The Importance Of Being Earnest – October 2011

7/10

By Oscar Wilde

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Saturday 29th October 2011

This was the Rose’s own production, and they made a good stab at this old favourite. Unfortunately the audience wasn’t ‘in the giving vein’, so some of the humour fell flat. We enjoyed ourselves and although it wasn’t the best we’ve seen, it was a well-balanced production with good performances all round.

The set was by Hayden Griffin but looked like a Simon Higlett special, with the large picture frame straddling the set. The frame’s distressed gilt finish was picked up on the door frames to left and right of the stage, and along the front of the stage as well. Algernon’s flat was furnished with a sofa and tables on the left and a heap of cushions with an upright chair and drinks table on the other side. Double doors at the back and plenty of rugs on the floor completed the scene. The garden had the table and chairs on the right – Merriman had a larger table brought out for the tea things – and a hanging branch behind the frame on the left. Cecily used a real watering can to water imaginary flowers, and the Canon and Miss Prism strolled off through the auditorium for their little perambulation. The drawing room had the usual seats, while a large bookcase centre back held the necessary reference works. It was all nice and simple and, with the elegant costumes, very effective.

Kirsty Besterman gave a lovely performance as Gwendolen; she’ll be as tough as her mother in no time. This was Jenny Rainsford’s first professional role, playing Cecily, and she did a fine job, matching the rest of the cast perfectly. Daniel Brocklebank and Bruce Mackinnon as Earnest/Jack and Algernon were not picked for the similarity of their looks – Daniel is shorter and dark, with regular features, while Bruce is much taller with lighter hair and an agile face made for comedy. Even so, their performances worked very well together.

Ishia Bennison as Miss Prism and Richard Cordery as Canon Chasuble gave nicely detailed performances in these minor roles, while Walter Van Dyk gave Merriman a Scottish accent and slicked down hair to contrast with Lane, who had fluffier hair and an English accent. I always enjoy Lane’s little dig about ‘ready money’ – this was no exception.

Of course the big question hanging over this play is how Lady Bracknell will be played. Jane Asher is almost too good-looking to play such a battleaxe, but her performance overcame that minor difficulty very well. She skipped nimbly over the ‘handbag’ hurdle to get a good run up to the ‘railway station’, which she delivered with astonishment bordering on distaste. Her predatory instincts regarding a prospective suitor’s qualities, especially those which are ‘in the funds’, were great fun to watch.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

My City – October 2011

7/10

By: Stephen Poliakoff

Directed by: Stephen Poliakoff

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Wednesday 26th October 2011

Stephen Poliakoff is very good at evoking memories, and this play has more than its fair share. When Richard finds his former head teacher lying on a bench by the river, this chance encounter triggers a memory-fest for characters and audience alike. It’s fascinating to look at the layers of memories, the different perceptions we have when we’re young, and of course the different memories each person can have of the same event, and the different meanings those memories evoke.

The overall story was another simple one, though there were a lot of other stories told during it. After Richard meets Miss Lambert on the bench, he gives her his mobile number, as he wants to keep in touch. She’s more enigmatic about that, but does arrange to meet him and Julie, another former pupil who’s been friends with Richard since school. They meet up in a bar at the top of a huge shopping mall, and after a while arrange to meet again an hour later down in the subterranean depths of the same mall. Miss Lambert spends her nights wandering around London, and this strange behaviour, plus his fond memories, have hooked Richard into finding out more.

Downstairs they find that Mr Minken and Miss Summers are also joining them for a drink. Quite a lot of drink, in fact. These were two other teachers from the same school whom we’ve already met through flashbacks showing us Miss Lambert’s unusual style of school assembly. I don’t remember any of my teachers impersonating large dogs or big black birds during our school assemblies – would have been more fun if they had. Mr Minkin is carrying a suitcase, and explains that he’s clearing his brother’s house out. The suitcase has the things he’s keeping, and these are all old toys he had when and his brother were growing up – as in the assemblies, the toys are used to help tell more stories.

Eventually Mr Minken offers to make supper for the whole group – he’s an excellent cook – and so Richard and Julie find themselves in another basement, this one so close to the underground that they can hear the rumble of trains quite clearly through the walls. A cornucopia of childhood memories is stored in this room, including many of the large pictures which a whole class had made together. There are also some slides and a recording of Richard and Julie doing one of their presentations to an assembly. With Richard’s story of his successful career crumbling, Miss Summers leaves, and then the rest go to a 24-hour café to continue their nocturnal journey. When Julie leaves to take Mr Minken home, Richard and Miss Lambert are left to have the final confrontation, one which will hopefully heal some of her pain and bring her back to the light that she’s been avoiding.

