The City Madam – June 2011

6/10

By: Philip Massinger

Directed by: Dominic Hill

Company: RSC

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 10th June 2011

This play was written in the post-Shakespeare period and before the Civil War. While I could see elements of later Restoration comedy, we both spotted lots of ‘echoes’ of other stories, especially from Will’s work – the masque from The Tempest, the hidden authority figure watching a deputy’s behaviour from Measure For Measure, the statues coming to life from The Winter’s Tale, etc. etc. It’s a good job there were some familiar things in the play; for the most part, I found the first half difficult to follow, not helped by our long trip beforehand admittedly, but the sheer number of characters and the unfamiliar language didn’t help either.

The set was very simple. Two double doors centre back, flanked by two upright wooden chairs. That’s it, although there was a big painting across this back wall showing a young man kneeling at the feet of an older man, with another young man looking on. I took this to be the story of the prodigal son, although it wasn’t entirely clear how this fitted in with the play. Perhaps the program notes will help. Anyway, the chairs were painted to blend in with this painting, so it was hard to make them out. Other furnishings were added as needed – a table, cushions, etc. – and chandeliers dropped down from above.

There were puppets, too. For the masque, Orpheus and Eurydice, there were puppets for Orpheus, Eurydice, Cerberus and the hands that dragged Eurydice back to Hades, as well as three human singers and a bunch of musicians. The masque was very well done, and there were additional magic tricks, Prospero-like, carried out by the chief American Indian, including a burning book.

The plot was fairly straightforward. Sir John Frugal has a wife, two daughters, an ex-con brother and a vast business empire. He’s ruthless in his business dealings, but apparently unable to rein in the frivolous excesses of his wife and daughters, who spend their time, and his money, on increasingly lavish outfits and plans for the daughters to wed into the nobility. Sir John’s brother, Luke, is treated badly by these women, and appears to be a changed man. No more materialistic concerns for him. He revels in the new-found simplicity of his life, or so it seems.

A friend of his, Lord Lacy, believes that Luke is truly repentant, and tries to persuade Sir John to treat him better. Sir John believes he hasn’t changed a bit, and that if he were given half a chance, he’d be just as bad as before. I wasn’t clear about this plotting at the time, but I soon grasped what was going on when Lord Lacy announces to Sir John’s family that he, Sir John, has gone to a monastery and left all his worldly possessions in the control of Luke, in the expectation that he will take care of his sister and nieces and deal kindly with Sir John’s various, and many, debtors. With so much wealth suddenly thrust upon him, Luke has the chance to show his wisdom and humility and stun us all.

Don’t hold your breath. With the key to the Frugal treasury clutched firmly to his bosom, Luke is set to become the world’s most rapacious usurer – cold, merciless, avaricious. He starts to call in all the debts, but first he sets the people up for a bigger fall, encouraging them in their profligacy before setting the bailiffs on them.

Lord Lacy brings along three men from the newly established American colonies, who wish to be converted to Christianity. Their chief is clearly Sir John himself, while the other two are his daughters’ suitors, who wouldn’t accept the life of total slavery the women tried to impose on them as a condition of their marriage. These three work on Luke’s greed, and finally persuade him to hand over Lady Frugal and her two daughters, now in plainer clothes, in return for riches beyond his wildest dreams.

Having sent all his debtors to prison, Luke takes the time to threaten Lord Lacy with the loss of the lands which carry his title, before settling down to enjoy a birthday banquet and some entertainment which the Indian chief has laid on for him. The masque comes first, of course, but then all the arrested folk are led on in chains, to see if Luke will feel pity for them. No chance. So then the daughters come on with their mother, to say goodbye to their former suitors, now supposed dead, by speaking to their statues. None of this moves Luke at all. So at last the chief uses his magic to bring the statues to life (Winter’s Tale and Don Juan!), and the final revelations can take place, with Luke being stripped (literally) of his position, and sent out to fend for himself.

The story wasn’t complicated as such; the difficulty lay in the vast number of characters, and the fact that the doubling wasn’t always clear. We did spot the Indian disguises OK, but there were one or two other situations where we weren’t sure if the actors were playing the same characters in different clothes, or different characters. I accept that Massinger was attempting to show how widespread the decadence and corruption went, but I still feel there’s scope for some serious editing to bring the play into sharper focus.

