hamlet stabs him, pours some drink down his throat, then carries the cup over to Laertes to exchange forgiveness with him; Laertes dies before Hamlet can complete his side of the bargain.

After that, it’s a quick trot to the end of the play, with Fortinbras turning up and making her claim to the throne. All jolly good fun, and despite some dubious choices in the staging, and a dreadfully sparse audience, we gave them a warm reception at the end. I felt the Second World War theme was underused, and the performances were sometimes patchy, but on the whole it was the usual sound, well-spoken no-nonsense Northern Broadsides production. The music was lovely, and well-chosen, although I’ve already made it clear that the ghost’s accompaniment was a bit too much.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

I Met A Man Who Wasn’t There – May 2011


By Philip Meeks

Directed by Bruce James

Company: Bruce James Productions

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Friday 27th May 2007

This was a reasonably decent modern supernatural thriller, which didn’t scare me much, but did have some tension, and the unravelling of the story was well done. It was a two-hander with a cast instantly recognisable from the soaps – Cathy Shipton as Amanda Schilling and Brian Capron as Edgar Ryme, a supposed clairvoyant. She’s a journalist who claims to be doing an article on clairvoyants, and is willing to pay him for his time and information. They swap ghost stories and it’s clear she’s got something to hide, but then so does he, and then strange things begin to happen…….

The set was a small living/dining room in an upstairs flat. Window with permanently drawn curtains to the left, then the door to the kitchen, then an area I couldn’t see very well – hidden by the table – but it had the record player, then the dresser with various windmills and other knick-knacks. Centre back was the fireplace with a large mirror over; the fireplace was screened off with a board and there was a small electric fire in front of that. The door to the outside world was to the right of the fireplace, then a table and comfy chair. There was a sofa under the window, and the dining table with chairs was front and left.

We moved closer in the interval, as I wasn’t able to hear all the dialogue in our original seats. Sadly, the theatre was less than half-full, so we had no problem relocating. The title refers to the poem Antigonish by Hughes Mearns (I’m relying on Wikipedia here, so fingers crossed), which David keeps reciting as part of his strategy for taking over Edgar, and it did become a bit creepy after a while. The performances were fine, and although the writing was a little clunky at times, there were also several fine speeches, most notably Amanda’s description of her time in Bosnia. It may not be a masterpiece, but this deserves better audiences, and I hope they get them.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead – May 2011

Experience: 6/10

By Tom Stoppard

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 26th May 2011

I’ve usually found Tom Stoppard’s work a bit cerebral for my taste, and this play was no exception. There are some good bits, and this is likely to be a very good production once it’s settled in, but I wouldn’t say it was one of my favourites.

Tonight’s performance had a ripple of understudies due to the indisposition of Tim Curry, so although I didn’t detect any significant fluffs, future performances are bound to come on a lot. I didn’t catch all the understudy names, and it was too recent a change for printed slips in the program, but I gather that the part of The Player was taken by Chris Andrew Mellon.[Oops, we’ve since found the insert – Chris Andrew Mellon confirmed, and his role as Player King taken by Stephen Pallister 3/6/11] Since they haven’t yet had their understudies run, the audience was suitably appreciative of his efforts, and he managed the part really well, getting across the swagger and bluster, and doing a particularly good death scene, I thought. All the best to Tim Curry, of course, for his recovery.

The set was quite beautiful, one of Simon Higlett’s best. The floor of the stage was covered in glossy black boards which followed the stage’s shape apart from two triangular cut-outs, one on each side, giving the overall effect of an arrow head. Above this was a similarly shaped layer of black boards, but with gaps, like a pergola. The back wall and surround were full of stars for the outdoor night scenes, and the central rear doors were flanked by two concealed doorways with false perspective arches, which gave a fantastic impression of a vast castle.

At the start, there was a tree centre back; this was removed when the players arrived with their cart (very Mother Courage), but it was done so well that I just didn’t spot it. After the players leave, R&G are transported straight to the castle, so the arches are on show for a major chunk of the play. There’s some set dressing for The Murder Of Gonzago – this time we’re seeing the dress rehearsal – which was mainly four tall candle holders, a rug and two small chests.

Once off to sea, part of a ship and three barrels are carefully positioned on the stage. The ship has an upper deck with a deckchair, screened by a large umbrella; it turns out that Hamlet has been snoozing there through the start of this scene. The barrels are large, which is just as well, as the players, scared by the hostile reception of their play at court, have stowed away by hiding in them. One of the best bits tonight was watching them all clamber out.

