First Episode – July 2011

7/10

By: Terence Rattigan and Philip Heimann

Directed by: Philip Franks

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Sunday 31st July 2011

This was a rehearsed reading of a play which Rattigan wrote with a friend while at university and it was fascinating to see it, even just as a rehearsed reading. No one knows who wrote what, but there were enough of the Rattigan themes to make this definitely one of his. Although they didn’t play the homosexual relationship strongly, the accusation flung at one of the central characters, that he’s a ‘degenerate’, was a clear indicator of the original intention.

The story is mostly set in the sitting room of some student lodgings. Four young men live there – Tony who’s into theatre and is directing a play, David who’s his close friend, Bertie who’s the nerdy one, working hard and trying to follow the rules – he wants his future wife to be ‘pure’, then falls for the easiest woman in town – and Philip who’s pretty laid back and enjoys the good life as much as he can. He’s the one who has a bet on the big race with his bookie (this is set before the bookies were allowed to trade openly on the high street, so telephone calls and aliases were the order of the day), and eventually everyone else joins in; even Bertie, who’s acted all prudish about gambling, has his own bookie.

This is a side issue, though, as the main focus is the three-way relationship between Tony, David and Margot, a professional actress who’s agreed to appear in Tony’s production of Antony and Cleopatra. It’s hard to say who seduces whom; both Tony and Margot are up for it from an early stage, but it’s a temporary thing for Tony whereas she wants more. While visiting her at night to tell her to stay away from his friend, David gets caught by the university beadles, and is sent down.

There’s another romance going on, as Joan, a young woman with an easy-going nature, is also cast in Antony and Cleopatra, and starts off with a crush on Tony. As time goes on, she finds a more sympathetic companion in Bertie, and by the end of the play they announce their engagement. The horse race doesn’t turn out as expected, so David is leaving university with no degree and no money, but still with Tony’s friendship – purely platonic in this version.

The cast did an excellent job with very little preparation. They had a few items of furniture – a sofa, a chair or two and a small table at the front of the stage with the telephone. There was one scene change – to Margot’s hotel room – but the rest of the play was in the student’s room. No costumes of course, though Alex Waldmann did wear a pair of black spectacles as Bertie, which made him look the swotty type. It would be interesting to see a full production, of course, but this may be all we get. It’s still remarkably good for a first attempt.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Brighton ‘Til I Die – July 2011

10/10

By: Paul Hodson and Dave Blake

Directed by: Paul Hodson

Produced by: The Future Is Unwritten & Fuel

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Thursday 28th July 2011

Crystal Palace fans, look away now. Portsmouth and Southampton fans, read no more. This was an emotional rollercoaster ride through the history of the south coast’s greatest football team, Brighton and Hove Albion, concentrating on their recent difficulties, and culminating in the building of the newest, most beautiful ground in the Championship, nay, the whole football league – the Amex community stadium at Falmer. The audience participated brilliantly, and it was an evening not to be missed.

I’ll come clean right away – my credentials as a Brighton supporter are pretty weak. I saw a few matches at the Goldstone ground – they were mostly boring – including some reserve team matches, then Gillingham was too far for me – well done those who kept going – but I did catch some of the Withdean matches – rubbish again – until the arrival of Gus Poyet. The first match I saw them play under his management was the Tranmere game towards the end of the 2009/10 season, and I was thrilled. This was proper football at last, and with a new stadium on the way, I was hooked. A season ticket for me, please.

The story was told by five characters, starting with two of them, Gerbil (Jem Wall) and Southy (Steve North). Friends since school, they had watched Brighton play from the 70s onwards – well, Gerbil had, Southy took the rest of the 80s off after the 1983 Cup final – and the play was structured around their memories of the highs and, sadly, the deep, deep lows in Brighton’s fortunes.

After Gerbil’s initial attempt to create some kind of chronological order to the piece, Southy’s freer approach saved us from a long lecture on the dry details of Albion’s history. He got into an imaginary car to recreate the tension-filled journey to Hereford for the fateful game in 1997 when Brighton needed a point to stay in the league, and Hereford needed the win. After his initial reluctance, Gerbil joined him, and our journey began. Other flashbacks came thick and fast – their first meeting, the matches they saw when they were kids, getting into the North stand as they got older and eventually being able to see the game once they’d grown up. Still they kept coming back to that trip to Hereford, and the feelings it generated. Would the Albion survive at all if they dropped to the Conference?