There were many nice touches in this production which suggest it would be well worth seeing again. I liked the way the suitors staggered about a bit after being the statues – I’ve done life modelling, and I know how hard it is to stay still for that long. Unfortunately, the blocking really was blocking tonight, and our view was obstructed many times, which certainly didn’t help. We’ve booked seats in a different part of the auditorium next time, so that should be better. Also, the language isn’t as easy to follow as Will’s, probably because we don’t hear these plays as often as the Shakespearean cannon, and with the plot being unfamiliar, I just couldn’t follow it as well as I would have liked. Second time around should be better.

All the performances seemed very good (those I could see, anyway). I particularly liked Sara Crowe as Lady Frugal – her face had some wonderful expressions flitting across it – and Jo Stone-Fewings as Luke. His transformation from puritan to rampant miser was beautifully done, and for all his unpleasant behaviour, he also provided much of the humour.

Finally, it’s remarkable how modern some of the play’s points are, with so many people running up debts and not being able to pay them back. I could see the National doing another modern dress version of this one, like The Man Of Mode and The Revenger’s Tragedy, as it would fit right in to that style of production.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Communicating Doors – June 2011

7/10

By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Thursday 9th June 2011

I do like an Ayckbourn, and this one is no exception. It’s an older play, first performed in 1994, and unless the author made some changes, it’s amazing how well it predicted life in 2011. Excellent performances all round, as usual, and the whole time-travel thriller concept was good fun to watch. I didn’t get many of the film references – Psycho was obvious, but I didn’t recognise any others – but this didn’t spoil my enjoyment one bit.

The action all took place in one room on the top floor of a posh hotel. There was a door on the far right to a cupboard, which also had a door into the room next to this one, which was only used for storage. When the characters entered this cupboard, either to hide or to go through to the next room, the lights went down, the cupboard space swivelled round and they emerged into a different time period. We started in 2031, a character called Poopay went back to 2011, and another character called Ruella went further back, to 1991. As a result of this complicated to-ing and fro-ing, lives were saved and one psychopath was killed, twice. The final scene showed us how these changes had affected Poopay’s life, and it was a nice happy ending to finish with.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Three Farces – June 2011

7/10

By: John Maddison Morton

Edited by: Colin Chambers

Directed by: Henry Bell

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 2nd June 2011

To create a suitable atmosphere for these three Victorian farces, we were treated to Mr Daniel Cheyne acting as Master of Ceremonies, resplendent in a fine purple frock coat, and carrying a small guitar (or large ukulele) with which he accompanied himself during the performance. He chatted with various audience members as we foregathered in the auditorium, and when proceedings were about to get underway, he introduced the cast to us, using the formal designations of the Victorian era. Each actor, as they were introduced, appeared in the far corner, glided across towards us, and exited gracefully through the nearer doorway, all to warm applause. The only exception was Mr Edward Bennett, who remained in the far doorway, and simply closed the doors to effect his exit. Mr Daniel Cheyne then sang a little song which recounted the story of the play we were about to see, to the tune of When I’m Cleaning Windows, if I remember correctly. Similar songs were sung before the other two plays as well. He also filled in as a messenger in the first play, and was fairly reliable at providing ‘noises off’.

Smasher & Crasher

7/10

Set: there was a piano between seats which in our row were split in the middle, a partially filled bookcase in the entrance to the left of that. Next came a sofa, and there were two chairs and a couple of side tables around the place, with double doors to my right and in the opposite entrance. Beside each pair of doors was a pair of cupboard doors – this time the cupboard on my right, which was reasonably spacious, led to the preserve store.

Two men, Slasher and Crasher, are to be married to Mr Blowhard’s niece and sister, and the play is almost over before it’s begun. But a letter arrives exposing both men as cowards, and the marriages are off. An ex-military man, Blowhard can’t stand the idea of his family money being passed on to the lily-livered, so he sends both men packing. Crasher conceives the idea of a fake fight between them, to convince Blowhard that they’re made of the right stuff, but things become a little more heated when Crasher lets slip that he was the one who knocked Smasher’s hat off at the races the day before – it was swallowing this insult that got Smasher in trouble with Blowhard in the first place. Their duel becomes more vigorous than planned, and a good deal of Blowhard’s property is damaged, including a cow (off stage) and the sofa (onstage). All is happily resolved, however, and the end of the play is a reprise of the start, this time with applause from us.