After the ship scene, I think the set was bare till near the end, when some of the Gonzago trimmings were brought back on for the very end of Hamlet itself, when the ambassadors from England have arrived to report that R&G are dead.

The play is certainly interesting, taking a sideways look at these two minor characters as they wend their short path through this famous play, and bringing up many philosophical ideas along the way. It’s those philosophical bits that tend to drag, in my view. It may be that Jamie Parker as Guildenstern (or was it Rosencrantz?) will find a delivery that brings out more humour in those lines, but I suspect they would be a bit dry for me regardless. Samuel Barnett as Rosencrantz (or ………?) was more down to earth, stupider and generally had the funnier lines, and his was the more assured performance at this point in the run. The constant coin tossing had some humour, though it went on a bit long, and the players were good fun, though also a bit long winded. I enjoyed the mathematical joke of the bet – that a date of birth, doubled, will be even – and it shows how wide-ranging this content of this play is.

With their arrival at Elsinore, the actual Shakespearean dialogue makes an appearance, and it’s to Stoppard’s credit that he manages to blend the two styles so well. Many another writer has incorporated chunks of Will’s work into theirs, only to show up their own inadequacies; Stoppard holds his own just fine, and although I wasn’t totally loving this, I didn’t find myself wishing I was watching Hamlet instead, a good sign. (Mind you, I did wonder if the actors having a go at a partial Hamlet were wishing they could do the full version.)

The dress rehearsal was nicely done, adapting the snippet we see in the regular version into a reprise of the Hamlet plot, with two new characters, looking uncannily like R&G, involved in this one. We even get to see the executions in England. R&G are troubled by the similarities for a while, especially when their doubles take off their capes and their costumes are so similar to the original R&G’s, but the pair soon reassure themselves that all is well.

There’s a string of pearls used in this section – I think it was presented by the usurping king to the widowed queen to persuade her to marry him – and tonight the string broke, scattering pearls everywhere. Presumably this was not meant to happen. The actors soon cleared up most of them, but a stray pearl travelled further than the rest, and it was Rosencrantz who did the honours and removed it in passing.

When the duplicate R&G’s are killed, and their capes placed over them, the lights go down – it’s after Claudius has stormed off – and when they come back up, it’s the ‘real’ R&G who are under the capes. These two are on stage all the time, with the action of Hamlet coming to them, so they can’t actually go anywhere to search for Hamlet, leading to an entertaining scene where they opt to go in different directions, then together, then one way, then another. There’s a short scene on the beach, where Hamlet encounters Fortinbras’s men, and then they’re on the boat. When Hamlet is saying his soliloquies, by the way, he has a tendency to drift to the back of the stage and mutter to himself.

In the process of figuring out what they’re going to say when they get to the English court, R&G role play that encounter, and as a result they open the letter and find out that Hamlet is to be killed. Much consternation. Then they go to sleep, Hamlet sneaks down from his deckchair and swaps the letters, and they’re on their way to oblivion.  The players emerge from the barrels, the pirates attack, and Hamlet disappears with them, leaving R&G with nobody to present to the king of England, so they redo the role play to get some ideas, open the letter again, and hey presto, they’re now the ones for the chop. That’s pretty much it for these two. We don’t see their executions, and the final scene shows their deaths being reported to the Danish court, or what’s left of it.

The performance showed signs of this being a very good production, once they’ve had time to bed it down. It’s not my ideal kind of play, but I hope it does well here and in the West End.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Autumn And Winter – May 2011


By: Lars Noren, translated by Gunilla Anderman

Directed by: Derek Goldby

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Tuesday 24th May 2011

Steve and I have been seeing more Scandinavian drama on TV recently; not only the original Wallander from Sweden, but also The Killing from Denmark – a deserved Bafta winner. So I was happy to find that this play is by Sweden’s leading playwright, but I wisely kept my expectations low. One hour forty-five with no interval – it’s a high-risk situation.

Set: bare floorboards, light-coloured wash, round table laid with the tail-end of dinner – wine bottles, both red and white, variously full to empty with glasses ditto, plates with salad bits on them, cold meat and cheese on boards, bowls with salad remnants, bread basket almost out of supplies, one ashtray in the opposite condition. Four chairs stood around the table, and a couple of boots were scattered around, with a small black handbag hung over the back of one chair. To our left was a small bureau with photos on top and pigeonholes and two cupboards beneath. Across from us was a sofa with side table and lamp, and round to the right was a dark wood sideboard with a footstool underneath, which held the drinks decanter tray and a small lamp. To the right of it stood a cut-away floor-to-ceiling window – only the very bottom and very top were shown, connected by a slim rod. In the corner immediately to my left was an old-fashioned stove with a mantelpiece, all decked out in tiles with a simple green and white pattern. In the opposite corner, above the main entrance, hung a large portrait of a lady; from her dress I would have said early to middle 20th century. Just before the off, a small TV on a stand was placed in the main entranceway. This was never used.