As a bit of light relief, Mr Albion (Mark Brailsford) came on in military gear but with a large pair of underpants over his shorts,  barked out various commands to get the other two off his stage, and then proceeded to give us some of the historical information from the beginning of the club to WWII. Gerbil and Southy helped him out at times, and he came on again later to fill in more of the gap between the war and the start of the lads’ story. His helmet was magical; when anyone wore it they became a fount of knowledge about the Albion, so of course Gerbil didn’t need it.

Between Mr Albion and the lads, we got the story up to the 1983 FA Cup final and replay before the interval. Southy went off into fantasyland for a bit, imagining for all of us what would have happened if Smith had scored. This included the decline of Manchester United, who end up ground sharing with Macclesfield, while Brighton went on to win the Premiership title and achieve European glory. Sadly, it’s all a dream, and the others bring him back to reality. By this time we’ve also met Anna (Ann Penfold), Gerbil’s mother, and Susan (Beth Fitzgerald), a friend from their schooldays who marries Southy in one of the funniest wedding ceremonies I’ve ever seen.

Southy agrees to marry Susan on Saturday 16th April 1983, because there’s no chance that Brighton will get to the FA Cup semi-final. When the day arrives, Southy, Susan and Gerbil are in the church and at the reception, while Anna describes the action at the match. Gerbil has his earpiece in, and comes out with the most appropriately inappropriate exclamations during the service and afterwards, including shouting ‘Jimmy Case’ in response to the minister asking ‘If anyone knows of any just impediment…’ etc. His best man speech is seriously affected by comments about blowing the whistle, and his delirious closing statement about these two one-derful people is understood by Southy leading to some raucous celebrations between the two men, while completely ignoring poor Susan. It was hilariously funny, and made me glad I married Steve in the off season.

The second half started with Mark Brailsford singing his own version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, suitably adapted for the Albion. It was a great beginning, and then we were into the post-‘glory’ years followed by The Troubles. Anna was one of those who believed that A____ and B______ (I can’t bring myself to fill in the blanks) were doing their best for the club, and it took some time before she saw the light. B______ eventually accused her of being a troublemaker when she tried to talk to him about the planned changes; she became very angry, and joined the campaign to save the club from Laurel and Hardy, as they were portrayed at a meeting with supporters. Her conversion was complete when she yelled out ‘Fuck off, you fucking bastards’ as the pair drove by a protest line, a sentiment which was warmly received by the audience.

Events came thick and fast now. The ‘riot’ at the York City match was covered, and at last the FA stopped doing FA and actually took some action. The Fans United match v Hartlepool in February 1997 was next up. Lots of club shirts were lowered down at the back, while the cast talked us through the match and the amazing feeling of so many football supporters coming together to show their solidarity in the face of the threats to their clubs – Brighton wasn’t the only club suffering from greedy and inept owners, then or now.

At long last we came to the fateful match against Hereford, and saw it through the eyes of all five characters. Mr Albion became the hitchhiker that Gerbil and Southy picked up on the way to the match, Anna was also at the ground and Susan listened to the match on her radio while sitting in the deserted Goldstone ground along with some other supporters. In some ways, that was the most moving part, hearing her description of the effect the game was having on those lost souls wandering around the old stands. I cry easily, anyway, and this was several hankies worth of emotion on its own.

I gather that the original version of this play ended with Albion’s win at Hereford, but this version brought us up-to-date in a very effective way. Using boxes, signs, placards, etc., and to the strains of Praise You by Fatboy Slim, they covered the final loosening of Archer’s grip from the Albion’s throat, the arrival of Dick Knight, the long years of public enquiry, ministerial approval, public enquiry, etc., etc., leading finally to the building of the new stadium, the changeover to Tony Bloom’s leadership, and the prospect of a better future for the team and us, the supporters. It was a great finish, and with the first big match about to happen at the Amex, a great way to start the new era.

The set was very simple. There were three sets of tiered standing, with the central portion representing the north stand at the Goldstone. Sheets of fabric hung down at the back, and pictures and video were projected onto these, although as there were gaps between the sheets the picture quality wasn’t fantastic. Never mind, it was only done to jog people’s memories of what had happened – this wasn’t Match Of The Day.  For the final sequence, showing the time-lapse building of the Amex, an extra strip of fabric was lowered down so the pictures could be seen properly. Masks were used to represent the various real-life characters in the story, and I did like the relay race where the baton was passed from Dick Knight to Tony Bloom, especially as Knight was reluctant to let go of it at first.

