Romeo And Juliet – February 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Robert Icke

Company: Headlong

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 24th February 2012

This was superb, one of the best productions of R&J I’ve seen. And as it’s still early in the tour, there’s the chance it will get even better.

From early on, I realised this was going to be a very different version of the play than I was used to, so I had to set aside all previous knowledge and just flow with the action on stage. And there was plenty of fast-paced action in this production, which made it easy both to follow the story and to forget what was ‘supposed’ to come next. To start with, the set was bare apart from a large white frame high up towards the back of the stage. Once the lights came up a bit I could see that this surrounded a platform, which I thought would be the balcony later on. Steps led up to this platform on either side, and there was a wide doorway underneath the platform with meshed areas either side. The floor was simple wooden boards, and the bed was slid on through the doorway as needed. This allowed for fast-paced changes of scene, and as they often ran two scenes at the same time, we got through a much edited version of the play in two and three-quarter hours. Nothing was skimped, however, although I did feel the ending was a little brief for the emotional rollercoaster ride to fully sink in. Even so, it was an amazing journey, and one I hope to repeat (if we can fit it in).

No prologue, just a droning sound before the start – I was very relieved when it stopped (reminded me of Therese Raquin at the National) – and then the lights came on very brightly and the time was projected onto the screen in front of the platform: Sunday, just before 5 a.m., and we saw the seconds count through. Two characters came on from the wings and crossed to the right of the stage; one of them was lighting a cigarette. Two other characters crossed the opposite way and left the stage, with the two groups barely acknowledging each other. Then we had the first of the rewind/repeat sections. The actors all moved back into their start positions, pretty much, the time went back to the start point, and the action began again. This time, the lighter wouldn’t work and when he tried to light his cigarette, the chap hurt his thumb which he then sucked. He’d already made a noise from the pain, and that caused the other two blokes to look round. When one of them saw the lighter chap suck his thumb, he asked the question, “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”, a reasonable request in the circumstances. Thumb-sucker was very conciliatory during this bit, but his companion was well up for it, and then Benvolio and Tybalt joined in – well, it’s not going to end happily, is it? Tybalt spat on his chips and offered one to Benvolio, who ate it, just to avoid a nasty scene. Then the bed came on in the middle, with Capulet and Lady Capulet on board. Capulet received a phone call, clearly to tell him of the fight, and he leapt out of bed a little too briskly for a man of his advanced years, calling for his sword. Mrs Capulet also got up – we may have got her line about “a crutch” – and then the prince was making a chunk of his speech condemning the violence, standing on the platform at a podium bristling with microphones.

At this point, the order of events was very different from the text, and the cross-cutting of scenes is a little tricky to recall; I’ll do my best to get it down. I think the next bit was a short chunk of the scene where Capulet invites Paris to his feast and gives Peter some letters to deliver. The time was being shown on the screen again, and after making a brief invitation to Paris, Capulet called for a servant. Peter and the nurse both came on stage and Capulet handed the letters to the nurse, or she took them, I’m not sure exactly how it went. They left the stage, and then we had the second rewind/repeat section; this time the letters went to Peter, with a puzzled look from the nurse (presumably she knows that Peter can’t read) and the action continued.

I wasn’t sure at first about these rewind sections, but I kept an open mind and now I can see that they bring out the chance nature of the tragedy. If the lighter had worked, if the nurse had taken the letters, if, if, if. The first rewind may not have made a huge difference, admittedly, but it did show us the level of hostility between the two camps and how some little perceived slight can set them off, which is a very important aspect of the play to establish early on.

I think the next bit was Romeo either coming on stage and lying on the bed or the bed coming back on with him on it, having been taken off sometime before. He may have lain there through the letter bit, but he was certainly there while his father talked about how withdrawn he was, and the picture on the stage was a clear demonstration of Montague’s words. Benvolio also reported the events of the fight up on the platform, as if he’d followed on from the prince’s speech. Whatever the order of events, Romeo got up just before Benvolio arrived and they went straight into discussing Romeo’s sadness. I had a few brief seconds of fame again tonight, as I was the unlucky comparison with Rosaline.

Peter came on next and told us of his plight. He did ask someone in the audience for help reading the letters, through mime, but no luck. Romeo offered to help, and looked through each envelope, telling Peter the names, while he tried to remember them by counting on his fingers. When Romeo got to the one for Rosaline, he reacted strongly, letting Benvolio know who his love was. As Peter left to make the deliveries, Benvolio snuck the Rosaline invite out of his back pocket and waved it under Romeo’s nose as they finished the scene.

Juliet was next on the bed; she was listening to her iPod, wearing large headphones. We could hear the music blaring out, and it was no wonder she didn’t hear the nurse call at first. When she realised her mother was coming to see her, she stopped the music and took the headphones off, and from Lady Capulet’s behaviour, it was clear that mother and daughter hadn’t spent a lot of time together over the years. The nurse was in the room at first, folding some laundry, but Lady Capulet sent her out. Then she sat on the bed to talk to Juliet, but the distance between them was too much for her and she didn’t know how to start, at least that’s how I saw the situation. I felt she called the nurse back in to help her find some way to broach the subject of marriage, and despite the nurse’s ramblings, she did at least bring up that very subject.

It was very noticeable how different Juliet was with the nurse compared to her mother. Her mother was distant and uncomfortable with her; the nurse was very relaxed and cuddlesome with Juliet, and the funny story, apart from being very well told, had Juliet joining in for her bit – this was clearly a well-worn tale which Juliet liked to hear. The nurse used a West Indian accent when quoting her husband’s words, which gave it a more authentic feel. During the final repetition, Juliet saw from her mother’s expression that they’d overdone it, and her request to the nurse to “stint” was a wise choice. What Juliet wasn’t keen to hear was talk of marriage, and although she said the right things to her mother, it was clear to us that she didn’t fancy becoming anyone’s wife just yet. Peter broke up the scene by telling them they were all wanted for the feast – the screen was showing Sunday at 7 p.m. or thereabouts (they actually used 24 hour notation).

Before this point, we had the rest of the scene where Capulet talked with Paris, but I’m not sure where exactly that was inserted. I do remember that when Lady Capulet was telling Juliet what a fine catch Paris was, the man himself walked through the back of the stage, coming on from the right and exiting by the centre doorway. His torso certainly looked splendid from where I was sitting, and if that was the only consideration I would have advised Juliet to snap him up immediately.

The torch/Queen Mab scene was played using actual torches – electric ones – and Benvolio and Romeo lit Mercutio’s face while he went through the details of Queen Mab’s attributes. I was aware during the party scene that Mercutio had actually been on the invitation list, and in this scene he had his visor up, while Benvolio and Romeo had theirs down. There was loud music playing in the background for most of this scene, although they did start off with some funky (and funny) dancing on the stage. The servants were running around with trays and wearing white DJs, and we also saw Lady Capulet and Tybalt up on the platform having a snog, so the relationship there was clear cut. Capulet’s cousin was brought on in a wheelchair, and although he was willing to get up, Capulet insisted that he sit. I noticed during their reminiscences that they talked of Lucentio’s marriage – as we’ve just seen Taming recently I wondered if that was an in-joke by Shakespeare, referring to his earlier play? And then we heard Petruchio mentioned later on..…the plot thickens.

After Tybalt had finished smooching with Lady Capulet, they both came downstairs, and Tybalt was very unhappy at Romeo’s presence. Capulet was firm with him, and even snippy by the end, but I didn’t see any awareness of Tybalt’s extra-curricular activities with his wife. Instead he seemed to want everyone to get on for the sake of having a good time, and his comment about Romeo’s good reputation suggested that he was less focused on revenge than is sometimes the case with this play. Capulet can often seem more concerned that nothing untoward is done in his house to spoil the fun, but later…… This was more a total ban on hurting someone who hasn’t done him any harm and who is generally reputed to be a decent young man, Montague or no.

Romeo’s chance encounter with Juliet didn’t happen at first. He was sitting on the front left corner of the stage, swigging from a bottle, while in the centre of the stage Capulet called for his daughter to be brought out and presented to Paris, who was done up in African tribal gear. Juliet was very reluctant, but Paris ignored this and embraced her. They then left the stage, and the rewind button went into action again. This time, one of the servants – Peter? – brought on a tray and crashed into Paris, spilling the contents, don’t know what they were. As they scattered, and Peter and the nurse picked some up, Juliet skipped out of the way towards the front of the stage and looking across it saw Romeo standing there, looking back at her; he’d been alerted by the noise of the spillage. Their eyes met, it was love at first sight, you know the deal. Their sonnet was spoken later at the front of the stage, and I reckoned they were both feeling their way through this first encounter. Their youth and inexperience came across clearly.

The party finished with Capulet very drunk and wanting everyone else to stay. I think someone whispered in his ear to point out that it was after two (the clock was showing us the time as well) and he looked at his watch before saying “Is it e’en so?” and saying goodnight to everyone. When Juliet asked the nurse to name the people as they were leaving, the latter pretended not to know who Romeo was at first, but when Juliet told her to run after him, she relented and told her – obviously too tired to walk far, never mind run.