The play began with the cast strolling on, indulging in some high quality rhubarb, as if they’d all just gone into another room and were returning to finish their meal. During the post-show, it was explained that the play just began, with no preamble, and Sam Walters stated that he would have just started with the lights coming on. The conversation then takes several turns for the worse, as Ann, the rebellious, troubled daughter, vents her feelings about her terrible childhood and demands answers from her parents as to why she feels so bad about herself. The various problems that the family have experienced over the years come tumbling out – distant father and cruel manipulative mother competing for younger daughter’s love, older goody-two-shoes daughter holding in all her problems and doping herself into a highly competitive workaholic lifestyle which seems to have ruled out the possibility of children, etc., etc. It’s all fairly standard stuff, and while it’s good to recognise the universality of human suffering – the Swedes have unhappy families, too – there was no great insight here to lift this above the average family confrontation drama. I could certainly recognise aspects of my own family life, now a distant memory, but I didn’t feel involved with the characters enough to care about them or how this particular family occasion would turn out, which probably explains why I nodded off during the last half hour a few times. From what Steve tells me, I didn’t miss much.

The enjoyable aspects of this afternoon’s offering were the performances and the occasional snippet of humour. I didn’t catch all of the jokes, as I did have some difficulty hearing all of the lines, but there were a few gems amongst the chaff. And all four actors did a splendid job of bringing their characters to life. Again from the post-show discussion, we learned that one of the actors had joined the team at short notice, which had led to more cuts than intended (thank God!), but we couldn’t tell from the performances who it was.

Also from the post-show, either Teunkie van der Sluijs, the assistant director, or Sam himself told us that the writer’s intention with this piece had originally been to send the audience screaming into the night at the end of the play. He’d moderated that intention, however: now he just wanted half of the audience to leave the theatre screaming, and for the other half to feel their lives had been transformed. He’ll have to do a lot better than this effort to have either effect on us!

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The Dumb Waiter – May 2011


By: Harold Pinter

Directed by: Tim Astley

Company: Apollo Theatre Company

Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford

Date: Saturday 7th May 2011

It was interesting to see this play again. I’d enjoyed it at school; although I don’t usually ‘get’ plays just from the text, the unsettling atmosphere of menace came right off the page with this one. The venue tonight supported this feeling, with the small space and brick walls adding their own sense of dilapidated claustrophobia. The set itself comprised a back wall with a door far left and a doorway far right. There were two single cot beds either side of the central dumb waiter door, which was quite small and square. The speaking tube was to the right of that door, but lay on the floor underneath.

The actors were on stage when we entered. Ben was reading the paper on the bed on our right, while Gus was lying on the left-hand bed until close to the start, when he took his time putting his shoes on. Simon Cotton’s portrayal of this character was on the fussy side, bordering on camp. I wasn’t sure how this would work, but the tension built up pretty well, so no complaints there. Ross Ericson was fine as Ben, with just enough bluster to his authority until the final moments.

This was a reasonably good touring production, which got a very good response from the audience – friends and family, perhaps?

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The Holy Rosenbergs – May 2011


By: Ryan Craig

Directed by: Laurie Sansom

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 5th May 2011

The Cottesloe was in an unfamiliar arrangement for this play, an interesting cross between a standard domestic drama and an airing of viewpoints on the Israel/Palestinian conflict. Speaking as someone with no vested interest, and with a less than perfect knowledge of the recent history of this subject matter, I can only comment that as far as I could tell, the views expressed seemed to be balanced overall, with no ‘side’ coming out on top, although individual characters naturally took up strong positions to allow the debate to take place. I certainly felt I knew a bit more about the subject than when I arrived, though that wouldn’t be difficult.

The set was a living/dining room, placed diagonally across the Cottesloe space. We were on the dining table side of the room; to our right was the exit to the kitchen, and round from that were the sofas at right angles to each other, with coffee table. Opposite us was the door from the hall, and along the left side as we looked at it was a long sideboard with many family pictures in frames. The seating rose up steeply on all sides, so naturally there was nothing on the ‘walls’, and even the front row was looking down on the action.

