The City Madam – September 2011

8/10

By: Philip Massinger

Directed by: Dominic Hill

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 30th September 2011

I can’t honestly say if this production has come on as much as some of the others, although I’m sure the cast are more experienced now; the main reason for our increased enjoyment was that we knew who the characters were and what was going on much better the second time around. As I suspected from our previous visit, familiarity helped a lot.

We were able to follow the plot much better, and although I still found the dialogue hard to follow at times, I caught much more of what was going on this time. The way Luke incites the apprentices to steal from his brother, for example, came across much more clearly. I realised that the suitors aren’t supposed dead when their statues are brought on, they’re meant to be travelling for three years, together. The way young Lacy accepted Plenty’s proffered hand of friendship before they set off together was very funny. Lacy is very effete, while Plenty is a rich landowner who’s used to working his own land – the bluff Yorkshireman type.

The different seats also helped, as I found my view was rarely blocked. In fact, we were very close to Lord Lacy when he came over and sat beside two ladies in the row behind us, nudging them over so he could sit down. His whispered asides to them were clearly audible to the rest of the audience, and it was good fun having him there.

Still not the easiest play to get into first time round, but well worth the effort of a second visit.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Homecoming – September 2011

9/10

By: Harold Pinter

Directed by: David Farr

Company: RSC

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 29th September 2011

We found this performance even better than the previous one, much sharper and with a lot more detail. Nicholas Woodeson in particular was much stronger, showing the nastier side of his character more readily, and together the cast created a powerful evening’s entertainment.

There were no significant differences in the staging; the changes were all down to the performances. Jonathan Slinger was just as good as Lenny, but had more to play against. Richard Riddell had more presence as Joey, the dumb boxer – I felt he was attracted to Ruth more as a mother figure than as a sexual partner. Justin Salinger brought out more of Teddy’s discomfiture when he finds his wife wants to stay with his family instead of returning with him to America. We reckoned that he had only stopped off to show his family how successful he was now – good job, lovely wife, three kids, etc. – so it was a shock to realise that she wasn’t entirely happy with their life together.

Aislin McGuckin’s performance showed Ruth unhappy with her current situation, but not sure how to get out of it. When the family’s offer comes along, she’s only too pleased to accept, once she’s sure she’ll get what she wants. Des McAleer was rather bland as Sam, the chauffeur brother who does the dishes, and I still felt his exclamation about Max’s dead wife, Jessie, came out of nowhere in terms of the performance, but I assume that’s the way the director wanted it played.

I was pretty tired tonight – a long drive to get here – so I missed some of the first half while I rested my eyes, but the second half kept me riveted. The subtle nuances of male/female relationships were fascinating to watch, and this cast have really got to grips with this play.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Pit And The Pendulum – September 2011

7/10

By: Edgar Allen Poe, adapted by John Goodrum

Directed by: John Goodrum

Company: Rumpus Theatre Company

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Saturday 24th September 2011

Before seeing this production, the film, starring Vincent Price, was still in our memories. Tonight’s performance has certainly pushed those to one side. With only two actors and one set, this company managed to create a tremendous sense of fear. The pace was slow, and it was mostly two people talking, but with short re-enactment sessions built in to the narrative, they evoked the horrific situation the young man found himself in very well – I’m still creeped out days later.

In an attempt to rescue his wife, William Trevelyan has been kidnapped by an evil bunch, one of whom is his wife’s uncle. He’s been confined in a dark room, circular in shape, and with a nasty hole in the middle of the room. He’s been put through various forms of sadistic torture, including the swinging pendulum blade, but after the opening scene which showed us this gloomy cell, he’s rescued when a group from the local village come out to the house he’s been kept in and arrest the various wrongdoers. As he’s still weak, his rescuer, Josiah Bellamy, gets him to recount his ordeal before taking him upstairs to freedom. As the story unfolds, we’re shown some of the events – given the gloom, it wasn’t always easy to make things out – and then the play reaches the final, disturbing twist as William gets to meet his wife’s uncle, the man who’s behind his suffering.

The set was simple. A raised circular platform in the middle of the stage, with the requisite hole in the middle, and a series of chains hanging down at intervals round the outside. That’s it. The lighting was good, though as I’ve mentioned it was often very dark, making it hard to see what was going on. Once the story started, though, we were talked through the action, which worked better for me.