All the performances were absolutely fantastic – congratulations to all involved. The audience response was terrific as well, of course, and I found I was much more involved than I had expected. Although I’d suffered vicariously through the terrible times, I went to this show thinking it would be more for my husband, and that I wouldn’t get much out of it. I was so wrong. The cathartic effect of seeing the story played out, and being able to cheer and boo, was as healing for me as it was for many. I arrived the wife of a Brighton supporter, but I left a died-in-the-wool (or should that be feather?) Seagull fan! Up the Albion!

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Singin’ In The Rain – July 2011

8/10

Screenplay and adaptation by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed

Directed by: Jonathan Church

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Wednesday 27th July 2011

[with some corrections from seeing it again on 8/9/11]

This is a fantastic production, so good that it’s hard to believe that Singin’ In The Rain wasn’t a stage musical from the off. The set was great, the performances brilliant, and the staging had some lovely touches of the film about it without being a slavish reproduction. I don’t think I’ve seen the main house so packed for a long time, and despite the inevitable soaking for the front rows (we were in Row C and not out of range!) it was great fun. I’m not a huge fan of musicals per se, so I wouldn’t give it top marks, but I can understand why the musical aficianados were standing and cheering at the end. A great night out.

The set was both elaborate and simple. At the back of the stage there was a central proscenium arch frame with lots of lighting built in. This could act as the arch of a theatre or a general doorway, and there were sliding door panels or a curtain which changed the location instantly and effectively. Above this was the orchestra, largely obscured by the set but just visible through the gaps. Around the archway and to the sides were general building sections, which could look like a townscape or a film studio according to how the stage was dressed, and to the extreme sides, above the side seating, there were cut outs of hills, and on the left hand side the Hollywoodland sign. Other signs lit up on either side from time to time, but these were mostly out of my eye line, and I wasn’t aware of them so much.

Then there was the floor of the stage to consider. A raised pavement ran all the way round the outside of the stage, and this represented the Hollywood Walk of Fame outside the Grauman theatres, Chinese and Egyptian, both of which feature in the musical. The handprints I saw included Lina Lamont and Don Lockwood, the fictional stars of the musical, and also Charlie Chaplin (cameo appearance), Douglas Fairbanks (whose films provided research material for the creative team), and Tom somebody and his horse (one hand print, one hoof print) [8/9/11 – Tom Mix and Tony, the Wonder Horse]. But you had to go right up to the stage to see them. There were also light panels built in which were used during the initial Singin’ In The Rain sequence.

Inside this raised pavement was a boarded section which contained the water during the rainstorms. Just before each downpour, you could see water starting to seep up from underneath, and we realised that the tank below had to be full during the rainstorm or the water would all drain away instead of bouncing off the floor. This led to Cosmo Brown getting the back of his waistcoat wet when he lay on the ground shortly before the big number. The cleanup operation during the interval was pretty slick, and you’d hardly have known there had been so much water everywhere when they’d finished.

In fact, the whole production was very slick when it came to getting people and furniture on and off the stage for each scene. I found I rarely noticed the arrival and departure of even quite big pieces of furniture, such as desks and lampposts, and although it took a little longer setting up the filming set, that worked well as it would need to be set up anyway in the context of that scene.

One final thing to mention was the lovely airplane which flew across the auditorium at the start, trailing the banner advertising the new Lockwood and Lamont movie whose premier opens the piece. This was very cute, and also great fun. The costumes were all suitably glamorous, and fitted perfectly, both in terms of the cast and the time and place.

The overture had been choreographed, with the dancers showing us a film studio at work, which was a good start. Then we were into the real opening sequence, with Dora Bailey, swathed in a voluminous fur coat which must be hell in the heat [8/9/11 the coat only had a fur collar – not so bad], introducing the characters to us as they walked down the red carpet to the premier of The Royal Rascal. It was clear immediately that Lina Lamont was being kept well away from the microphone, and this helped to built up suspense for the first time we hear her speak. The first number, Fit As A Fiddle, was OK, and then we got a chance to see the two stars in action. The filmed bit of The Royal Rascal was wonderfully funny, and they got the style just right.

After the showing, the principals head off to the studio boss’s party. Lina’s first grating lines were delivered really well, or really badly if you prefer, and she’s clearly not the sharpest knife in the cutlery drawer either. She actually believes the studio’s publicity that she and Don are an item, and can’t grasp that he’s not keen on her at all.

With Don choosing to walk instead of taking the car, we move into Hollywood Boulevard, and his first meeting with Kathy Selden. They played this very well, with her being dismissive of his fame and talent while showing glimpses of being a fan, and him being smoothly arrogant and humble at the same time. We also get our first sight of the policeman at this point. The musical number, You Stepped Out Of A Dream, was pleasant enough, if a little bland, but then Don gets mobbed by the chorus of passers-by and escapes with a few tears to his jacket.