So it’s a ramble through the past, as is usual with Poliakoff. What makes this play interesting is the story-telling aspects. Miss Lambert is particularly prone to telling little stories throughout the play, and during the assembly ones she encourages the children (i.e. us) to listen to the sounds they can hear outside the classroom. It’s amazing how powerful these sounds can be in bringing pictures to mind, and the sound effects were very well done. Many of the stories seemed unbelievable at first, but Poliakoff is known for his research into little known areas of history, so I would guess that they were mostly based on reality. [After checking the program notes, only the Titus Meredith story was entirely made up.]

I found the story-telling so good, in fact, that I felt the energy of the play dropped a bit in the second half. We had been kept in suspense, wondering what had caused Miss Lambert to become nocturnal. We toyed with the idea that she and her fellow teachers were deliberately finding old pupils and sorting their lives out in some way, even going so far as to bump them off perhaps (Sweeney Todd’s still a bit fresh in the memory). Once the real story started to come out, I felt a bit deflated; it was much more fun having the possibilities in front of us compared to the relatively dull reality. It was still interesting, though not as much.

The set was amazing, with lots of different locations created very quickly with lighting effects and some furniture and props. The basement location was the most elaborate, while the cafes were simply tables and chairs with a few signs. The assemblies were represented with two or three small red chairs, kid’s size, and the opening and closing scenes had a large head on the back wall and a park bench – nice and simple.

The performances were all excellent. Tracey Ullman was very prim and proper as Miss Lambert, even reminding me of the Queen at times. Her story-telling was marvellous, and I could well imagine children being inspired by such a teacher. David Troughton was very good as Mr Minken, especially telling the story of his father’s escape from Germany after the Nazis came to power. We were aware of the importance of his little model plane and the box he was carrying, and nearly lost, and I found this the most moving story of the lot.

Sorcha Cusack was lovely as Miss Summers, and Sian Brooke was very good as Julie, tough as nails to begin with, but showing her kindness as well. Hannah Arterton played several waitresses with varying attitudes, ranging from hostility to friendliness, and Tom Riley held it together as Richard, the young man whose career hasn’t been quite as dazzling as he pretended. When he was confronted about this by his teachers, he began to stammer again, a problem from his childhood, and I reckoned they had guessed he was lying because he hadn’t stammered before. It’s as if he could only speak clearly when he was lying in some way, or at least not talking about his own life. When the truth came out, so did the stammer and they could tell it was real.

There were many layers to this play – memories, changes in society, strange lives, the difference between children and the adults they become – and I would probably get even more out of if I saw it again. It was enjoyable to watch, and it’s good to have Poliakoff back in the theatre; he has a distinctive voice, and it’s one I’ve missed.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

How To Be Happy – October 2011

6/10

By: David Lewis

Directed by: David Lewis

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 20th October 2011

This play, written and first-time directed by David Lewis, is a look at consumerism and the ways in which it prevents increased happiness in society. It’s a patchy piece, with overlapping scenes in two houses which have identical sofas, and while there was some excellent humour and five excellent performances, it never seemed to have a clear focus; a scatter-gun approach instead of laser precision.

In one house live Paul and Katy, his second wife. He’s a semi-successful writer who went through a rough patch when his marriage to Emma broke up several years before, and who wrote a self-help book about being happy based on his experiences at that time. Katy is a primary school teacher, who was attracted to Paul because of his book. When she met the real man, she realised he wasn’t anything like her image of him, but decided to marry him anyway; it’s clear they’re not suited to each other.

Emma and her new husband, Graham, aren’t a great match either. He’s an advertising ‘guru’, always focused on the newest way to get into the consumer’s mind so he can sell, sell, sell. In this play, he’s trying out a very direct method for getting into people’s minds – an electro-cap which is connected (by wires – very old-fashioned) to his laptop so he can check up on his own brain activity. He does attempt to use the cap while making love to Emma, but the absurd look of him, plus some unexpected news, puts her off. Mind you, she’d thought Graham meant a different sort of cap! – we weren’t fooled.

Also living with Graham and Emma are Daisy, the soon-to-be-eighteen daughter of Paul and Emma, and Jack, Emma and Graham’s new baby. He’s giving them a lot of sleepless nights, which seems to be putting their relationship under a lot of strain, but is it? Or is just stopping them from dealing with their real issues?

The two houses are fairly close, so Daisy in particular keeps popping back and forth until leaving home ‘forever’ on account of her guilt at causing her parents’ divorce. Unfortunately, Emma then freaks her out by finally telling her that the reason she and Paul split up was that he had an affair – too much for the sensitive young thing to take. She’d already walked in on Emma and Graham’s attempt at sex with the electro-cap – too gross for words!