This same group did The Signalman, which we saw back in 2009; this is another good adaptation of an old-fashioned horror story, and I’ll definitely look out for their work again.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Merchant Of Venice – September 2011

6/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 14th September 2001

Amazingly enough, seeing this for the third time, and from a different angle, gave us a completely different experience of the production. We enjoyed it much more, got a lot more from the performances, and while the last scene still just didn’t work from our perspective, our overall feeling was that this is a decent production. I would have rated it 8/10 but for the down-beat ending.

I don’t think there were many changes that we noticed, although I can correct some of my earlier descriptions and add some extra detail. We arrived much earlier, and found that Antonio was on his own in the casino to begin with, apart from the dealer, that is. The others gradually joined in, and Steve noticed Bassanio trying to borrow money off other characters. The music started gently – Luck Be A Lady Tonight when we arrived (good choice) – and gradually the rhythm picked up, the cast started moving faster, repeating their actions, and then Elvis rose again and launched into Viva Las Vegas to get us going. There may have been something wrong with his microphone tonight, as we couldn’t hear the words clearly and his voice didn’t carry as much as I remember from before.

Two things about the conversation in the lift tonight – one is that I was distracted by all the details in the performances of the other lift users, which meant I lost some of the Salad boys’ dialogue, but I did notice that at the end of the lift conversation, the janitor ends up in the basement, and is called over by the little girl. As it’s the same actor playing the Prince of Arragon, it appeared that the janitor has simply been seconded to play a fake suitor for the purposes of the ‘reality’ show. If so, that means the program is being filmed in the basement of the casino, so why on earth does Bassanio need three million dollars to travel a few floors in the lift? Apparently that bit of casting was something they decided in rehearsal, so again the cast knew far more about the production than they could get across in performance. I’ve found that a lot with this production – chats with the actors have been more interesting and enjoyable than the performances themselves, a bit arse over tip if you ask me.

The trapeze work was in the right front corner tonight, and happened as Antonio was hiding out in the audience, when Shylock and an officer were coming to arrest him. This was the place last time, I remember. I suppose it could mean that Antonio was simply watching one of the shows the casino puts on, but then why was Shylock wandering around with a torch? I certainly didn’t get that impression last time we saw it, so I guess this is another of those things that makes sense to the cast, but never mind the audience.

The janitor also featured in the trial scene. When Shylock is making his point about the slaves which the Christians own, he brings the janitor, possibly an illegal immigrant from Mexico, over, which certainly makes a relevant contemporary point. Shylock reads a prepared speech for his first lines about not explaining his decision to pursue Antonio through the court system, and this didn’t ring true – the rhythm was all wrong. When Antonio is being prepared for the knife, the janitor is given the rope to hold, and the police officer puts a pad in Antonio’s mouth to help him avoid screaming.

I was paying more attention to Portia this time when she entered for the trial scene, and I saw that she was having difficulty opening her briefcase – what was that all about? I could see past Antonio to where she stood on the staircase, but I still have no idea about her sudden rescue of Antonio. Did she know in advance? Did she come up with the ‘no blood’ solution herself? We may never know, and frankly, I no longer care. We deliberately chose to ignore the setting and weird production choices tonight, and that’s the main reason why we enjoyed the performance much more, up to the final scene. From Scott Handy’s session at Living Shakespeare the next morning, we learned that the final scene had been much too slow – in his view, they hadn’t done it well the previous night. That may be true, but he also informed us that this ending had been decided by Rupert Goold from the outset, which helped to explain for me why it felt out of step with the rest of the production.

I did notice that several aspects of this version had been toned down from the original, suggesting that the cast may be reclaiming the play in beneficial ways. For example, instead of a strange movement and grimacing smile from Patrick Stewart after judgement is given against Shylock, he kept his response much more low-key, suggesting that although Shylock is hurt by the experience, he’ll bounce back in the future, and may well carry on plotting against Antonio. The changes between scenes were tighter, and little bits were being dropped, such as the near-accident and squealing brakes at the end of the car scene.  Between these improvements and our change in attitude, it’s no surprise we had a better time last night. Even so, I’m glad we won’t be seeing this one again.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – September 2011

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 13th September 2011

We enjoyed this performance much more tonight, partly because we were better able to see past the stifling effects of the concept, partly because the original Hermia was back, but mainly because the whole cast seemed to have relaxed into their parts, making the conceptual aspects less at odds with the play. I often feel with this type of production that the longer it goes on, the less influence the director has, and the better the performances get as a result. So it was tonight, and the only down side was that they had a trial evacuation at the end of the performance, so we couldn’t applaud as much as we would have liked.