When Don finally turns up to the party, R F Simpson, the studio boss, presents him with a big surprise – a tower of champagne. Actually, it’s a dummy tower, which opens up to reveal a dancer, who’s then joined by a whole troupe to perform All I Do, which they did very well. The only thing is, the lead dancer is none other than Kathy Selden who was so snobby to Don earlier, claiming she was a ‘proper’ stage actress. This was a brilliant performance by Scarlett Strallen, as she not only danced and sang really well, but also included expressions of total embarrassment and outright anger amongst the dazzling smiles the piece required. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Nor could Don, of course, and he grabbed her at the end of the number to stop her disappearing. When Lina walks in on their conversation a short while later, she’s just in time to get the perfect pie in the face from Kathy, who intended it for Don, but he ducked just in time. Lina’s attempt at a dignified exit was ruined by her foul-mouthed exit line, finishing with the word ‘ass’. [8/9/11 ‘Dignity my ass’]Very funny.

Kathy runs off, naturally, and when we next see Don it’s a couple of days later at the studio [8/9/11 three weeks, actually]. He’s unhappy. He hasn’t been able to find Kathy anywhere, and Lina made sure she was fired from her job. To top it all off, Don took her criticism to heart, and he’s convinced he’s no good as an actor. Asking Cosmo for advice is a great lead into the wonderful Make ‘Em Laugh. It’s hard for anyone to follow the film version of this song, but Daniel Crossley did a pretty good job. He’s an excellent dancer, with good comic timing, but he has to perform this show time after time and can’t be hospitalizing himself after each performance, so inevitably it’s lower key than the film. Even so, they did a good job with the various ‘accidents’, and their homage to the wall sequence at the end was just brilliant. Two stage hands brought on a section of wall and held it mid-stage. Twice Cosmo ran towards it as if….. and then backed off. For the final attempt, at the very end, he completed the run up and then carried right on through the flimsy paper wall. It was a great way to end the song without doing too much damage.

The next scene shows us the filming of the next Lockwood and Lamont blockbuster, The Duelling Cavalier. A strip of grass, a bench, some flowers, and voila, we’re back in 18th century France. Such is the magic of film (and stage). The magic doesn’t extend to the dialogue though, as this is still a silent movie, so Don and Lina can indulge their bitchiness to their heart’s content while pretending to be rapturously in love with each other.

It’s a very funny scene, but things are changing in Hollywoodland. [8/9/11 During the post-premier party,] R F Simpson showed his people the shape of things to come with a short movie which actually includes spoken words! They mostly tied up with the presenter’s lips, but there was a bit of ‘drift’ which was funny, and reminded us of how things were in the very early days. There are lots of people who think the new technology is just a fad and for now, The Duelling Cavalier stays silent. But R F does start using the new technology, as the next scene shows.

Monumental Pictures is shooting a scene reminiscent of Flying Down To Rio, with lovely ladies perched on the wings of a plane, singing and dancing along with the pilot to the song Beautiful Girls. There’s lots of pink, soft mist (it smelled dreadful tonight), and plenty of dancing. It’s a lovely scene, with Kathy Selden well to the fore. Her talent has been spotted, and when R F turns up he’s asked to hear her sing, which leads us into You Are My Lucky Star. He likes her, and despite the pie-throwing incident, hires her on the spot, as long as she stays out of Lina’s way. Don had turned up during her audition, and now they get together for the love duet You Were Meant For Me; I think this is where Kathy is up a ladder for the first part with Don using the sound stage to create a romantic effect as he sings to her. Then they dance for a bit – it wasn’t the most memorable scene for me.

It turns out The Jazz Singer is a hit, and now R F decides to change to talkies, so his stars have to take elocution lessons to ensure they can deliver the lines correctly. Don is working with a diction coach when Cosmo turns up and starts turning the tongue-twisters into song – Moses Supposes. The dancing was really good here, with David Lucas, who’d played the pilot earlier, matching the other two throughout.

We also see (and hear!) Lina’s attempts to say her lines in a more refined accent – no luck, I’m afraid. So when the actual filming gets underway, it’s probably a blessing when things go wrong. This was a very funny section, and Katherine Kingsley’s performance as Lina was brilliant. To reproduce the effect of the sound cutting out when she moved her head away from the microphone, she had to deliver parts of her dialogue out loud and then mime the rest, and she did this to perfection. There were several takes, and the problems were many and varied. The microphone had to be moved several times, her heartbeat came through loud and clear – nice to know she has one – and finally R F himself trips over the microphone cable and yanks it out, complaining that it’s in the way!