The next scene was mainly Mercutio and Benvolio in front of the Capulet garden wall. Romeo leapt off the stage to begin with, which represented his escape into the garden, and the other two were left, much the worse for drink, sprawled on the stage and singing songs very loudly, as drunks tend to do at 3 a.m. when other people are trying to sleep. There were plenty of bawdy gestures as Mercutio attempted to conjure Romeo’s presence, but nothing too over the top (makes a pleasant change) and they soon left to go to bed. Romeo came back down the aisle he’d hidden on, and I got another surprise; the balcony scene wasn’t played out using the platform! The bed came back on with Juliet on it, and they played the scene that way. The stage isn’t very high in the Yvonne Arnaud, so Romeo could get onto it very easily, and this helped to move the scene along quickly. Juliet was lying on her front on the bed with her head on her hands, as remarked on by Romeo, and there was a lovely sensitivity to her performance. Romeo was still a bit gangly and uncoordinated which fitted his age, as they were playing them both very young this time.

The next scene had Friar Laurence giving a lecture on the medicinal properties of plants with the aid of slides which were projected onto the big screen. The friar snapped his fingers to have them changed, which mostly worked fine, but I think he had a bit of trouble with one of them (intentional, for laughs). He was carrying a folder with his notes, and his attitude of a teacher addressing a class was a nice bit of fun. They even rang a bell towards the end of his speech – fortunately no one left the classroom. He also held up a small phial of liquid when he mentioned “for this, being smelt..” – pay attention, cause it’s going to come back in later. When Romeo told the friar his news, he dropped his notes in surprise – got a good laugh – and he gave Romeo a strong telling off for his behaviour. I noticed that Romeo, like Juliet, joined in for some of the friar’s familiar lines, possibly “Riddling confession finds but riddling shrift”?

Now for the hangover scene. In similar vein to the famous RSC production many years ago which had the Ferrari on stage, there was a gelato seller with his trolley and a couple of chairs for Mercutio and Benvolio to rest on. I noticed that Mercutio wore blue suede shoes, and given the use of music in this production (I haven’t gone into detail yet) I half expected some Elvis before the night was out. But they didn’t make anything of it that I saw, so perhaps it was just a fashion statement this time. Romeo was livelier when he met them this time, and when the nurse turned up with Peter, she had clearly spent a good part of the morning taking advantage of the Verona sales – Peter was laden with carrier bags. Mercutio’s line about “a sail” became “a sale”, with the word written large across most of the bags.

This was the next rewind section. When the nurse and Romeo moved aside to converse, Peter turned his back, I think to light a fag, and Mercutio snuck over and rummaged in the bags, throwing the contents all over the place and brandishing a bra. This broke the conference up, and the nurse left without making the necessary arrangements with Romeo. So the action rewound, and this time although Mercutio threw some of the clothes about the place, he and Benvolio were chased off and the nurse was able to complete her business with Romeo. She took his offered money after an initial show of reluctance, and when she began with “Lord, Lord, when ‘twas a little prating thing” I thought we were going to get the whole weaning story again, but mercifully not.

Juliet came back on with the bed, and her impatience was absolutely typical of a teenager. The nurse did look tired when she turned up, but given the number of bags she’d accumulated, we could see why. The two of them sat on the end of the bed and had their little conversation. Juliet hit the nurse with a pillow at one point, which led to the comment about having an aching head, and she made Juliet rub her back (other side) before finally giving her the news she wanted. She also gave her a lovely cream or pale yellow dress with a veil to wear to her wedding, so she’d done more than shop for herself all morning.

The scene at Friar Laurence’s cell was brief, and I don’t remember if we got any of the lines at all. If we did, it was just the opening bit. The friar and Romeo stood on the platform and Juliet joined them there in her wedding dress before heading off for the marriage ceremony. This was a general point about this production; they preferred to show rather than tell, so a good deal of the dialogue was cut in favour of showing us the essential action, and on the whole I found it worked very well for me.

Back in the streets, and at the gelato stand Mercutio and Benvolio were still lounging around. Tybalt arrived with a couple of his men, and despite Mercutio’s aggression, Romeo spoke very amiably with him and Tybalt actually did look satisfied as he put away his knife and turned to go. Of course Mercutio couldn’t leave it at that, and squirted some raspberry sauce from the gelato stand on Tybalt’s head. He may also have added some sprinkles. While the others held him back, Romeo being right in front of him, Tybalt was able to stab Mercutio under Romeo’s arm before running off.

The usual lines from Mercutio about his wound were played very differently tonight. At first he fell down and seemed to be hurt, but then he got up and it was clear he had been joking with them. My mind was reeling a bit as I tried to figure out where we were going – was this going to be a rewind moment? Were they going to play it without Mercutio being killed? And then, amidst the joking, Mercutio took off his shirt and we could see the red stain under it, on his vest. Benvolio and Romeo saw it as well, of course, and their looks alerted Mercutio to his fate. This was an incredibly moving moment. We’d been shaken out of our complacency, and lulled into a humorous mood by Mercutio’s clowning, and now the fact of his death hit us like a bullet; I’m tearing up with the memory as I write – a superb bit of staging. Mercutio had a few final lines before Benvolio helped him off stage, and then Romeo was left alone to seek revenge on Tybalt. He had a knife which had been dropped during the earlier brawl, and used it on Tybalt who came back, unarmed. His body fell in the front left corner of the stage, and Romeo half knelt, half lay on it through the next section.

At this point the bed came on again with Juliet, and she launched into “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds”. I found this incredibly emotional; with Tybalt’s body reminding us of Romeo’s impending banishment, her joyful anticipation of her wedding night was beautifully juxtaposed with the evidence of the violent social order which has doomed that very relationship from the start, and it emphasised the love/hate dichotomy of the play, which this production brought out to the full.

For the next part there were three scenes intercut, if memory serves. The prince announced Romeo’s banishment from the platform, Juliet on her bed received the bad news from the nurse, while Romeo was also on stage with the friar, seeking his help. They whirled around one another, with the two older characters trying to soothe the younger ones, until both Juliet and Romeo were standing side by side on the bed and the nurse and the friar were walking round it. It worked very well, and although we missed out on the nurse’s visit to the friar, the through story was very clear. The first half ended with Romeo and Juliet kissing, embracing, and starting to throw their clothes off as the bed was drawn back and the lights went out.

The second half began with the short scene between Capulet, Lady Capulet and Paris. The bed had already been brought on below, and stayed in darkness while these characters were on the platform above. Again, they used the rewind feature with this scene; after Capulet had explained the situation, Paris took the huff, went behind the doorway to pick up his bag and left, after Lady Capulet’s two lines and a look from him that made her move out of the way. He didn’t come across as a nice man, this Paris, rather domineering and unpleasant. Then they redid the scene, with Capulet deciding at the last minute to make Juliet’s choice for her, much too late as it happened. With the time being shown so clearly throughout this production, the humour of Capulet’s change of day from Wednesday (too soon) to Thursday (just right) was emphasised, and we laughed. Lady Capulet looked unhappy about the match, and from Capulet’s behaviour later we got a good idea why. But now the action shifted to the bed below, with Romeo and Juliet waking up and discussing the time. They were decent when they got out of bed, thank goodness – nudity may be realistic, but it can distract from the main point of the scene – and Romeo left up the aisle as he had before.

Juliet was a changed girl when she stood up to her mother this time. She’d been very cooperative earlier when her mother paid her an unaccustomed visit to tell her about Paris, but now she threw quite a strop over the suggestion of marriage. But first they discussed Tybalt, and I got the impression that her mother wanted her to stop grieving because it was hard for her too, and either Juliet’s obvious suffering made her restraint harder to maintain or if she could suck it up, so could Juliet – not sure which it was. They did seem to be closer for a while at this point, although it’s only because Juliet was choosing her words carefully and therefore appeared to be in sympathy with her mother. Anyway, once the marriage deal was mentioned, the claws were out, and it’s up to Capulet to sort out the mess.

This portrayal, by Keith Bartlett, was marvellous. He managed to show us a man whose anger and need to control made him a monster, while still being a recognisable human being. Of course, it was the reactions of the nurse and Lady Capulet, along with Juliet, which really gave us the sense of this man’s effect on his family; they were terrified to step out of line, and kept glancing at him in that submissive way that told us how bad things were. Capulet spoke his lines slowly and clearly, with pauses between each few words, as if he was being ever so reasonable when all around him were acting like lunatics; the anger came across more strongly because of it.

At the friar’s cell, Paris was oozing confidence, and perhaps showed a little impatience with the friar when he questioned the speed of the marriage? When Juliet turned up, we could see that Paris was in the same mould as her father; he regarded her as a possession, and she would have been as miserable as her mother if she’d married him. The friar gave Juliet the same phial he had shown us earlier during his lecture, and with the clock showing a time around 7p.m. on Tuesday, Juliet returned to her father to apologise for her behaviour.

The pace really speeded up after this, with her father deciding to have the wedding a day earlier and Juliet taking her poison after her mother and the nurse left her alone. There was a tender moment when her mother came in to see if she could help with the preparations; she touched Juliet’s face so gently, and was clearly feeling more sympathy for her daughter than ever before. She was sad to be sent away this time.