Other than Hermia and the overall improvements performance-wise, I didn’t notice any specific changes, but I do remember a lot more detail, so here goes. The performance (as opposed to the pre-show stuff) began with a bang – the boiler or whatever blowing up under the trapdoor. This led to the mechanicals’ entrance, and after some banging sounds from below, the lights came up again. I noticed Demetrius arrive this time; he was carrying a metal briefcase, and looked like a bag man who’d been out collecting protection money for his gang boss. When Theseus arrived, he put on his jacket and was handed Hippolyta’s passport by Philostrate. From the feedback next morning, not everyone spotted this, which is a weakness of this production – lots going on, but not necessarily being seen by the audience. At least Theseus’s delivery was stronger tonight, which helped a lot. I’d forgotten it last time, but he offers Hippolyta a flashy diamond necklace as well as the flower – it was hidden in the bouquet – and she rejects them both.

I was surprised when I saw Hermia this time. With her short hairstyle and black 60s frock, she looked about thirty, which is much too old for Hermia. I did adjust to this look after a short while – the understudy had seemed very young – but Matti Houghton’s performance was definitely stronger, and the humour of the lovers’ arguments was clearer as a result.

After the mechanicals have had their first meeting, the fairies enter, and this time there seemed to more of them everywhere. There were also two characters at the back, in black suits and wearing strange masks – apparently these were elves! Anyway, the fairies did the vampire hiss a lot, but without the fangs, and were suitably menacing. Puck was much more animated tonight, which worked well, and I noticed his costume was draped with ties, suggestive of the dream state perhaps, but from the feedback session the next day it was another confusing aspect of the production.

Despite my previous notes, Lysander and Hermia went to sleep on the ground, no chairs, and I’d forgotten that Hermia wiggled her way into a sleeping bag to go to sleep. Tonight she also brushed her teeth, using water from a flask – obviously a girl guide, always prepared. When Lysander wakes up and falls for Helena, he almost sings her name, and as it’s a black actor playing Lysander, he can get away with semi-rap now and later when extolling Helena’s virtues etc.

I paid more attention to the mechanicals’ rehearsal tonight, and it was very good fun. When Bottom was explaining how they can get away with having a lion on stage, he stands behind Snug and uses his arms to demonstrate the speech. Snug was in the process of eating something at the time, and there’s a lot of humour in the way he keeps trying to get the food in his mouth as his arm flies past his face, and misses. He does sneak the odd bite – it’s a long section this – and the final bit goes in at the end, getting another laugh.

After Bottom has exited, Flute takes centre stage, wearing a long red wig under his hat, which looked ridiculous and was very funny. He used his normal voice for the lines to begin with, and Quince keeps trying to get him to speak in a higher pitch, but Flute misunderstands. Each time Quince says ’ooh’ (imagine the high pitch, if you will), Flute repeats it, looking puzzled, then carries on with his normal voice for the dialogue. After several attempts, with the ‘ooh’ getting more and more extended, and accompanied by increasingly funny mimes, Quince realises he needs to change tack. He gets some padding – couldn’t see what it was exactly – stuffs it into Flute’s boiler suit to create breasts, and finally Flute gets the message. Unfortunately, he then goes so high and so fast that I couldn’t make out a word – I had the same problem last time – so the actual humour of the lines was lost. But the business was funny all the same.

When Titania reappears with her fairies, they have a small glowing bundle with them to represent the little baby, and they put it in a pram which wasn’t used last time – I suspect this was because they were one fairy short. Titania’s insistence that Bottom must stay in the forest reminded me tonight of Theseus forcing Hippolyta to stay in Athens, another dream connection. Moth was the missing fairy, not Peaseblossom – sorry – but this time the three fairies were worked separately, which helped. The lights didn’t seem to be working so well, though, which lessened the effect.

The interval over, there were lots of fairies on stage for the restart. Puck’s story of the mechanicals and Titania waking up was livelier tonight, and then we’re into the lovers having their bad night in the forest. The fairies threw lots of pillows on the stage, which came in very handy. Demetrius slid a long way on a couple of them during the fighting, and they were thrown around, used for fighting, etc.