A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion

6/10

The demolished sofa was removed and a desk and larger round table added, along with a pot plant stand, comfy chair, and a portrait of Mr Snoozle on an easel. The tables have some food on them, and also a goldfish bowl with two rather static goldfish. There’s another, smaller, portrait on the desk, of a grim-looking older lady, looking a bit like Whistler’s Mother.

It’s a simple plot. Mr Snoozle has the house to himself – wife, daughter and niece are all out for the day and the servants have all been dismissed. He’s looking forward to a day of total peace and quiet, but finds he has to stop a young man from drowning himself in the fish pond, and said young man proceeds to make himself at home in a very intrusive way. We’ve already heard about a Mr John Johnson Junior, who wants to marry Snoozle’s daughter; Snoozle has turned him down and not replied to his subsequent letters. We weren’t fooled for a minute – this young man was the daughter’s suitor, and he made himself increasingly impossible to deal with until Snoozle finally threatens him with this Mr John Johnson Junior. He even writes a letter to Mr John Johnson Junior to say that Mr John Johnson Junior can marry his daughter, and have five, no, ten thousand pounds into the bargain. At this point, the young man reveals his identity, takes the cheque, and…… The script peters out, so the actors have to improvise the final appeal to the audience. They did this very well, and again we applauded them mightily.

Grimshaw, Bagshaw & Bradshaw 

7/10

Out went everything except the desk and comfy chair, while the piano was covered up. We’re now in a bedroom, with a single bed to our left, leading away from the piano and with a semi-circle of rug at its foot, a chest of drawers and plain chair middle of the next side, desk and plain chair middle of the opposite side, with a fire grate towards the corner entrance, and the comfy chair and side table in the middle of the side to our right.

This is Grimshaw’s room. He’s a shop assistant, on his feet all day and just getting ready for bed at 9 pm when there’s a knock at his door. Who can it be? The new arrival is Fanny, a lady whom Grimshaw met recently, and who has lodgings across the street. He offered to share his umbrella with her when it was raining, she took the whole thing, and now he’s smitten. She asks him to let her stay in his room till morning. He’s thrilled, of course, because he naturally thinks she wants him to be there as well. When she tells him to go, he’s more than a little put out, and despite being an agreeable sort of chap, he does at least put his foot down a bit. She soon prises it up again, though, and sends him packing.

Her need for the room is soon explained. There’s a sliding door in the cupboard on our right that allows Emily to slip through from the next room. She’s hiding from her uncle Towzer, who’s some kind of bailiff, because she wants to marry Bradshaw and her uncle won’t allow it – he wants to keep £300 that’s supposed to be hers when she marries. Bradshaw has taken lodgings a few streets away, but Towzer seems to be keeping an eye on Emily’s room, so Fanny has devised this scheme to help her sneak out without her uncle seeing her. (Don’t ask me how Fanny and Emily met. They skated over it pretty fast, and it was clearly one of those unlikely coincidences so necessary for plot development in farces.)

Meanwhile, Bagshaw emerges through the communicating door on the other side; the door had been nailed up, but clearly the Victorians liked their comedy to be destructive, and Bagshaw soon kicked it open. He’s a young man with a taste for cheap cigars and fine clothes, but an aversion to paying his tailor’s bill. For this reason he too is avoiding Towzer, who has been chasing him for several weeks to get said tailor’s bill paid. Add in a returning Grimshaw, determined to find out Fanny’s secret, and copious use of the communicating doors, and there’s a fair bit of fun to be had, with all ending happily yet again, apart from Grimshaw not getting any Fanny, that is.