With Paul believing he’s got lung cancer, and then finding out he’s been misdiagnosed and has something less deadly (not good with medical lingo – sorry) there’s a fair amount of life’s ups and downs packed into the first half, never mind the whole play. There’s also a lot of humour in the way Katy doesn’t know how to react to Paul’s ‘good’ news; she takes another bite of her biscuit before responding, which tells us a lot about their relationship as well as giving us a huge laugh. But my favourite joke of the afternoon happened when Paul apologised to Katy for misleading her when he pretended to be a success story. Her tart reply – ‘I’m not a fool! I never thought you were a success story’ – really put him in his place. And in his underpants, too.

So, not a searing indictment of consumer capitalism, but a fairly enjoyable couple of hours at the theatre with some good laughs and excellent performances.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Death By Fatal Murder – October 2011

5/10

By: Peter Gordon

Directed by: Ian Dickens

Company: Ian Dickens Productions

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 18th October 2011

Not a great play, although the cast did a good job with what they were given, and the audience were remarkably appreciative. The humour was pretty basic, with plenty of sexual innuendo, grabbing of buttocks and breasts, the occasional fart joke, etc. Some if it worked quite well, and we did have a few good laughs, but most jokes signalled their arrival a fair way out and fell limply onto the stage, hardly raising a chuckle.

The set was a sitting room with an old-fashioned look; turned out it’s an old country house setting. There was a main door at the back, a door to a linking corridor on the right, sofa, chairs, table and the usual assortment of furnishings including two large pictures, one above the fireplace and the other on the right-hand wall. The time was November 1940, and the costumes were appropriate.

The opening scene had a man sitting in one of the chairs in the gloom, and when a woman arrives, she realises he’s dead, makes some comment about her mother, and then grabs the poker to defend herself when she realises she’s not alone. Someone else was lurking in the corridor, and she gets as far as exclaiming ‘it’s you’, or some such, before the lights go out again and we’re left in the dark. The next scene starts us off on the quest to discover what’s happened to a missing constable, PC Atkins. Along the way we meet two randy women, one fake husband, an even more fake Italian, a fake medium, and an elderly local called Miss Joan Maple, with at least one skeleton in her closet! The local police inspector is called Pratt – yes, the humour was that obvious – and keeps calling people by the wrong name, as well as mangling nearly every other word. The constable who’s helping him, PC Tomkins, is much smarter, and figures out the puzzle before his boss, but as he’s also broken the law he’s likely to be in trouble too. Never mind, it all ends happily enough, although the ghost of Colonel Craddock shows his displeasure at the end.

There were references to other works during the evening; Miss Maple quoted from The Importance Of Being Earnestbefore the rest of the cast pointed out that was from the wrong play, and the Squadron Leader’s limp and cane were highly reminiscent of a certain Herr Flick – not too surprising since the Squadron Leader was played by Richard Gibson. I suspect David Callister is doing the near-corpse as a technique now – we’ve seen him do it a few times, and last night I found it unconvincing, even though other cast members did their best to back him up.

          Overall, the cast did a decent enough job, and I particularly liked Katy Manning’s Welsh psychic. The material wasn’t up to much, but they managed to create a passable performance out of it, which is worthy of an award in itself. Not one I’ll see again, but well done to the cast.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Three Days In May – October 2011

7/10

By: Ben Brown

Diretced by: Alan Strachan

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 14th October 2011

This is a play of two halves. The first half was a bit slow, introducing historical characters that needed no introduction for many of us, and setting up the central dilemma: with France nearly taken by the Germans, should Britain’s government consider negotiating a peaceful settlement, or should they focus entirely on resisting the Nazi advance? The official history held that they never thought about negotiations at all, but the reality appears to be that there were three days in May 1940 when the War Cabinet did debate such a possibility. Their final choice, to fight on, shaped our world in ways we probably haven’t fully appreciated yet, and by looking at this ‘wobble’, the play brings the importance of that choice into greater focus.

The set kept things relatively simple. The back wall was covered by a vast map of Europe, which obscured the two entrances to the Cabinet room. The entrance on the left was double doors, while there was a single door on the right. The raised platform in front of the wall held a long table, and there was a drinks table behind this. In front of the platform was a space which held the chairs at the start but was otherwise empty, and Jock Colville’s desk was front right. The costumes were naturally of their time, including Chamberlain’s Edwardian frock coat which he continued to wear.

The play was narrated by Jock Colville, Winston Churchill’s secretary at the time. We were shown the five Cabinet members – Churchill, Chamberlain, Halifax, Atlee and Greenwood – at prayers on the Sunday, followed by a meeting between Churchill and the French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud. This triggered the Cabinet debate, with Halifax and Chamberlain keen to avoid the bloodshed of another war, and Churchill temporarily uncertain. Atlee and Greenwood didn’t push the matter initially, although they spoke up later on about the importance of keeping the momentum going so that the British workers (for these were Labour men) would be up for a fight. With Halifax threatening to resign if the negotiation option was ruled out, Churchill has to put pressure on Chamberlain to keep the War Cabinet together.