After the couples have fallen asleep, woken up, and gone off to be married, only Bottom is left on stage. When he woke up, he was still in the armchair which had been pushed to the back of the stage, facing away from the audience. He fell backwards, tipping the chair over, which started his scene with a laugh.

The start of final scene has the three vice girls doing the Philomel song in harmony, standing at the microphone at the back. When Philostrate takes the microphone forward later on, he puts his hand over it when he’s trying to persuade Theseus that Pyramus and Thisbe isn’t the right entertainment for him. When Theseus insists, he bangs his head gently against the mike in frustration. I was disappointed that they cut a lot of his lines; he just talked about the few words and the tediousness, but didn’t cover the tragedy which made him cry tears of mirth part.

The set for Pyramus and Thisbe was on a fork lift which carried it onto the stage with plenty of health-and-safety beeping. As it came forward, Bottom and Flute, I think, were trying to fix the poles for the curtain in place, but couldn’t manage it until the platform had been set down.

There was a lot more humour in tonight’s Pyramus and Thisbe. All the performances had more detail, and there was even a bit of audience participation. After Demetrius had done some heckling, the player was looking at him (possibly Moonshine?) and he, coward that he is, was pointing at a member of the audience – not me this time, although Demetrius and Helena were on the walkway just beside us. In revenge, the audience member stole his champagne glass and had a sip – Demetrius was quick to move the bottle out of reach! Alex Hassell’s keen on the unexpected, so he was probably well pleased with this interaction.

Moonshine was having a difficult time all round. His dog, made of some piece of extending equipment, had become tangled up in its lead and then fell over. We were all laughing at him, poor chap. He got out of it OK, though, and then had the usual strop at the on stage audience.

Snug as the lion was very funny again. His footsteps were given sound effects by Snout, and he obviously wasn’t prepared for this – he leapt like a startled fawn the first time it happened. When he realised what was happening, he had some fun with it, prancing around the stage and then tapping a foot to one side, just to make the sound. He forgot a few of his lines and needed to be prompted, including forgetting his own name, and I noticed this time that his mane was made of large paintbrushes.

Wall had to work very hard to keep Pyramus and Thisbe apart tonight. They kissed during the wall scene, which surprised everyone, and then had a really good snog behind the curtain, which caused another stir in the court. Pyramus’s death scene was very funny. He was wearing dustbin lids for armour, and once he was dead, his body rolled this way and that – towards one set of lovers, then back, then towards the other set and back again, then towards the royal couple and back. All the while the dustbin lids are clattering away – we could hardly hear ourselves laugh! For Thisbe’s speech, there was a hint of the more serious possibilities, but then Flute delivered the line ‘his eyes were green as leeks’ so well it got a huge laugh. Pyramus’s dead body had to move back into position for Thisbe’s final speech, and when she fell forward, dead, she landed face first in Pyramus’s crotch – more sensation! And very good fun.

The final mechanicals’ song was setting up to be all folksy, but then the heavy metal started up and everyone except Quince joined in. He stood there, holding a large recorder, looking stunned. It was their rock music that blew the fuse again, which ended the revels. They were sent down into the basement to fix it – sounds of banging, then lights came up again, gently – and that led into the ending of the play with the blessings.

As already mentioned, there was a practice evacuation tonight, so after one round of bows the actors were ushered off, and the audience was given instructions to leave in stages. Whether it would be this civilised if there were an actual fire, I have no idea, but we were orderly and well-behaved tonight, if a little disappointed that we couldn’t show our appreciation more.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Cardenio – September 2011

8/10

By: ???

Directed by: Gregory Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 12th September 2011

This production has simply got better and better and better with practice. The story-telling tonight was crisp and clear, the humour still good although I felt the audience laughed less tonight, and the whole show has an extra sparkle to it. I do hope they get a chance to do it in London, but with the 2012 festival events piling up, and no information on transfers, I don’t know when they’ll fit it in.

Re-reading my previous notes, I see I haven’t mentioned the set before. It was fairly simple, and therefore pretty good. A set of iron railings crossed the stage at the back of the thrust, and these could be opened, shut or folded back to create different locations, such as the mountains or a nunnery. And that was it. One or two props and pieces of furniture, including the coffin that Fernando tries out for size at the start of the play, and it’s all down to lighting and acting. How wonderful.