When the sneak preview is underway, we see the stars watching from chairs in the middle of the stage, facing forward so we can see their reactions, and there are other audience members to one side. The film itself is shown on the screen behind them, and it’s as dire as we would expect from the filming that we’ve seen. The public start walking out before the end, making their views known, and apart from Lina, everyone knows it’s a big fat turkey. Lina has been chomping away on her popcorn, happy as a lark at her magnificent performance, but once she’s gone, Cosmo, Kathy and Don have a wander along the Boulevard, wondering what they can do to make the film work.

I forget what triggered it, but Cosmo is the one who comes up with the idea to use Kathy’s voice to replace Lina’s. He demonstrates this by having Kathy stand behind him talking or singing while he mimes, and when Don catches on, they soon have the plan in place – they’ll redo the film as a musical, and with Kathy dubbing Lina’s voice they stand a chance of producing a halfway decent movie. This takes us into the well known song Good Morning, which they staged really well, finishing up with a nod to the film version when they clamber over the bench and lie down on the other side. This leads Don and Kathy to get close again, and when Cosmo realises he’s a third wheel on their bicycle he slopes off, leaving Don to walk Kathy home. The storm clouds are gathering, however, and the water is already seeping up through the floor, so once Kathy’s gone, we can start to enjoy one of the most famous scenes in musical history.

This was so well done that I found I could almost forget the Morecambe and Wise version. When the rain came down, it came down heavy, and in no time at all there’s quite a lake in the middle of the stage. Apart from the occasional person running across the stage to get out of the rain, and the policeman, of course, Don has the stage to himself, and he splashes away to his heart’s content, soaking many in the front rows on the way. I didn’t mind the water myself – well, we weren’t in the front row, so we were hardly touched – but if I have one quibble it’s that Adam Cooper spent so much time splashing the audience that we didn’t get to enjoy as much of his dancing talent as I would have liked. This is an opportunity for the leading man to show off his skills, and it would have been nice to have had more of that, but he was so focused on wetting us that I felt the scene became all about that instead of the dancing. Mind you, it was good fun, so it’s a fairly minor complaint. There was nice touch at the end with Don putting his hat full of water on the policeman’s head and then realising what he’d done – oops!

With the place dripping wet, the interval had to be taken after this number – no surprise there – and then the restart quickly takes us into R F’s office where Cosmo finally persuades him to try their plan to rescue the movie from turkeydom. We see Kathy dubbing Lina’s part for both song and speech, and then there’s a scene in Lina’s dressing room, where we see her being told about Kathy’s presence on set and then hear her croak her way through What’s Wrong With Me?, which concludes with her determined ‘nothing’. So much for Lina’s softer side.

As they’r reworking the film, RF decides he wants a big dance number in the show. After some thought, Cosmo comes up with the idea of merging 18th century France with modern-day New York, via a dancing hopeful who gets hit on the head and wakes up as a French aristocrat – entirely plausible! As he starts to demonstrate his idea to R F, Don steps into Cosmo’s place, and then he and the company perform the Broadway Melody section, including an extended dance section featuring Ebony Molina. This was well done, and I do like this style of dance. At the end of this, Cosmo steps back into Don’s place, and R F gives the go-ahead.

With the film remade, the premier gets a wonderful reception, and Lina is determined to claim the limelight. She insists that Kathy will do her voice from now on instead of having a career of her own, which threatens to ruin everything, but Cosmo has a sneaky plan. With Lina out front unable to carry a tune, the audience are starting to get restless, but then Kathy’s singing kicks in and all is well. Then Cosmo raises the curtain behind Lina so that the audience can see who’s really doing it, and the fraud is exposed. Happiness all round, except for Lina, of course. There’s a rousing chorus of You Are My Lucky Star, and then the cast come through in small groups to take their bows, rushing off immediately afterwards. The water has started seeping again, so we know we’re in for another soaking.

Sure enough, the cast return wearing raincoats and carrying umbrellas, and proceed to dance their way through a reprise of Singin’ In The Rain. With the stage so full, the water travels much further – are they trying to set a record for how far back the water goes? Finally they’re done and take their final bows, and we can head out into the dry night, humming happily to ourselves.