Once Juliet drank off the phial, she sat back down on the bed, upright against the back with her eyes open, and then the weird effects started. They used projected video to show the preparations going on, but with the voices slowed down and accompanied by jerky images, as if Juliet were on some strange drug trip, which in a sense she was. These images covered the whole back of the stage, and then the nurse was sent in to wake Juliet. Her image loomed large on the screen, and we heard her lines as if they were far away. After the discovery of Juliet’s ‘death’, there were only a few lines of dialogue in the background, and then the bed was moved back (not even a sniff of the musicians) so that Romeo could appear in Mantua. Benvolio brought him the bad news, and then Romeo quickly bought the poison from the apothecary. This man was remarkably well dressed; he wore a smart grey suit and stood at the front of the stage on the left while Romeo stood on the right, and they made the gestures of passing the money and poison to each other without actually doing it. As Romeo was about to leave, he came face to face with Mercutio, as it seemed, but he turned out to be Friar John, the messenger who failed; these scenes were overlapped. Friar Laurence was suitably angry for once about the letter not being delivered, which brought out the importance of Romeo being informed of the situation.

The final scenes were kept very simple. No Paris arriving at the monument with flowers, no hidden servants, no friar arriving late, nothing but the bed with Juliet lying on it, crosswise this time. Romeo spoke several lines over Juliet’s body before drinking his poison, and as he cradled her, she started to move her arm. As he lay back, she was brought round to mirror his position, and so she woke up with Romeo dead beside her. His knife was lying on the bed, and she used that to stab herself, falling back so they lay dead together. After this, we went straight to the prince’s admonishment – “Where be these enemies” – followed by Capulet and Montague almost vying to honour the other’s offspring, then hugging. The prince’s final lines brought the performance to a conclusion, a more abrupt end than I was expecting, I must admit, but still it was a tremendous experience and one of the best versions of the play I’ve seen.

The performances were all excellent. I’ve already mentioned Keith Bartlett who played Capulet. He was crystal clear all the way through and was willing to show us the unpleasant side of this male-dominated society. He also got quite a few laughs with the funny stuff. Caroline Faber was superb as Lady Capulet. It’s such an underwritten part, yet she brought out so much of that character’s suffering through her expressions and her hesitations that I was much more aware of her story tonight. Her arranged marriage was unhappy so she took comfort from another relationship, and I think her inability to do anything to change her circumstances spoke volumes about the nature of that society.

Simon Coates was excellent as the friar with his authoritative manner, and Stephen Fewell was good as Montague and the apothecary. I didn’t realise who he was during the first scene; assuming they weren’t just giving him another part, it was Montague himself who asked about the thumb biting. I wasn’t sure about the lack of colour coding for this production; on the one hand it can make it more confusing knowing who’s who, but on the other it emphasises that these people aren’t actually different from each other, and only the long-standing feud separates them. Once I got to know the characters it wasn’t a problem, and given that they were using modern dress it would probably have been harder to colour coordinate, so on the whole I’m fine with this choice.

Daniel Boyd as Romeo was a bit gawky all the way through, which did fit with his youth but wasn’t the most effective style for delivering the lines. He did well enough though, and I appreciated the youthful aspects of the performance; it felt very fresh. Catrin Stewart was a very good Juliet, demure to begin with but toughening up later on in response to the changes in her world. Her delivery of the lines was very good, and her journey very clear. It’s always a difficult choice to make with these parts, whether to go for experience or youth, and this time it worked well. Some aspects weren’t brought out so much, but the sense of these two young people being destroyed by a combination of chance and the prejudices of their elders was very strong.

The nurse (Brigid Zengeni) was another great performance. In the early scenes she came across as more Juliet’s mother than Lady Capulet, and while the cuts made it harder to see the changes in this relationship, she was still an important presence. Paris (Tunji Lucas) and Tybalt (Okezie Morro) were also good in these small but important parts, and Steve was disappointed not to see Paris being killed in this version. Tom Mothersdale was a more unpleasant Mercutio than most, but gave us the lines pretty well, Danny Kirrane did a fine job as Benvolio, and David Hooke was an entertaining Peter.

The music was interesting. The fateful day of Tybalt and Mercutio’s death, and Romeo and Juliet’s marriage, is a Monday according to the chronology of the play; from the fight scene onwards they played a gentler version of I Don’t Like Mondays (no credits in the program) which fitted very well. There was disco music for the party scene, mostly in the background, and other good choices during the play, though I don’t remember the details now.

There was so much in this production that I’m hoping we can fit it in again so I can catch even more of the detail. My lasting impression is that it was all Mercutio’s fault – if he hadn’t insisted on fighting Tybalt…..

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Muswell Hill – February 2012


By Torben Betts

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Tuesday 23rd February 2012

The set was very straightforward for this play – a kitchen. We sat in the front row, and the U-shaped work island was open on our side. Sink on the right, hob and oven on the left, plus all the paraphernalia for a dinner party. A netbook was open on the front right corner of the unit, and there were two stools on that side. A fridge stood in the corner to our right.

The play covered the new social processes of the Facebook generation, with frequent interruptions and conversational non sequiturs as emails, texts and people arrived at the flat for a dinner party. Mat (it’s short for Matthew, but not the typical abbreviation) and Jess are in the process of breaking up, but their inability to connect with each other is getting in the way. Also getting in the way are their several guests; Karen, a friend of Jess whose own husband Julian committed suicide several years ago, Simon, a friend of Mat’s from university days who has an attitude problem, Annie, Jess’s sister by adoption who has  great looks and a needy personality but no discernible talent, and Tony, Annie’s ‘fiancé’, a much older man who teaches at the drama school Annie’s hoping to get into.

The action all takes place over the one evening, with short scenes in the kitchen giving us the story. Mat has heard from a social networking friend that Jess has been having an affair, and challenges her about this just before the guests start arriving – bad timing or what? There was no inkling of this revelation beforehand so it could seem a little odd, but with the communication problems of this group of people, somehow it worked. I found myself thinking that they might have done better to text each other even though they were in the same room, as they paid more attention to electronic conversations than to what the other person was saying.

The first guest to arrive is Karen, who’s still getting over the loss of her husband Julian, an incredibly selfish, opinionated boor from the sound of him. She tells plenty of stories about what he used to do, and it’s clear that she’s still a bit lost without him. She’s also a non-drinking vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish, so the dinner menu of prawn avocado and monkfish stew is off to a bad start.

Simon, the second to arrive, is one of those left-wing, belligerent, contemptuous types who have difficulty making friends because they’re always bitching about something. His initial unpleasantness puts Karen off, and the way he takes the photo of Jess and Annie off the fridge door and puts it in his pocket is decidedly creepy. He fancies Annie based solely on her photo, but once he meets the real thing he changes tack and starts chatting up Karen instead. She warms to Simon as the evening progresses and she starts on the booze again; she needs someone with his strong opinions and apparent dedication to helping others, and even comments herself later on that he’s almost exactly like Julian.

Annie is indeed a looker, but as Mat has already informed us she’s got very low self-esteem. She was adopted by Jess’s parents, having come from a very difficult background, and now she’s quit her job and taken up with Tony, a man old enough to be her grandfather, because he may be able to help her get into drama school. It comes as quite a shock to Jess to find out that her sister is engaged – Annie forgot to mention that fact before – and that Tony is also coming to the dinner party. Good job there’s a spare prawn avocado and plenty of monkfish stew!

Tony calls himself a director, but how much actual directing he does is anybody’s guess. He just can’t help taking advantage of all the lovely young things who attend his classes wanting fame and fortune and expecting him to get it for them. Unfortunately his wife has found out about this affair with Annie through reading his text messages and has thrown him out. He’s another emotional wreck, trying desperately to get back with his wife, aghast at Annie’s excessive clinginess, competing unsuccessfully with Simon for Karen’s attention and even trying to seduce Jess. Any port in a storm.

The scene where Annie introduced Tony to Jess was wonderful. He stood there, still in his coat and carrying a bottle wrapped in black tissue paper, looking uncertain of his welcome, while Annie gushed about their wonderful relationship and her future career as an actress and singer, and Jess just stood there, holding the platter with bread on it, completely stunned by what she saw. It was very funny, and made us very aware of the massive number of assumptions Annie was making and which Tony hadn’t yet had the heart to challenge. Well, the sex was great, so why bother?

Annie’s demonstration of her acting and singing abilities (I use the word loosely) was another horrifyingly funny moment. She did at least know Cleopatra’s lines from Shakespeare’s play and she was bossy enough with her supporting cast to be believable as a demanding queen, but her style of delivery was atrocious, even from behind. Her singing style appeared to be modelled on the worst excesses of the reality casting shows (we don’t watch them, so I’m guessing a bit here) and her nasal tones grated really badly with me. I’m confident that Tala Gouveia, who played Annie, is very talented to be so good at playing someone who isn’t.

There were plenty of entertaining moments like that throughout the play, and the cast brought the characters to life so well that at times I felt like I was suffering through a real dinner party. Despite this, I didn’t leave early, as I would probably have done in real life, so I did get a chance to enjoy the disintegration of most of these characters’ lives, and see the little bud of hope that was the emerging connection between Simon and Karen. The only down side is that when such unpleasant or boring people are being shown so realistically, the play itself can suffer from the lack of interest on the stage; this production wasn’t too bad, but it did drag a little during the early stages. Still it did pick up as things went from bad to worse, so it was quite a good afternoon in the end.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Travelling Light – February 2012


By Nicholas Wright

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 21st February 2012

This was the story of a young Jewish man in an Eastern European shtetl, Motl Mendl, being inspired by a motion picture camera to make movies, and his subsequent career in Hollywood – sort of Fiddler On The Roof meets Tales From Hollywood. It’s set around the end of the nineteenth century and in 1936, with the 1936 character being the narrator for the earlier parts, having changed his name to Maurice Montgomery.