The Rosenberg family are kosher caterers in the Edgware area. David, the father, and Lesley, the mother, have been working hard to rebuild their business after an unfortunate death at an event they catered. Although it wasn’t caused by food poisoning, the mud stuck, and now the business is on the verge of collapse. Their son, Jonny, appears to be a waster, sponging off his parents but having grand schemes to get rich quick – internet gambling is the current wheeze – and with no intention of going into the family business. Their daughter, Ruth, is an over-achiever, a high-flying lawyer who’s working on a UN inquiry into possible war crimes in Gaza. She’s come back to the family home for the funeral of the other son, Danny, who was a pilot out in Israel, and died in action there. There’s a lot of scope for discussion just among these four people, but we also get a young rabbi, Simon, who was once Ruth’s boyfriend, the chairman of the synagogue, Saul, whom David hopes will book his firm to do the catering for his (Saul’s) daughter’s wedding, and Stephen, the chairman of the inquiry that Ruth is working for, who drops by to leave her some entirely relevant papers on the evening of the funeral. A bit far-fetched, but that’s drama for you.

There was plenty of humour throughout the play, and although there were serious moments too, it never got preachy or too heavy. The antagonism felt in the Jewish community towards Ruth for her part in the UN investigation into potential war crimes leads Simon, and later Saul, to suggest that she stay away from the service, while David is suffering from unacknowledged guilt because he put pressure on Danny to stay in the danger zone, even though Danny himself wanted to come home. All these factors are woven together very skilfully, and the production was a delight to watch, with excellent performances all round.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Little Eagles – May 2011


By: Rona Munro

Directed by: Roxana Silbert

Company: RSC

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Wednesday 4th May 2011

For those of us who’ve been paying attention, this play offered little new information about the Soviet Union’s early space program, and although it told the story well enough, with some good performances, I could have done with more humour to lighten the fairly dark tone of the piece, especially with a running time not far short of three hours.

The set had a back wall with large, dirty windows and central double doors. Above these, a platform could be revealed when needed. To the right was a sweep of metal, curving up into the flies. Furniture was brought on and off as needed, and once or twice I felt this was a bit slow, but it worked OK for the most part. The costumes were presumably authentic for the period (they should be – with all the Russian plays the RSC’s been doing, their costume department must be bulging at the seams with this stuff).

The opening scene had Stalin speechifying from the platform about the threat from without and within. As he spoke, a couple of guards and some shambling prisoners came on to the stage, and gradually, through collective mime, we were led to understand that this was a labour camp, and conditions were really, really bad. Personally I felt they overdid this bit, with the mime looking very actors’ workshop, and although parts of this scene were useful later on, it could probably be trimmed if not dropped altogether with some rewriting elsewhere. Anyway, we met Korolyov, the father of the Russian space program, his mate Old Man, and a young female doctor who’s inexperienced in the ways of the gulag, but soon learns the ropes.

The next scene is set in the prison factory where the USSR is developing its own ICBMs, out in the back of beyond. Korolyov’s wife and daughter have just arrived from Moscow, and we learn that if Glushko, Korolyov’s current boss, didn’t shop him during the purges, his wife certainly did. This makes it a bit difficult for her to stay with her husband, especially as she wants her Moscow life, and he gets so obsessed with his work that he wouldn’t see much of them anyway.

It’s a big day for the project, as they’re being visited by members of the Politburo and they have to present them with a success story. Turns out Stalin is dead, Khrushchev has taken over, and with his right hand man Brezhnev, he’s keen to be brought up to speed on Uncle Joe’s secret little project. When Korolyov gives him the information in a way he can understand, Khrushchev puts him in charge of the whole project, and pardons all the prisoners. Not only that, Korolyov is finally able to put forward his dream of space flight, and with Khrushchev keen to beat the Americans at something, Sputnik can finally fly.

We soon get through the early years of the space program. From Sputnik’s beeping at the world we move swiftly on to the cosmonaut program, glossing over the animal test flights with a mendacious assurance to the first four test pilots that all the dogs came back alive. The reality is admitted to Geladze, the military officer responsible for selecting cosmonaut trainees, and who provides the hard line Communist perspective through to the end of the play. For example, he recommends Yuri Gagarin as the first cosmonaut because he has impeccable proletarian credentials, even though his test scores weren’t as high as at least one of the other pilots.