The whole production was great, and the cast looked like they were having a good time too, even with the soaking they all get. Sandra Dickinson and Michael Brandon as Dora Bailey and R F Simpson respectively were good in their roles, and the dancing and singing were top class. We’ve booked to see this again in September, and I’m looking forward to it, even if we are in Row C again!

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Rattigan’s Nijinsky – July 2011

6/10

By: Terence Rattigan and Nicholas Wright

Directed by: Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Wednesday 20th July 2011

We attended a pre-show talk with the co-author of this piece, Nicholas Wright, which was very interesting. I often find, though, that when I haven’t seen the play, I either learn so much about the production that it spoils my enjoyment, or I don’t fully appreciate the information as I have nothing to relate it to. This one was probably the latter.

The play itself weaves together parts of a screenplay that Rattigan wrote towards the end of his life about the love affair between Nijinsky and Diaghilev – his first overt piece about homosexuality – and a framing piece by Nicholas Wright about the decision Rattigan made to withdraw the screenplay from production due to the threat of being publicly outed by Nijinsky’s widow, Romola. The action of the screenplay appears to Rattigan in his hotel room due to artistic licence and the hallucinogenic effects of a morphine concoction he was taking to dull his pain. (From the pre-show, this potion was introduced to represent Rattigan’s self-medication with the drug when he was in hospital.)

The interlacing of the two plots was well done, and allowed for some fun moments, with Rattigan the only one who could see both ‘realities’. It also allowed him to discuss the screenplay story with Diaghilev directly, and while this was a good way to tie the two stories together, I felt it made the play into too much of drama-doc. Even if Rattigan was writing more openly about a homosexual love affair, he would have done it by showing us the characters, theirs actions and words. Less repressed than usual, perhaps, but still a direct expression rather than via a narrator. This method over-simplified the Diaghilev/Nijinsky story too much for me, and I found it a bit dull as a result. Not the fault of the performers, of course, who all did a great job, often in numerous parts.

My other difficulty with the play was that ballet doesn’t really interest me as an art form, and while I’ve seen a few, and will occasionally watch documentaries on the subject, the characters just didn’t engage me as much as I would have liked. I did find the second half more interesting, as I didn’t know so much of the history after The Rites Of Spring, and I would be happy to watch the program if the screenplay was actually filmed, but overall that part didn’t impress me as Rattigan’s best work.

The framing sections worked quite well, showing us both Romola Nijinksy in her later years and Rattigan’s mother, chatting with him several years after her death – what was in that bottle? – along with Cedric Messina, the producer who wants to film the screenplay. There are a lot of parallels drawn between the two stories. Nijinsky is doubled with a young hotel porter called Donald, who clearly fancies Rattigan and ends up sharing a couch with him. Jonathan Hyde plays both Diaghilev and Cedric Messina, showing us their contrasting production styles. It’s artfully done, but didn’t give me any extra insights to the situation or characters.

What makes the production watchable are the performances, all of which are very good. Faye Castelow is particularly beguiling as the young Romola who sets out to ensnare Nijinsky, and succeeds with the help of a third party. Jonathan Hyde is also excellent as Diaghilev, and I loved Susan Tracy’s cameo as Rattigan’s mother. Malcolm Sinclair is fine as Rattigan himself, and the ensemble support is strong throughout, despite the shortage of lines for many of the small parts. I enjoyed the dancing, even though Petrouchka’s never been my favourite, and the music was very classy, of course. I’m not sure this piece does justice to the screenplay that Rattigan wrote, but it’s an interesting experiment in itself, and for all the polish of this early performance (only the second preview) it may well improve with time.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Cherry Orchard – July 2011

10/10

By: Anton Chekov, in a version by Andrew Upton

Directed by: Howard Davies

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 19th July 2011

This was the most wonderful production. Even before the start I liked the look of the set, or what I could see of it in the gloom. Instead of the usual palatial if somewhat dowdy nursery, this was a very rustic house with dilapidated plank walls and drab old furniture. It gave me the sense of a house in the back of beyond as well as creating a stronger contrast with the luxury and style of Paris, and emphasised the rose-tinted aspects of Madam Ranyevskaya’s nostalgia. The telegraph/telephone pole to the right of the stage (there were actually two of them, but the other one was hidden at this point) was a reminder of the technological changes that were underway around that time, and this opening set had me engaged before a line of dialogue had been spoken.

I spotted the body on the seat as well, though I’d forgotten it was Lopakhin who would be under the blanket. I realised this was a structural motif, beginning and ending the play with someone asleep; although Firs could well be dead – in this production he’s simply lying on the floor –  it tops and tails the play nicely. I also spotted the similar technique in the second act, which starts with Dunyasha and Yasha emerging from the long grass and ends with Trofimov and Anya disappearing into it.