With all three plays complete, it’s time for a final song from the assembled company, much applause from us, and finish. Except for the post-show discussion, of course. There was a great deal of interesting information about the writer and Victorian theatre in general from the Sam Walters, Henry Bell and Colin Chambers, but the most interesting thing for me was that so many of us had found the humour not only funny, but very modern. Monty Python and the Goons were mentioned, amongst others, and I was reminded of the word-play of the Two Ronnies sketches, especially with the names of the characters. It was good to see how the Victorians liked their humour – Morton was a very popular writer in his day – as it shows a different side to their character, and reminds us that we’re not so different after all.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Cause Célèbre – June 2011

6/10

By: Terence Rattigan

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date Wednesday 1st June 2011

I must make it clear from the outset that this production is considerably better than my experience rating above suggests. We had to rebook for this one due to ill-health the week of our original tickets, so for once we were back in row R, level with the start of the circle, and much further back than our usual E or F. As a result, I had difficulty hearing much of the dialogue, and a wonky headset didn’t improve matters in the second half. Also, I’d forgotten how much visual detail is lost from that distance, and I find it hard to describe the performances at all, it was such a blur. Even so, I got the gist of the story, or rather stories, as there were two central female characters juxtaposed in this piece; one, Alma Rattenbury, a real-life figure who stood trial for the murder of her husband, and the other, Edith Davenport, a fictitious woman who in the course of the play divorces her husband, loses her son, and, possibly the hardest one of all, loses her black and white judgemental certainty about life. The trial sections were easier to hear, as barristers need a powerful delivery and good diction, and as the bulk of these scenes were in the second half I found I enjoyed myself a lot more after the interval. I still missed some of the humour; the rest of audience was having a better time than me, judging by the amount of laughter I heard.

The set was quite complicated. It had to be, because the action moved around a lot, giving us flashbacks to the night of the murder as well as alternating between the courtroom and people’s homes. There were chairs and tables, a drinks cabinet, a gramophone, stairs and walls, and a judge’s bench for the court scenes. An upper level was used for a scene in the prison, but mostly the different locations were indicated by lighting different parts of the stage. This did allow for quick changes of scene, but I found the overall effect a bit stark, with high, open spaces dwarfing the small figures.

I wasn’t entirely sure about the structure of the play itself. It seemed bitty in the beginning, starting with the swearing in of Edith, then jumping between the two women’s lives to show the events prior to the murder. The contrast between the two leads didn’t really get going until Edith’s surprise assertion that she couldn’t be on this particular jury because she was prejudiced against Alma, and so wouldn’t be able to give her a fair trial – perhaps if this was done right at the start, it might create greater tension throughout the play. As it is, that part happens at the start of the second half, and left me a little confused. Was that bit before the swearing in? Or had the swearing in already happened, and now Edith was trying to get out of her civic duty? Anyway, the trial scenes in the second half gave the play a better structure, and were more entertaining on the whole. We did get flashbacks to the events of the murder, which were acted out in front with the court behind in darkness, and these made it very clear that Alma hadn’t been involved in the murder at all, but that her behaviour in general had influenced the police to view her as guilty. With the jury advised by the judge, and defence counsel for Alma, that they were only trying her for murder, and not for loose living, there was only one verdict they could return. As we didn’t know the result beforehand, I was still tense as we waited for the decision, so it was a relief that she got off. Even so, it didn’t surprise me that she took her own life shortly afterwards – she didn’t seem the most stable of people to begin with, and despite her feelings for her son, she evidently felt suicide was the only way out.

The performances were at least fine, and several were much better than that. Nicholas Jones was perfect as Alma’s defence counsel, and with his stronger delivery I caught almost all of his funny lines; he had plenty of them as well. I liked Lucy Robinson as Stella Morrison, Edith’s sister. She had a more relaxed view of some things than Edith, who was totally uptight, although Stella was an out-and-out snob. The worst thing about the Rattenbury murder for her was that Alma was involved with a servant! She placed a bet on the outcome of the trial, £600 at 3/1 on Alma being found guilty, based on the disparaging way Edith refers to Alma after day one of the trial. No wonder she was unhappy when Alma’s acquitted.

Niamh Cusack and Anne-Marie Duff came across well as the contrasting leads, even though I didn’t hear all of their lines, and I’m hoping that I get to see and hear this play properly sometime in the future.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me