The set was craftily designed to double as the inside of a house in the shtetl and a film set of the inside of a house in a shtetl. Curving round the back was a white curtain which acted as a screen for the movie clips, some of which were also shown on the wall of the room facing us. Below the screen were the rooftops of the other houses in the town, screened by the room itself. A long back wall had a door on the left to the aunt’s small room, a main door in the middle and an alcove on the right which seemed to be the developing room; it could be screened off with a curtain. On the far right wall, above the single bed, were photographs taken by Motl’s father, the village photographer. To the left were the table and chairs, sideboard, etc. In the middle stood a Lumière Brothers Cinematograph, facing the wall; it had two gas tanks at the back for the limelight, and a large wooden stand.

Motl’s father had died some time before, and Motl had only just returned to the shtetl, having missed the funeral. He was hopefully employed as a journalist – hopefully because they hadn’t actually published any of his stories yet – and he wanted to sort out his father’s things and get back to the city as soon as possible. With his aunt telling him the express train didn’t always stop at their station (a fib, as we discovered later) and a local family very keen to have a photograph of their son before he went away to the army, Motl ends up taking not just some photographs of the young man and his parents, but also a short moving picture.

The father was so taken with this that he came every day for a week to watch this movie, projected onto the wall of the room. I don’t remember when they started using the back screen as well to show these movies on a larger scale; it could have been from the start, and they also used the bigger screen when there was no action on stage or the projector wasn’t in use. Anyway, Motl has decided he wants to make movies now, but has no money. Jacob, the father, has been so moved by being able to see his son on film that he recognises a money-making opportunity; if he enjoyed seeing this movie, perhaps everyone will enjoy seeing themselves or loved ones on screen. After a lengthy explanation of his background and his rise to prosperity and respect within the shtetl, Jacob agreed to pay for enough film to capture life in their town. His accountant, Itzak, who was also his son-in-law, had arrived by this time, and the author takes a poke at the involvement of money-men in film-making a couple of times, especially when Itzak’s penny-pinching leads to an embarrassing shortfall in the fiddler department (more on that story later).

Jacob also sent along one of his servants, Anna, to help Motl with his film-making. She’s a very attractive young woman and clever too. It took Motl some time to fall for her – he thought it was just about getting her to star in one of his movies – but they were soon spending time together on the mattress. She also had the idea to edit the bits of film from around the shtetl to tell a story, and even though the locals could all tell that it wasn’t the rabbi buying a coat in the tailor’s shop, they still enjoyed the movie, although the initial focus group, set up by Jacob to make sure the movie is as good as it can be, was full of picky complaints – nothing changes.

From this beginning, they moved on to the make another movie which told the sad story of a woman, spurned by her father and sent out into the world with nothing, etc., etc. Jacob’s daughter thought that she would play the lead role, but both Jacob and Motl wanted Anna to do it. The daughter wasn’t too happy with this, and played one of the sulkiest maids you’ve ever seen, but the combination of producer and director proved too much for her. Mind you, the director had a lot of trouble with the producer’s interference during filming – like I said, nothing changes.

With the filming done, Motl left the shtetl and took the train to the city. Anna had told him she was pregnant, but pretended it might not be his, and his desire to make more and better movies made it a relatively easy decision to leave. During the 1936 sections we learned that he was making a movie based on these early experiences, and after he’d explained a lot of this story to a young actor who would be playing him in the movie, we got to hear the rest of the story from the young man himself; it followed the plot of the staged movie remarkably closely.

They finished the piece with Maurice stepping back into the past and the early characters coming into the room for Shabbos. As the aunt placed her hand over her eyes, the lights went down to end the play – a slightly downbeat ending, but OK.

I did wonder if they could have introduced the framing device earlier, perhaps even from the beginning; we didn’t meet the young man and learn of the intended movie until the start of the second half. But this is only a minor point; the real fun was in the rich detail of the shtetl experience and the beginnings of movie-making, with the reminder of the strong Jewish influence on the early days of Hollywood. Although this play covered some familiar territory, I did still learn some things, and the characters and the humour made for an entertaining afternoon. The performances were all excellent, and the ability of the National to get a good size cast on the stage really helps with the group scenes.

And as for the shortfall in the fiddler department? For the scene where Anna‘s character finds out about her long-lost daughter, Motl had wanted a fiddler to play background music to help her produce the emotional responses he needed for the scene – this was silent movies, remember. To cut costs, Itzak hired a youngster as the regular fiddler was going to charge too much. Everyone was disconcerted when a young boy turned up to do the job. Seeing their attitude, he made some scratchy sounds when they first asked him to play, but he was just winding them up. When it came to the real thing, he put bow to strings and played beautifully; it was a very moving piece. A voiceover by the narrator told us who he probably was – Jascha Heifetz!

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Less Than Kind – February 2012


By Terence Rattigan

Directed by Adrian Brown

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Saturday 18th February 2012

From the program notes, this play had originally been intended as a star vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, but went through considerable changes when the Lunts became involved. Alfred Lunt led Rattigan to make so many subtle changes that it was effectively rewritten to make his part bigger and more attractive, along with other changes. The title was also changed, to Love In Idleness, and I reckon Steve and I must have seen a production of that many years ago as the plot was so familiar. This was the original version approved by the Lord Chamberlain, although there had already been some changes as the Cabinet Minister was Canadian instead of British, and certainly wasn’t unpleasant as far as we could see.

The set for the first two acts was a drawing room in a fairly posh London apartment. Given that it was a touring production, the furnishings weren’t lavish, but then there was a war on, so that fitted. The main door was centre back, there was another door off to the left (study), a window on the right, a piano on the left wall and a sofa and chairs with the necessary tables. The final act was in a small upper flat in a rundown part of London; doors off left, right and in the centre, the piano on the left wall, a small table and two chairs left of centre, and a small desk with the telephone and a typewriter front right. The ceiling was missing, and we could see the outline of a bombed building behind, and with that, the searchlights, and the smoke which invaded the living room, I was momentarily distracted by the idea that the house we were looking at had itself been bombed and was missing a chunk of the roof. Sara Crowe kept going through the mist, and we didn’t miss anything, but it was a weird moment.

The plot was based on Hamlet. Rattigan had been challenged on how he would handle the situation Hamlet finds himself in, and this play was his response. The connection isn’t just obvious, it’s frequently commented on by the characters in the play, and we enjoyed the humour of the parallels. It’s just a shame The Mousetrap hadn’t opened at this time, as it would have been even funnier if Michael had bought tickets for that instead of Death In The Family, or whatever it was. There was also a passing reference to the Lunts as dinner guests, although whether that was in the original or added for this production I don’t know.

This version of the story concentrates more on the Gertrude character, Olivia, as she negotiates her way through the return of her son from Canada, where he’d been sent to school for safety on the outbreak of war, and her relationship with a very prominent Cabinet Minister, Sir John Fletcher, who’s in charge of tank production. Her son, Michael, knows nothing of her relationship with the Cabinet Minister; his father died while he was away in Canada, and his mother has mentioned Sir John in her letters, but as a good friend, nothing more.

The play begins with Olivia arranging the guests for a dinner party. Her devious cunning is revealed early on, as she tells two reluctant invitees that the other is dying to meet them. Then we meet Sir John as he returns from work, and the arrival of her son is discussed. Sir John agrees to stay away for a day or so until she can bring Michael up to speed; Sir John favours the forthright approach, while Mummy still thinks her little boy – who may be seventeen(?), she can’t really remember – won’t be able to handle such difficult news.

And in a way, she’s right. Arriving earlier than expected, the objectionable little prig who turns up appears to have no sense of the world and sadly no sense of humour either. Michael has become indoctrinated in the new left wing attitude to everything – not communist as such, but still convinced that the order will be swept away once Herr Hitler has been beaten. Capitalism is dead, long live the revolution, that sort of thing. He’s appalled to find out that his mother’s taken up with a class enemy, a rampant capitalist, and is living the high life off her ‘immoral’ earnings. He argues with Sir John, and despite his warning about the ‘closet scene’, persuades his mother to leave Sir John and move back to respectable poverty.

So to the final scene in the flat. The relationship between mother and son is still fine, despite their lack of money, her unhappiness with their lifestyle and his insistence on reading ‘improving’ literature. We soon find out that Michael has a girlfriend, and when he heads out to spend the evening with her, Sir John turns up to try and win Olivia back. When Michael and his girlfriend arrive unexpectedly, Sir John hides in the next room while Olivia goes off for a bath, and the ensuing revelations lead to a satisfactory outcome for all concerned.

The play isn’t Rattigan’s best, but it’s still an enjoyable evening at the theatre. Naturally it’s a bit dated, and I reckon the changing attitudes between then and now may account for Sir John seeming more sympathetic to us now, banking crisis notwithstanding. The left-wing ideas which were taking hold at that time seem naïve and unrealistic today, though that may just be hindsight. The references to Hamlet were very funny, especially when Sir John had a little tirade about Michael’s behaviour, wearing a black tie and looking all mournful. He was too, wearing a big floppy black tie, which made us laugh. There was plenty of humour all round to keep us happy, and while I felt the audience didn’t respond as much as they could, the cast did a very good job and I wish them well on tour.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

King Lear – February 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Friday 17th February 2012

I’m rating this at 9.5/10 tonight, it was so good. As we’re seeing this again, and there’s some room for it to come on, I want to leave the 10/10 rating, just in case.