There’s also a glimpse of the degree of suffering which the Soviets were prepared to inflict on their own men, when we see a short encounter between Gagarin and a human guinea pig, a wreck of a man slumped in a wheelchair. He’s been through the same physical endurance tests as the trainees – heat, cold, oxygen deprivation, large g-forces – and taken to the limit of each so that the scientists know how far they can push the trainees without killing them, the implication being that some of the guinea pigs weren’t so lucky. In some ways it was harder to watch than the gulag stuff, not only because I found it easier to relate to a specific individual, but because he was so happy to be serving his country in this way. The doctor looking after him was the doctor from the camp in scene one.

The Gagarin launch scene was done in an unusual way, and I’m still not sure if I liked it or not. With various people scurrying around the stage, and tempers fraying as the deadline approaches, Gagarin was up on the platform waiting, while his backup was in his flight suit on the stage, hoping his chance would come. It didn’t. Gagarin was given the go-ahead, and came down onto the stage, where he was attached to two wires. As the spacecraft took off, he was gently lifted up, while the other actors peered upwards as if watching the rocket disappearing into the sky. The stage was darkened, small blue lights shone out all across the back wall and the sweep of metal, and when the rest of the cast left the stage, there was Yuri, swinging around in space, telling us all how beautiful it looked. It was a fairly effective piece of staging, though rather spoilt by cast members coming on once or twice to set Yuri spinning – this was when he was making his re-entry.

His landing in a country field was well done, though, with two women working in the field and being understandably suspicious of a strange chap parachuting in. Gagarin’s keen to take them, and some other farm workers who turn up, for a drink before the official welcoming party arrive, but he’s too late, and the officials whisk him away to see Comrade Khrushchev as quick as you like.

I have no idea what the scene with Khrushchev and Gagarin waving to the crowds from the balcony was intended to give us. With those two at the back of the stage, we were left with Mrs Gagarin and Korolyov having a conversation, and I found a good deal of this dialogue incomprehensible due to Samantha Young’s delivery. I did get that she thought their reception was an honour, and that she was shy, but not much else.

After the interval, we had another speech from the platform, this time by Khrushchev. I nodded off for a bit during the next scene, but I gathered that it covered Korolyov’s remarriage, a major disaster with long-range missile testing, the Soviet side of the Cuban missile crisis, and the increasing rivalry between Korolyov and Glushko. With mounting pressure to beat the Americans, deadlines become ever tighter, and finally Korolyov is facing a crunch moment. Brezhnev, now in charge, arrives to sack him and put Glushko in charge. The evidence mounts against Korolyov – his ill-health, dubious decisions, etc. – until finally he makes Brezhnev a guarantee that he will have his Soyuz rocket ready to launch in eighteen months. With this chance to regain the competitive lead over the US, Brezhnev leaves Korolyov in charge, and now things get even tougher for his team.

We’ve seen him before being ruthless and tyrannical, insulting people and driving them to do their best, then being best buddies with them when things are going well. Now he’s much worse, even using the idea put forward by Geladze earlier that they can get by with only six hours sleep in every forty-eight. Some clamps are discovered to be defective, but with such tight deadlines and a limited budget, there’s no opportunity to change them. As a result, the cosmonaut’s capsule fails to re-enter properly, and he’s blown up. This was another use of the wires, with much more spinning this time, and although I experienced the emotional effect of knowing this chap won’t survive, I didn’t feel this staging worked as well as the first time.

Just before this, Korolyov was sent to Moscow for surgery, and in the final scene, we learn that he died during the operation due to problems caused by the beating he took way back in the gulag. The doctor has defected to America, and this scene is part of her debriefing. She’s still obsessed about getting an apartment, and there’s some humour in the US airman’s comment “everyone gets an apartment”. After the airman leaves, Korolyov’s ghost appears, and the final lines are a question from the doctor about the meaning of Korolyov’s achievements.

It was an OK ending, but I still feel the play hasn’t quite come into focus yet. There’s the historical stuff, of course, and that story’s pretty well told, but the use of ghosts was a bit clunky at times, and there’s too much done with Gagarin’s character in the middle section which takes the attention away from Korolyov needlessly, I feel. I’d prefer to see the first scene cut, with the information conveyed during later scenes, which would give us more personal time with these characters as well, but then I’m not a dramatist, just an enthusiastic observer.

Decent performances all round. Greg Hicks was excellent as Geladze, doubled with Old Man, while Brian Doherty as Khrushchev and Phillip Edgerley as Brezhnev gave nice little cameos. Noma Dumezweni was perfection, as usual.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at