The second half started with Churchill and Chamberlain having a little meeting before the rest of the War Cabinet arrived. This scene contained most of the play’s humour, and livened things up a lot. Despite his natural inclinations, Chamberlain finally agrees to support Churchill, and keeps his word in the Cabinet debate. The play ends with Churchill smoking and drinking in typical fashion, while Jock gives us a brief update on the history, ending with a quote from Stalin. He leaves, and Winston is left in the spotlight for a moment, then they fade to black.

It was a good ending to an interesting play, as Ben Brown’s usually are. I did think the first half could do with being beefed up a bit; I felt we could have done with more background on just how much these men had been put off war from their experience of WWI (well, not Churchill, obviously). It’s hard to get into the mentality of the time when no one knew the outcome of these choices, while us knowing how things turned out automatically removes any possibility of suspense. But the second half made up for the first, and I thought all the performances were very good. Robert Demeger was not in the original cast, but was excellent as Chamberlain, while Warren Clarke did a very good impersonation of Churchill’s voice and delivery, so good in fact that I couldn’t make out what he was saying a few times early on. But I soon tuned in, and his stage presence was reassuringly strong. Jeremy Clyde was equally as good as Lord Halifax, and the rest of the cast were fine, though they didn’t have as much to do. It will be interesting to see how this gets on in the West End.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Sweeney Todd – October 2011

6/10

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler

Directed by: Jonathan Kent

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th October 2011

I didn’t think I would enjoy this as much as I did, but it was a superb production, and although it’s not my kind of thing I’m glad I’ve seen it. Steve would have rated it higher, at 8/10.

I’m not sure I can even begin to describe the set, which was absolutely fantastic. The central roller door concealed the large square platform which had the barber’s shop on top of it (and space underneath for the bodies to be deposited). To the left was the pie shop, with the main counter pushed forward as needed, and the recesses behind, and on the right were a steam whistle and the oven for the pie shop! There was also a large set of stairs which came forward for Johanna’s song about birds and freedom, and a trapdoor through which came various items, including a sofa and a meat grinder (not at the same time, of course). There were electric lights everywhere, and the period for the costumes and set was the 1930s – an unusual choice, made deliberately to bypass the musical’s Victorian ‘baggage’. Personally, I think this period setting worked very well, and gave the piece a more contemporary edge.

The story was very well told, and I was surprised to find how much I sided with Mr Todd and his macabre accomplice in crime, Mrs Lovett. Knowing about the back story helped, and in this production they showed the rape at the back of the stage, up on the platform, while Mrs Lovett was describing it. It was tough viewing, but certainly won my sympathy for the revenge aspects of the story. Of course, I realised who the mad beggar woman was early on, so I settled back for an intelligent and dark Victorian melodrama to music.

And the music was excellent, too. The cast were all miked up, of course, but even so the singing was fantastic – Michael Ball was on great form – and the pie-eating song at the start of the second half was the highlight for me. The choreography for that bit was excellent too, with that delicious pause after the barber has cut another throat before Mrs Lovett announces ‘fresh supplies’! Imelda Staunton is never less than superb, and her Mrs Lovett was wonderfully creepy – she thoroughly deserved her final roasting. John Bowe was a good villain as the judge, and the whole ensemble worked wonderfully well together.

Although I enjoyed some parts of the evening, I found a lot of it quite boring, especially the young lovers’ sections. I found I could hear some of the sung words clearly, usually when there were only one or two people singing, but then the chorus joined in and it all became a jumble of sound. This was also true of the young lovers, who sang well but not clearly enough for me, and I lost interest as I couldn’t engage with them at all. The plot was pretty obvious, so there wasn’t a lot to hold my attention for most of the evening, especially when Imelda wasn’t on stage. And even then, some of the songs went on a bit too long, such as the fantasy human pie-eating. Still, I wasn’t as put off by the murder and cooking as I thought I would, and there was more humour than I expected, so the evening was by no means wasted. Not one I’d see again, though.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Browning Version – October 2011

9/10

By: Terence Rattigan

Directed by: Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 7th October 2011

This had really come on since we saw it last. All the performances were sharper, and my main difficulty with the earlier performance, back in September, had been totally rectified. I’d felt then that Anna Chancellor’s Millie wasn’t as unpleasant as she needed to be for the play to work; tonight she was as bitchy as could be, and everything fell into place. The only down side tonight was that our viewing angle cut out quite a bit of Crocker-Harris’s reactions, so I couldn’t enjoy Nicholas Farrell’s performance as much as I would have liked. Nevertheless, this was a very enjoyable way to spend an evening.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me