The set at the start: a table covered with black cloth edged with gold tassels stood centre and left of the stage, with an hourglass seat or throne behind it to our left, and at that end of the table there was a gold coronet. At the other end of the table was a stool covered with cream brocade, also with complementary tassels. Behind this were two other stools in dark blue and red, on either side of the stage. The pillar nearest us had the hexagonal seat round it, and all the pillars were disguised as tree trunks (silver birch, from the look of it) with some stubby bits of branch projecting out higher up. Behind the throne was a black door with a corresponding gap in the seating.

To open the first scene a map was spread on the table, and someone was studying it – turned out to be Kent. Gloucester’s comment about the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany was very relevant in this context, and Kent rolled up the map before he responded, holding it in his hand. Edmund came on and stood on the other side of the table; while Gloucester introduced him to Kent his expression gave away his discomfort at the story of his birth, though he put a sycophantic smile on his face when necessary. When he was told who Kent was, his desire to serve him may have been genuine – it was hard to tell – but I certainly had the impression that Edmund was a young man determined to climb the greasy pole by any available means.

When the court arrived, Goneril and Regan came through first with their husbands, and took their places by the stools – red for Goneril, blue for Regan. After them came Lear and a servant who sat to one side and wrote everything down – he had a small writing desk with him. There was a pause while Lear waited for Cordelia, who finally came skipping on with a girlish giggle. Lear led her round to the central stool and sat her down, then stood behind her placing his hands on her shoulders and kissing her hair, very tenderly. Then he moved round to the throne and as he made to sit down he gestured to the other daughters to sit, a huge difference in attitude.

Goneril drew the short straw in having to go first in praising her father; her speech was rather stumbling as she groped her way to find suitable phrases and comparisons to please the king. I couldn’t see Regan’s reaction to this as she was sitting on our side of the stage with Cornwall standing behind her. When Lear showed Goneril the extent of her new realm, she looked very pleased.

Regan was more assured on her turn – she’d had some time to prepare – and I got the impression this was some kind of family game, with neither of the elder sisters taking it seriously. Goneril didn’t look at all put out when Regan topped her efforts, and the laughter at what Cordelia was saying sounded almost genuine. Cordelia gave us her asides from the stool and her lines were delivered very strongly, although she looked very young compared to her sisters. This was a forthright Cordelia who spoke her mind, and when she pleaded with Lear to exonerate her of any serious wrongdoing when France and Burgundy were present, I found her description of her ‘offence’ much clearer than before, which meant that France’s recognition of it made more sense. I felt she and France were well matched, as he obviously appreciated her for herself, and this contrasted well with Goneril’s marriage – she’s married to an older man and it’s clearly an arranged match. Burgundy was using a cane and limping a bit during this scene, and also as the Herald later; hopefully he’ll be recovered when we see this next – it’s a dangerous life being a fight director.

Lear’s response to Cordelia’s “nothing” was quite gentle at first – he just couldn’t believe she wouldn’t join in the game. This was where the rest of the family were laughing as well. After a bit, though, the rage came out, and the others moved quickly to get out of Lear’s way as he threw his tantrum. Kent’s interjection didn’t help matters, and soon everyone was leaving, in different directions. Regan seemed much more relaxed about their father’s behaviour than Goneril, whose “We must do something, and i’ th’ heat” became quite desperate at the end.

After they had all left, Edmund came back on and made good use of the writing desk while the servants cleared the stage. They took the cover off the table, the covers off the three stools, and the throne went as well. During this time, Edmund was penning the very letter that would cause all the problems in his family. He made as if to scrunch it up and throw it away, but kept it and then launched into his diatribe against primogeniture. When he used the word ‘legitimate’, he recognised how good it was and went over to the writing desk to add it into the letter. I could see the messy nature of the writing from where I sat – he did wave the letter around a bit – and so I was very pleased when Gloucester came to read it that he had to look hard to get some of the words. ‘Legitimate’ had clearly been added, and that was one of the ones he had to peer at a bit. Again, Gloucester’s first response was sadness and grief at being deceived, but then his anger took over.

Edgar came on eating a pear while Edmund sat on the pillar seat near us to do his groaning – nothing else to report for this bit. The set was then changed to a table and two stools, one at either end of the table, with red covers – we were in Goneril territory. After the king arrived, Kent was brought on and laid on the floor, face down. He said most of his lines there too, until the “authority” bit. When Goneril turned up to speak to Lear, Oswald went past them all and out of the door, carrying some papers; I realised this was the letter Goneril had been writing to Regan, a nice touch. Goneril seemed quite intimidated when she confronted Lear. One of Lear’s men was invading her space, looking menacing, and her speech was almost incomprehensible, never mind formal. When Lear cursed Goneril with Albany there too, I was aware that he was cursing Albany as well, in a sense, as he was wishing for neither of them to have children. Goneril was really shocked by this curse. The fool’s dialogue was clear, though I never felt I got much of his personality from this portrayal. I didn’t see much of him at times, as he lurked over on our side of the stage, off to our left.

After this scene, the table and stools were cleared, I think, and the stage was pretty open for most of the rest of the play. Edmund met Curran to hear about the arrival of the Duke of Cornwall, and then stage managed Edgar’s ‘escape’. When Regan and Cornwall arrived, I had the impression that they weren’t definitely villains at this point but that circumstances pushed them that way.

When Kent was waiting outside, he saw Oswald coming and lurked in the shadows to avoid being recognised. When he did come forward and Oswald recognised him, Oswald did his best to avoid drawing his sword, definitely a coward. Kent took off Oswald’s cloak and dropped it so that when Oswald bent to pick it up, he could tip up Oswald’s scabbard causing the sword to come out – drawn by default. That’s when Oswald called for help, and as soon as it arrived he started posing with the sword as if he was more than ready to fight – very funny. After the discussion involving the Duke of Cornwall, Kent was put into the stocks to our right. He didn’t read any letter by the light of the moon – he just laid back and slept for a bit.

When Goenril arrived, it seemed to me that the sisters hadn’t decided what to do about their father, but when Regan went for reducing Lear’s entourage to a mere 25, Goneril saw the opportunity, and then they both worked together, like lionesses, to close the trap. The remaining attendants – 1 lord and the disguised Kent – looked very unhappy during this discussion.

The scene where Lear meets Poor Tom was difficult to watch, especially as ‘Tom’ had bits of twig or some such stuck in his arm. Lear’s grasp of the nature of humanity at its simplest was well delivered, and this time Lear hardly got his trousers unbuttoned before Kent and the fool were on him to stop him taking his clothes off. He’d already thrown his coat and hat on the ground.

The shelter scene was set up using a small bench with a saddle on it, several cushions and a blanket. A lantern was hung up on one of the pillars. I reckoned the fool was suspicious of Edgar’s mad performance; he was looking at him intently all the time, up till the point where Lear was about to lie down and sleep, then he came over and sat by the king. Edgar was uncomfortable with the fool’s scrutiny, and very aware of it. When the three men were sitting on the bench together to arraign the sisters, I was also aware that two of them were in disguise, and therefore, in a sense, lying. The fool’s disappearance was just that – the scene in the shelter ended, with Lear, Kent and Gloucester heading off, leaving the fool and Edgar alone. The fool was holding the lantern, and simply blew it out – darkness. This was also where they took the interval.

The second half opened with the run up to the blinding scene – always a difficult one. This time, Gloucester was brought over to our corner and tied to a chair right by us. When Cornwall took out the first eye, he got a spatter of blood on his face; I thought at the end of the scene that this may have been done to get the shock and horror across to the audience behind the action – it worked! The servant drew his dagger, Cornwall drew his, and Goneril finished the servant off. There was more blood spatter with the second eye, and what looked like a small round object (nearly done now). I don’t know what the audience on the other side saw – yet! One more thing, Regan was again unnaturally excited by the sight of blood – I could see her becoming a total sociopath if she’d lived, getting her thrills from blood, torture and death.

The person who helped Gloucester after his blinding, and whom he asked to bring clothes for Poor Tom, was played by Eleanor Yates, doubling with Cordelia; it was a nice touch to have the two most caring people played by the same actress.

I was very moved by the scenes between Edgar and Gloucester. When Edgar came on talking about the benefits of having the worst happen to you, he looked very happy with life, all in all. This was when I thought he would make a good king with all he’s been through. When his father arrived, things changed, and I was moved to tears several times as their relationship developed. When Oswald found Gloucester, I was aware that he was only going to draw on him because he thought he was defenceless – the cowardice showing through again.

There wasn’t much laughter from this audience, and perhaps it wasn’t the funniest Lear we’ve seen, but there is a fair amount of humour and I felt this performance warranted more than it got. Edmund’s debate about which sister to have was an exception, though, as we laughed plenty.