The performance itself did not disappoint. The dialogue was crisp and clear – an excellent translation by Andrew Upton – and despite the modernisms it felt right. The story hadn’t been tampered with much, although there was a car instead of a carriage and horses, but I felt there was more being said between the characters this time which may be down to the new version. Not having seen the original Russian version, I can’t tell.

But I did get a lot more out of this production than I have previously. While there was plenty of humour, the performances took the characters and their situations seriously, and set all these in an historical and political framework which made sense of every part. I could see how the cherry orchard symbolised Mother Russia, which had become exhausted through supplying beauty and luxuries to the idle rich, its fresh potential largely untapped due to the nostalgic clinging of the elite landowners. Trees for the few have to be cleared to make houses (i.e. better living conditions) for the many. There’s no place in this new Russia for those who adhere to the old ways, so Madam Ranyevskaya has to leave, and Firs, sadly neglected, can only die. Others have to make new lives as best they can – I wonder what happens to them all? Before the Revolution, that is.

Another good aspect of this production is the additional ensemble that provides the extra characters for the party scene, as well as the extra servants. It does give a much better sense of the community that exists around the estate, even if the quality of the guests isn’t up to the standards of yesteryear (according to Firs).

And so to the individual performances. Conleth Hill as Lopakhin was worth the price of admission alone. He was absolutely spot on as the peasant made good who could never shake off his past but who desperately wanted acceptance from Ranyevskaya. His plans for the estate were lucid and sensible, and his desire to help Ranyevskaya was almost palpable. He’s delighted to have bought the estate at the auction, heady with the success of it, and I felt he was at some level getting back at Madam Ranyevskaya for her rejection of him. When it came to the proposal to Varya, he might have gone ahead with it if he hadn’t been interrupted at the crucial moment. But then again, maybe not.

Emily Taaffe played Dunyasha, the maid with ideas above her station. She’s looking for romance instead of a steady husband and is easily seduced by Yasha, the manservant who has come back from Paris with Madam Ranyevskaya. She’s unlikely to have a happy life, wanting so much that she can never get. Yasha was played by Gerald Kyd and came across as a nasty piece of work, used to satisfying his own pleasure and with little concern for anything or anyone else. Dunyasha’s other suitor, Yepihodov, was played by Pip Carter, and he was brilliant at portraying this character’s complete ineptness. We could tell from his first entrance what he was like, saying all the wrong things and clumsy with it. His attempted wooing of Dunyasha in the garden scene was very funny as he strolled around trying to look manly and failing, while Yasha just sat there oozing testosterone from every pore.

Anya, played by Charity Wakefield, was fine, while Zoe Wanamaker was wonderful as Ravyenskaya. She came across as an emotional junkie, always getting involved with the wrong sort of men and with no grasp of practical matters. When she was given the telegrams in the first act she became quite upset, and it was to help distract her that Gaev, her brother, launched into his paean of praise for the bookcase, looking at her almost all the time to see if she was listening. Everyone else was aware of her unhappiness too, and I noticed several characters glance at her with sympathy.  This was another strong point of this production; the reactions from everyone on stage indicated they were all involved in whatever was going on, which kept a high level of  energy  throughout.

Ranyevskaya’s shock at finding out who had bought the estate was also very moving, and contrasted well with Lopakhin’s jubilation. She was very still, looking out towards the audience and clearly distressed. Despite her flaws I could still understand her point of view – she’d grown up with the cherry orchard and it was all she knew. She couldn’t handle the idea of it being cut down to make way for anything, never mind holiday homes. She was also still mourning the loss of her son years before, and her brittleness was all too evident.

Claudie Blakely as Varya was another gem. She’s held things together for so long, and with so little appreciation and thanks. Her unhappiness at Lopakhin’s failed proposal was very moving. I was strongly reminded of the relationship between Sonya and Vanya from Uncle Vanya when I saw her and Gaev together, although Gaev’s probably never been as productive as Vanya was in the pre-professor days. Gaev was played by James Laurenson, and was a lovely bumbling character with great kindness and verbal diarrhoea. The billiards references weren’t emphasised so much this time, but that wasn’t a problem.

Charlotta was played by Sarah Woodward, an actress I’ve always enjoyed watching on stage. Her Charlotta was bright and snappy, but without any malice, very matter-of-fact. The magic tricks were good fun, and the appearance/disappearance was done next to a folding room divider with tall windows down to about three feet from the floor, so not a lot of room to hide people. Her dog was a cloth puppet, as was the baby at the end, of course.