There was a carnival procession which covered the setting up of Dorotea’s room and its removal – this was a fairly crude peasant affair, with two large dummies representing a man and a woman, with prominent gender-specific features. There was also a devil on stilts and another in a black costume with white markings – was it a skeleton? The pretend friars who carry the coffin in which Luscinda is abducted wore tall pointy masks, a bit like the Klu Klux Klan only in brown, and there was a trestle to put a large saddle on for one scene. For the most part, though, the stage was bare apart from the actors, who all did a great job.

It’s been fascinating to see a play like this three times, from different angles, and to see how it’s come on over the run. This has the feel of a very good ensemble, and even if we haven’t enjoyed all of the production concepts, it’s still been a good year. Well, the Swan reopening in itself would have been cause for celebration, and we’ve had three good plays in it to enjoy, so it’s been even better.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Singin’ In The Rain – September 2011

10/10

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: Thursday 8th September 2011

I found I was humming some of the music from this show during the day, which is a good sign. I reckon Gene Kelly had put me off this musical – I just don’t like the guy, sorry – but now I’ve seen it on stage, I’ve really taken to it. I was certainly looking forward to another splash fest tonight, and as it turned out, the show had come on so much that I can only reflect my experience by giving it full marks. I’ve added in some corrections to my earlier notes, so here I’ll concentrate on some extra details and any changes I noticed.

Some things that were in the earlier performance, but which I forgot to mention last time include the two young boys who act out Don and Cosmo’s early days, the gorilla and Robin Hood walking across the sound stage just before Make ‘Em Laugh then joining in the song later, and the way that Cosmo gets the idea to use Kathy’s voice instead of Lina’s was from the ‘Yes, yes, yes. No, no, no’ section of The Duelling Cavalier, where the sound had gone out of sync, giving the man Lina’s voice and Lina his. This section came after Good Morning, when the three leads are lying on the ground in front of the bench; they come up with the idea for the musical, sing the song, then realise they have to contend with the problem of Lina’s complete lack of vocal talent.

The technical side of things had also improved, as the water tank didn’t overfill before the first Singin’ In The Rain this time – no seepage – and I reckon there was less water in the basin than before. Adam Cooper focused much more in the dancing tonight which was great, although that didn’t stop him spreading the water far and wide in the process. One minor hiccup – the wind machine in You Were Made For Me didn’t work tonight, so the mist threatened to become a fog, blocking our view. I suspect they turned it off pronto because it soon cleared.

The biggest change overall was that the cast had grown into their performances tremendously. It was much tighter, the storyline was much clearer, and all the singing and dancing was just as fabulous as before. With a post-show discussion to follow, the audience was packed with many of the keenest Chichester Festival Theatre supporters, so we were a very friendly crowd and responded warmly throughout, applauding at the end of many of the scenes. I was particularly glad that we applauded Katherine Kingsley’s performance as Lina several times. It’s such an important part, and she did it magnificently, even better than the first time we saw it, which was only the second preview. Her singing of What’s Wrong With Me was clearer, and still dreadful without being so hard to listen to. The rest of the cast were brilliant too, and I only hope they can keep most of them together for any London run.

I loved every minute of tonight’s performance, and there was more! The post-show was held towards the back of the auditorium this time, as the crew needed to clean up the stage. In fact, they managed all that before we got started, but as we were settled they didn’t try to move us again. The choreographer Andrew Wright, the musical director Robert Scott and assistant director Luke Shepphard were on hand to get things started, and several of the cast joined us as well, once they’d dried off. They talked us through the original intensive creation period, and some of the problems they’d had with the flooring. It had to be able to handle all that water yet be suitable for dancing – a lot to ask – and they still don’t have an ideal solution. The control bits for the radio mikes were wrapped in plastic bags, apparently, and for the title song Don’s hat successfully keeps the mike dry.

We were surprised that Robert Scott hadn’t seen the film – everyone else had – but he does keep the music on his iPod, and listens to it constantly when he’s preparing a show. They’re hoping to transfer to London – no one would be specific about the venue – and there may be a cast recording – hooray! The cast’s stamina was commented on; they’ve got fitter with all the performances they do, but having the show in rep actually makes it more difficult for them, as they have to keep their stamina levels up during the off days. They seemed to be enjoying themselves a lot on stage, and they claimed to be a happy bunch of bunnies, with lots going on backstage to keep them entertained. Even the foyer area saw some action, with the final quick change being an eye-opener for any audience members who left early! On that revealing note, the post-show ended.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me