Edmund had a real smirk on him when confronting Albany at the end, using the royal ‘we’ before he was fully entitled to it. The duel was good, with both brothers having a go. They clashed swords right by us, and the swords ended up lying on the hexagonal seat, with Edmund drawing his dagger and Edgar reduced to his wits. Goneril was excited by the prospect of Edmund winning – I reckon she was looking forward to her husband having to fight Edmund, so that Edmund could kill him ‘legitimately’.

When the messenger was sent off to rescue Lear and Cordelia, he ran off past us, but Lear brought Cordelia on through the doorway at the far end of the space. His “howl”s were strong, and directed round the room. Kent didn’t walk off at the end; he just knelt by Lear and Cordelia’s bodies, grieving. I had thought earlier in the second half that Edgar would make a better king for having suffered in the way he does, and at the end that impression was even stronger as he accepted the kingship role and spoke the closing lines. He had his back to me this time, so I’m keen to see it from the other side next time to confirm this impression.

Some other bits I noticed: Albany was much stronger than in most productions, really angry with Goneril after she returned from Gloucester’s place. Regan wore a very small black shawl after Cornwall’s death, but only for one scene – a short period of mourning for her. Kent’s ring – we saw him take it off and put it in his pocket when he was first in disguise. Then he took it out to give it to the other chap who was going to Dover. Finally Cordelia gave it back to him when they meet up before Lear was brought on, sleeping, in a wheelchair. When Goneril and Edmund were kissing, Oswald watched for a bit, but glanced away towards the end. There were no bodies brought on stage for once, and they finished early, at 11:10pm.

I love the way SATTF tell these stories so clearly, and without all the fancy designs that can clutter up other productions sometimes. I find I get very involved in the storytelling, and enjoy these performances enormously, even if there aren’t many visual tags for me to remember them by later on, e.g. the eye in the water tank, the sweep of gaudy costumes in the Russian style, etc. The text was a bespoke blend of quarto and folio, so we heard some lines we hadn’t heard before, including the Curran bit and also Edgar mentioning Kent’s visit to his father before he died; this was when he was talking to Albany about what he’s been up to after the duel. I wasn’t aware of missing anything though, apart from Kent not reading the letter while he was in the stocks.

The performances were all good, with some lovely details in each of the main characters. John Shrapnel’s Lear was an interesting portrayal. He wasn’t angry all the time, but he did have his rages, and he lost his reason believably and movingly. It was a really good evening, and I’m glad we’ve booked to see this again.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

The Taming Of The Shrew – February 2012

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 16th February 2012

Our seats tonight were centre front, on the aisle – great view. From here the bed design was much more obvious compared to the seats round the side. We saw a lot more, and the performance had definitely come on. Although some things were clearer with the better view, the cast also seemed to be more comfortable with the set and the production. Hopefully there are fewer trips to A&E now, too.

There was so much detail in the performances that I won’t be able to get more than a few things noted up. I noticed a lot of reactions within each scene from the characters on stage, and I think there was more comic business in some places, but perhaps I just didn’t see it all before. There were also one or two corrections to my previous notes, so I’ll go through the scenes in order.

The opening induction scene was easier to see from the front. There were shadows against the curtains along with the noises and the shouting, and when Sly was chased out of the pub, I think he rolled down the ramp. I noticed the lines about William the Conqueror this time, and after Sly passed out, the arrival of the huntsmen also came across much better from this angle. No real changes to the rest of the induction stuff, although Bartholomew seemed much more coquettish when he first turned up as the lady; he soon changed his tune when Sly sent the others out, even trying to clamber out of the window. I could see a lot more of Bartholomew’s horrified reactions when he was lying with Sly in the bed this time, watching the play, including when Sly rolled over on him and then fell asleep. He woke Sly up by slapping the top of his head.

The opening to the Taming bit was just as good as before, but again it was much clearer from this angle. Lucentio addressed the explanation of his background to Sly, to explain who he was, and shook his hand; this worked quite well I thought, and brought Sly even more into the performance as a whole. He also reacted a lot to the action of the play, particularly applauding Kate. I think the lord also came on for this scene, to watch and enjoy, but I found that a bit distracting.

The doors at the back had been opened up for this bit, showing steps curving round with a door in the middle. Several people were lounging around on the steps, and this area also served for the front of the church later on. On the whole though, I didn’t feel this area was fully integrated into the rest of the set, and knowing that it was almost completely invisible from the side seats made it seem even more redundant.

The arrival of Kate in the scold’s fiddle wasn’t so much of a shock this time, and she really lashed out at everyone in the vicinity once she’d been freed. Bianca mainly stood on the ramp for this scene, and I noticed that Lucentio tried to clamber up on it to reach her and was being held back by Tranio. After Hortensio explained his plan to find a husband for Kate to free up Bianca, Gremio spat on his hand to seal the deal with a firm handshake, despite a little squeal of ‘no’ from Hortensio. So his hanky was deployed even earlier than I’d spotted last time.

After the rummaging under the bedspread by Sly and Bartholomew, the lord left a hip flask on Sly’s stomach when he was lying (asleep?) in the corner. When Kate came on for the next scene she was swigging from one as well, and I noticed a flask in Petruchio’s hand too – definitely a theme. This was the scene where Kate interrogates Bianca about her suitors. Kate appeared at the back, smoking and drinking, and after she strolled down the ramp, Bianca appeared at the doorway, trussed up like a chicken. Her hands and feet were tied together, she had an apple (I think) in her mouth, and her face was brightly coloured. As she came closer I could see she had very red cheeks and big black eyebrows with a moustache. Crude but cheerful, and clearly Kate’s handiwork.

As Bianca teetered at the top of the ramp, she realised the only way she could get down was to roll down, so she blew out her gag, toppled over, and rolled down to the bottom. She managed to get up, and hopped around the stage a bit so she could interact with Kate, including their fights. She finished up on the floor at the front with Kate trying to smother her with a pillow. That’s sisters for you.

When Petruchio arrived and was being ‘wooed’ by Hortensio, there wasn’t a pause tonight after “Her only fault”, but the line got an even bigger laugh anyway. The audience also spotted the hanky going down on the ramp to protect Hortensio’s bum, and that got a laugh as well. When the suitors turned up at Baptista’s house, there was a strong reaction from all present when Tranio introduced himself as Lucentio, son of Vincentio of Pisa. His ‘father’ was clearly known to be a very wealthy man – Gremio blanched, while Baptista looked astounded and then very happy to have such a wealthy suitor for his daughter. Petruchio had already indicated that he was well pleased with the dowry on offer for Kate, and there was a similar reaction when he saw her for the first time – “Wow”!

During Kate and Petruchio’s first scene together, she took a long time to answer him at first. He’d gone through his options beforehand, about how he’ll contradict everything she does, and with this long delay he came back onto the centre of the stage – he’d been waiting for her response at the foot of the ramp – and redid the “say she be mute” bit, which got a good laugh. Then she started to have a go at him. This was typical of this production, and unusual in that most Kates fire off their remarks very quickly, while this Kate took her time to come up with her witticisms. They had quite a physical level to their ‘wooing’; the pissing on the floor was still in, but seemed to work better this time, and I was aware that she was doing her best to put him off. She had already felt the attraction when they’d been lying together on the floor, and I reckoned she was too scared to risk falling in love, with Petruchio or anyone else. It was after she felt the attraction that she got up and tried to leave, but Petruchio brought her back with his response.

After the mad ones have had their turn, the regular suitors were left to arrange matters with Baptista for Bianca’s hand. I noticed the knob references during Tranio’s claims on behalf of Lucentio – he mimed a huge erection and gargantuan balls. These references went on all through the performance, but I hadn’t seen them so much before. This bit was just the most obvious.

The scene with the tutors attempting to woo Bianca was as before, and still very funny, with Cambio taking off his glasses to show he was, in fact, Lucentio. He did the same thing later on when his father had arrived, and he and Bianca did a little ta-da thing when revealing that ‘Cambio is changed into Lucentio’.

The wedding was as before, but there was more visible through the doors from this angle; we could see the people coming from the church this time. Grumio had ‘Petruchio’ written on his chest this time, and Kate didn’t have any difficulty getting the word “entreat” out this time, but otherwise it was much the same.

After the interval, Petruchio’s servants were draped over the chairs as I described before, and this time I saw that Sly came on without his underpants, ran across the stage, grabbed the pan which one of the servants was holding in his hand, and made off with it as cover. He was also among the servants during the next scene, and I got the impression that he was gradually being drawn back into his own life, even though he kept popping up during various scenes shouting ‘I’m a lord, I’m a lord’.

When Kate arrived, she crawled through one servant’s legs and collapsed on the floor. The food was brought, and she was about to eat when Petruchio suggested they give thanks. She put the food down, reluctantly, and held her hands in silent prayer along with him. She finished too soon though; after her hasty ‘amen’ Petruchio said ‘no’ and continued the prayer. I noticed he was watching her during this. After the servants had all left, and Petruchio was on the floor with Kate telling her it would be better for them to fast, she tried to undo his trousers but he stopped her. I got the impression he knew their relationship wouldn’t work until Kate accepted him properly, and she was just trying to find some way to connect to him – she just didn’t understand what he wanted.