Simyonov-Pishchik, constantly trying to borrow money, was played by Tim McMullan, and again I enjoyed his performance very much. (What is that white mud the Englishmen are paying him so much for?) Kenneth Cranham as Firs looked more robust than many I’ve seen, but played the faithful retainer very well, while Mark Bonnar as Trofimov caught perfectly all of that character’s passionate idealism, contempt for the past, and reluctance to do any actual work. It was interesting to note that he was just as disturbed by the arrival of the passer-by (Craige Els) as everyone else – perhaps Trofimov won’t do as well in the Revolution as he thinks.

There was plenty of dancing in this production, which made it very lively. The back wall of the nursery at the start opened out to form side walls for the garden scene, and these were then brought back for the living room in Act three. The final Act was also in this room, rather than recreating the nursery. The clarity of the dialogue, the detail in the performances and the relationships, and the superb way the story was contextualised within Russian history makes this one of the best Chekov productions I’ve ever seen, if not the very best. Full marks to the whole team.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Fiddler On The Roof – July 2011

9/10

By: Joseph Stein,  Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock

Directed by: Kenn Oldfield

Musical direction by: Martin Waddington

Company: Guildford School of Acting Graduate Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 15th July 2011

This was a three-hanky production, and very enjoyable with it. I started sniffling during Tevye’s first monologue, and then I was wiping my eyes loads of times. The graduates from the Guildford School of Acting were superb, and I do hope they go on to have good careers; they certainly have a lot of talent.

The set was the regular one, with lots of wooden slatted buildings, a milk cart and the marvellous sewing machine. The choreography also seemed traditional, appropriately enough. The cast involved us in the story right from the beginning, and although it was obvious that a number of them were much younger than the parts they played, I wasn’t put off at all by the false beards. Of course the music is fantastic, which helps, and the small band also did an excellent job, which made the evening just about perfect.

There was plenty of humour, although I do find myself wondering with this musical whether I should really be laughing at some of the jokes, especially between Tevye and the Constable, but the spirit of the piece and the resilience of the characters are just too infectious. Despite their suffering, I always feel uplifted at the end of Fiddler. Long may it be performed.

People to single out – Jacob Baumila as Tevye did a very good job. I was just a little distracted at first because he looked so much like someone I know, but his singing was excellent, and he delivered the lines very well. Natalie Lipin played Golde, his wife, and she was very good, though it took me a little while to spot that she was the mother as she looked a bit too young to begin with. The daughters, Tzeitel (Alia Grace), Hodel (Alys Metcalf) and Chava (Charlotte Mason-Apps) were all good. Alia Grace had more acting to do, and was very good at that, Alys Metcalf was a very good singer as well as actor, while Charlotte Mason-Apps danced as well as sang and acted – she should go far. Of the rest, I particularly liked Ben Riddle as the rabbi, ever ready to say absolutely nothing, Joe McCourt as the student, Pieter de Groot as the young Russian soldier who falls in love with Chava, and Louise Olley as the matchmaker. They were a great ensemble, and it was a very strong production.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Top Girls – July 2011

8/10

By: Caryl Churchill

Directed by: Max Stafford-Clark

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 14th July 2011

We’d seen this play back in the early 90s, and I hadn’t cared for it much. However, we do like to see every production in Chichester’s Festival seasons, so we included this production, but kept our expectations low. As so often happens when we do that, the experience turns out to be much better than we’d hoped, and I saw a lot more in the play than I remember from the earlier production.

The opening scene, the dinner party with several dead and fictional guests, was done virtually in the round, with a table towards the front of the space and the entrance to the restaurant at the back, down some steps. The conversation was just as muddled as before, and although it seemed contrived at times, on the whole I found it pretty realistic. Even though several of the guests had their backs to us, I actually heard and understood much more of this party scene than before, and some of the business was much more fun. Dull Gret, for example, with her back to us, could easily be seen tipping as much food as possible into the basket by her side, which gave her plenty of ammunition for the bread-throwing section.

The shift in tone to the rest of the play didn’t jar, as far as I was concerned, even if it was unusual. The kids’ conversation did go on a bit, but it did convey important information. The change to the employment agency was also good, with desks being brought on very quickly, and bales of hay removed just as fast. The final scene, with the confrontation between the two sisters’ perspectives and the confirmation of Angie’s parentage, was well done, and on the whole I can see why this play is regarded as a classic. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see this it again, but it was nice to revisit it and gain a fresh perspective.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me