The next scene, where Tranio and Hortensio swore to leave Bianca forever, was definitely clearer from these seats. Sly popped in a couple of times when the panels were opened, but otherwise it was all Lucentio and Bianca, still going at it hammer and tongs, and drooping, exhausted, out of a window at the end. When they did emerge, I noticed Cambio was holding his satchel over his nether regions at the end of that scene – why? Hadn’t he already got his end away? Mind you, at that age it doesn’t take long…. Hortensio revealed himself by ripping off his moustache – very painful, and as funny as Cambio taking off his glasses to reveal Lucentio.

Grumio brought a chair on for Kate for the food scene. After he left, Kate used a spare bit of rope, which just happened to have a noose at the end, to pretend to have hung herself. She lay on the floor with the noose round her neck and one foot resting on the overturned chair. Hortensio was alarmed when he saw her, and I reckon Petruchio was concerned for a moment, but he checked it out and knew she was fooling straightaway. After this, she tried to throttle him with the rope and he played along, making choking sounds. When she realised he was joking rather than choking, she let him go. It was when she was telling him that she would speak her mind that she got the chair to stand on, so she could make her point face to face.

The model wore a white fur trimmed coat which she took off to reveal the red dress underneath. Was there more being ripped off tonight? Maybe not, but she grabbed the fur coat to cover her embarrassment as she ran off. When they were arguing over what time it was, Kate took a peek at Petruchio’s watch to confirm the time before carrying on their little disagreement.

On the trip to visit Baptista Minola, Grumio dropped a tennis racquet as they came on and a member of the audience had to help retrieve it. Kate had a slightly impatient look on her face at this point. I still couldn’t see any particular reason for her change of approach, but it was still fun to watch. She was carrying a triple candlestick, and brandished this to illustrate the “rush candle” line.

I still couldn’t see what Kate and Petruchio were up to during the party scene. Bianca was a bit drunk in the final scene, and Tranio had a bandage on his nose. Everyone was listening to Kate for once, and she had to think about what to say. She meant it all, although she was talking about Petruchio rather than men in general (this was from the post-show). This time when she threw a chair, nobody minded – that was how she cleared the space to kneel for her final offer. Petruchio knelt down and put his hands on Kate’s feet after she’d knelt down to him, and it was clear he was very much in love with her by this time. At the end, as Kate and Petruchio snuggled under the covers at the back, she held up two fingers to the rest of them – so not a complete transformation then.

I thought the ending might have changed, with some of the rougher characters beating up Sly before the Lord came on with Bartholomew and left the money on his chest. Bartholomew didn’t leave the scarf this time. The performance still ended with Marion Hackett standing on the stage looking at Sly, who had passed out on the stage with the money on his chest, and I still have no clue what it was meant to convey, but as we’d enjoyed ourselves I didn’t waste too much time thinking about it.

The Sly framework was done well enough, but I still felt it held the play back. I was able to see the Lord and Bartholomew at the back a couple of times, but they just disappeared and there was still a gap between the induction story and the main play. The crudity was even more apparent from this angle, with Kate mooning several times, and I noticed tonight how smart Tranio is; he used a classical reference at least once, and his mind was certainly sharper than Lucentio’s (not difficult). Janet Fullerlove, the actress brought in to replace the one with the broken ankle, was up to speed and played both Marion Hackett and the widow tonight and did both very well; we’d seen the understudy for the widow last time.

The combination of our better position and the natural ‘bedding down’ of the performance made for a more enjoyable evening than last time, and this is definitely one of the better productions we’ve seen of this play.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Iolanthe – February 2012


By Gilbert and Sullivan

Directed by Peter Mulloy

Carla Rosa Company

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 13th February 2012

This was definitely a game of two halves; the first half was a bit dull, and even a G&S fan like me was nodding off from time, while the second half opened well with the song from Private Willis and the contributions of the Earls of Mountararat and Tolloller, and it felt a lot livelier after that. I enjoyed the performance overall, though I found the Queen of the Fairies and the Lord Chamberlain were weaker than the rest of the cast; we couldn’t make out their lyrics so well, and they didn’t sustain the energy during their sections. The nightmare song isn’t my favourite patter song anyway, and this wasn’t the best version I’ve heard by a long way.

The set was fairly simple. Two flats of trees stood on either side of the stage to create the entrances, and a backdrop behind had an arch of flowers and greenery over a cobweb, through which the small orchestra could be seen. The costumes were again based on Victorian designs, so the fairies were pretty and the peers were in formal robes, as was the Lord Chancellor. The Queen of the Fairies had a black outfit with extra sleeves, as for a spider, Strephon was in a fairly bland shepherd’s outfit and Phyllis had a nice pink shepherdess dress.

That was the first half. For the second half the backdrop had changed to the Houses of Parliament, and a sentry box stood on the left hand side of the stage. The orchestra was still visible through the screen, but without the large hole they’d had in the first half, the conductor had a long journey to get to the front to take his bows at the end. The costumes were largely the same; the fairies wore sashes with ‘Strephon’ on them, while Strephon and Phyllis were much better dressed. Sergeant Willis was splendid, as usual, in an impressive Guards uniform – I fully understand his attraction for the Queen of the Fairies. Incidentally, she was dressed as Queen Victoria for this half; a nice touch.

Despite the weaker aspects of the production, it was well worth the visit for the second half alone, and it’s always good to see a company prepared to do a Savoy opera in the traditional manner.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

She Stoops To Conquer – February 2012


By Oliver Goldsmith

Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 8th February 2012

This was a fabulous production which brought out all the humour in this classic comedy brilliantly. The cast did an excellent job, and the set and costumes set it all off perfectly.

The set first. Across the middle of the stage stretched a wall, suitable for the inside of an old manor house which looks like an inn. The fireplace in the centre was about twelve feet tall, and you could have roasted a couple of pigs in it no bother. The room had pictures on the wall, tables with fruit and drink, a sofa, an upholstered bench and a comfortable leather armchair. There was a large rug in the middle of the floor, another chair to the front and right, and a rustic chandelier hung from the non-existent ceiling. A door at either end of the wall allowed the characters on and off. Behind this wall we could see tree trunks but no greenery, and when we arrived there was plenty of birdsong to tell us we were in the country. At the start of each half we also heard some mooing and clucking, just to be sure we got the point.

For the scene in the inn, the revolve showed us the other side of the wall, which was a pretty basic country inn – wood panelling, window, couple of entrances – and there were tables and chairs for the customers. Strangely, there were also two tree trunks, one on either side of the stage, which appeared to be growing through the inn. Puzzling; I reckon it may be one of young Tony Lumpkin’s practical jokes.

The scene later in the garden was a lovely transformation. The revolve took the furniture to the back of the stage while the wall sank down to vanish completely. Assorted tree trunks were lowered into place, and with a squirt of mist and some atmospheric lighting we were in the perfect setting for either a dangerous isolated spot where robbers might pounce at any minute, or the (large) back garden of Mr Hardcastle’s residence.

The scene changes were covered by music from the cast, right from the start. They didn’t sing songs as such, just la-la-la and ba-ba-ba and suchlike, all very lively and enjoyable. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but when it came to the bigger scene changes, especially setting up the garden, I realised it was essential to do something to cover the hiatus. And if you’re going to do it then, you’d better get the audience used to it early on. So all in all I’m fine with that choice.

The costumes were splendid and totally in period from what I could tell – the National is usually reliable in these matters – and there were plenty of servants in this household, not to mention plenty of customers at the inn. The performances of the supporting actors were excellent with lots of good reactions helping the humour, especially in the scene where Mr Hardcastle tried to teach his servants how to behave in front of company. I loved the way they all tried not to laugh when one of them mentioned Mr Hardcastle’s funniest tale (old Grouse in the gun-room) but failed, and ended up roaring with laughter – his servants clearly loved his stories.

The plot has a lot of information to get across, and the clarity of the lines was tremendous. I know the story of old, but I found myself hearing more of the dialogue than before, and the way Sophie Thompson as Mrs Hardcastle emphasised the relevant bits for us was very helpful, and very funny. I suspect no one missed the crucial information that the manor house looked like an inn, wink, wink.

The play opened with singing from the servants, who appeared in a group at each doorway. Mr and Mrs Hardcastle came on for the first scene and got us off to a good start, with some funny descriptions of their neighbours as well as the info about the house (see above). When Tony Lumpkin came on, he was eating a chicken drumstick and used it to prepare himself for his night out, rubbing it on various intimate areas to transfer the scent. What put a lot of the audience off was that he then carried on eating it! His exit was very funny; Mrs Hardcastle was so desperate for him to stay with them that evening that she clung on to him and was dragged off stage, sliding across the floor behind him and out of the door which the servants helpfully held open.

Then we had a scene between Mr Hardcastle and his daughter, Kate, telling us about their arrangement whereby she’ll be wearing ordinary clothes instead of her finery later on that evening. I was struck by a stray thought at the start of this scene; when I heard Mr Hardcastle refer to his daughter as Kate, I immediately thought of The Taming of the Shrew. We’d seen the play recently at Stratford, and it occurred to me that this play was a kind of mirror image of that one. Instead of Kate being a shrew and Mr Marlowe a brawling sort of chap, this Kate is self-assured and very reasonable, while Marlowe is the strange character, bold with the lower class women he meets, but hardly able to say a word to ladies of his own class. The analogy took my fancy, and I found myself looking for further evidence during the performance; it didn’t spoil my enjoyment in any way, and although I have no knowledge of Oliver Goldsmith’s intentions in writing this piece, considering the similarities between the two plays has been an interesting process.

After Mr Hardcastle has told his daughter about the imminent arrival of Mr Marlowe, the son of his old friend, to be her suitor, and she and her step-mother’s niece, Miss Constance Neville, have informed us that Mr Marlowe is a close friend of Mr Hastings, Miss Neville’s intended, the scene changed to the inn, where Tony Lumpkin was enjoying himself with lots of beer. And then lots more beer. And then more beer. He sank a yard of the stuff and threw it up into a bucket. The company was lively, and then the two men we’d been hearing about, Mr Marlowe and Mr Hastings, arrived, looking for directions to Mr Hardcastle’s house. Their clothes and manners made them stand out immediately from the local rustics, and Mr Hardcastle’s comments about foppish London behaviour and excessive frippery were perfectly expressed by these two characters. Their costumes were splendid, and their discomfort at finding themselves amongst such rough company was very funny.

With Tony Lumpkin being unhappy about Mr Hardcastle’s attitude towards him, he decided to play a trick on these two. He told them they were too far out of their way to get Mr Hardcastle’s house that night, and then sent them off to the very place, telling them it was an inn they could stay at. He also provided them with a couple of mugs of ale, scooped from the bucket he’d just thrown up in.  They were given these mugs early on in the scene but didn’t drink any until the very end, when they took a swig each and paused before declaring the contents to be quite good. By that time the audience had got over its squeamishness, and had a good laugh at the well delayed joke.

The next scene was the very funny lesson Mr Hardcastle gave his servants, at the end of which he heard the coach arrive and went off to welcome his guests. Mr Hastings and Mr Marlowe entered, and in Mr Hardcastle’s absence we have plenty of time to learn about these two men. Mr Hastings was interested in seeing Miss Neville and running off with her if possible, while Mr Marlowe’s difficulties with the fair sex were expounded at length. When Mr Hardcastle returned, we started to reap the fruits of the earlier scene’s preparations, as Mr Hardcastle attempted to talk with his ‘guests’, while they talked to each other and ignored ‘the landlord’ as much as possible.

To show how relaxed the two men were at the ‘inn’, Hastings took some fruit from the bowl on the sideboard early on and threw the orange to Marlowe, keeping the apple for himself. Marlowe peeled this orange during their conversation, dropping the bits of peel on the floor, which certainly showed that he had no consideration for the place. Unfortunately, nothing more was done with this peel until the servants cleaned it up a couple of scenes later, so we had to put up with actors nearly treading on it and skirts sweeping bits of it around the stage with no pay off. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment, but it didn’t add anything either, and was a minor distraction.

Marlowe headed off to check his bedroom followed by Hardcastle, leaving Hastings alone on stage, but not for long. Miss Neville entered and Hastings was soon disabused of the notion that he was at an inn. When Marlowe returned, the couple arrange for him to meet Miss Hardcastle who at this point was still dressed as fine lady. Marlowe’s problems were not exaggerated; his difficulty in talking with Miss Hardcastle was extreme, and very funny for us. Hastings and Miss Neville stayed for a bit to egg him on, and then left Marlowe alone with Kate; Marlowe’s reaction to their leaving was another comic masterpiece.

The conversation between Marlowe and Kate was very good fun, with Marlowe never looking at her. She completed his sentences after a reasonable pause, and he left the room as soon as he decently could. Hastings and Miss Neville returned almost immediately, with Tony Lumpkin and Mrs Hardcastle. To keep her jewels in the family, Mrs Hardcastle has been working hard to get her son to marry Miss Neville, while she has been pretending to cooperate in order to get her hands on the jewels for herself. So in this scene, she cuddled up to a hostile Tony, while Hastings charmed Mrs Hardcastle. This was another example of Sophie Thompson’s excellent comedy performance. She managed to put on an almost unintelligible accent; we could tell she was trying to talk posh, and failing completely. Every so often she would lapse into her normal country accent, which was actually easier to follow, and Hastings complimented her on her taste and style as fulsomely as he could. When he was suggesting a new age which was the latest fashion in town, there was a lovely pause while he decided how far to go; his choice of “fifty” was very astute.

With Mrs Hardcastle and Constance out of the way, Hastings persuaded Tony Lumpkin to join in the elopement plan. I think the interval was taken after this scene, and then we restarted with another singing fest from the servants, which ended up with Mr Hardcastle standing in his own drawing room holding a pair of boots which Marlowe has given him to clean. When Kate arrived, now dressed much more simply, they discussed the man and have completely different points of view, naturally. Although they were both keen to reject him as a future husband for Kate, she was at least willing to give him another chance and her father agreed, while at the same time doubting that he’ll change his mind.

Tony had stolen Constance’s jewels from his mother, and gave them to Hastings. Unfortunately, unaware of this development, Constance was still trying to persuade her aunt to let her have the jewels, and when they come into the room, Tony suggested to his mother that she tell Constance the jewels have gone, been lost or whatever, to stop her asking for them. Mrs Hardcastle jumped at the chance to keep hold of the gems, and went along with this story. She did offer to let Constance have her garnets, though, which meant the theft of the other jewels was discovered earlier than anyone wanted. (Anyone that mattered, that is.) While Mrs Hardcastle wailed and shouted about the jewels actually being gone, Tony supported her in the ‘story’, winding her up even more.

As Kate prepared to meet Mr Marlowe on different terms, she had a short discussion with a couple of the servants (only one in the text). Kate was sure she could carry off the deception; the maids weren’t so convinced by her acting skills, but didn’t like to disagree and reassured her she’d be fine. Mind you, it took her some time to get Mr Marlowe to look at her at all. He was very preoccupied by his situation and determined to return to London the next day, and she was posing ever more provocatively to get him to notice her. Once he did, though, she had to move pretty fast to keep his hands off her, but didn’t quite manage it. Just as Marlowe was about to take advantage, Mr Hardcastle came into the room and was naturally astounded by what he saw. Marlowe fled immediately, and Kate had to haggle with her father to get another hour to prove that Mr Marlowe was not as he seemed.

With Marlowe’s father about to arrive any minute – Marlowe himself was still under the impression that he was at an inn – the jewels found their way back to Mrs Hardcastle as Hastings had left them with his friend for safekeeping, and he naturally thought to leave them with the’ landlady’ of the inn. Hardcastle took him to task for ordering his servants to drink as much as they could, and there was a lovely confrontation between them over this. Hardcastle ended up thrusting a lot of the furnishings into Marlowe’s arms, even breaking a painting over his head, and then stormed off in a temper. At long last Marlowe began to realise his mistake, and when he spoke to Kate next she confirmed the truth, that he was indeed in the house of his father’s friend. She didn’t tell him all, though; she stayed in the character of a poor relation of the family, and in short order got the declaration of love she was looking for.

On the jewels front, Tony had assured his mother it was simply a mistake of the servants, and he and Constance pretend to be fond of one another again to keep her happy. This time, they were almost at it on the bench in front of the fire when she came in, and when they broke off it was to act nice and play nasty. He twisted her hand, she slapped his cheek, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, a letter arrived for Tony from Hastings, but as Tony couldn’t read very well he asked his mother to read it out. Constance realised who it was from and took it herself, giving a false reading of the contents. But she made the mistake of inventing a plausible message that actually interested Tony, about fighting cocks and such. When she refused to read all the details, Mrs Hardcastle took on the job herself, and discovered the whole elopement plot. Her temper was very entertaining, especially when she made a very deep curtsey and needed help to get up – one of the funniest moments of the play.

Her decision to take Constance immediately to her aunt Pedigree allowed Tony to play another trick, and he lead the coach up, down and around until both ladies were completely shaken up, jarred to bits and lost. In the garden scene Tony told his mother, whose dress was now dirty from the horse pond, to hide if anyone came along. Mr Hardastle, taking a turn in his garden before bed, found Tony there, and because she was worried about his safety Mrs Hardcastle takes the brave step of coming out of hiding to tell the robbers to leave her son alone. Discovering his trick, she chased him into the house, followed by Hardcastle, and shortly afterwards Constance and Hastings. She was no longer prepared to elope that night, partly because of the journey she’d just had, but mainly because she’d realised that poverty wasn’t the greatest way to start a marriage and she wanted to ask Mr Hardcastle to take pity on them.

Meanwhile Marlowe’s father, Sir Charles Marlowe, had arrived, and yet again there were two competing opinions of young Marlowe’s behaviour, with Marlowe himself claiming he only met Kate once and hardly said anything to her, and Kate asserting that they had met several times, and that Mr Marlowe had, in fact, declared his love for her unequivocally. To find out the truth, Kate arranged for both fathers to overhear her final interview with Marlowe, in which she talked more like herself and he ended up kneeling as if to propose. At this point, Sir Charles leapt out of hiding (they hadn’t been quiet the rest of the time either) and all was revealed. With the remaining characters coming on stage as well, the final discovery regarding Tony Lumpkin solved all problems, and they finished with a rousing dance before taking their bows. Sophie Thompson did another deep curtsey and needed to be helped up – an enjoyable reprise.

Even with the scene changes the cast kept the energy up throughout the performance, and I would really like to see this one again.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Britfolk Footprint – February 2012


Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 7th February 2012

This was a really good concert of British folk music, with some new acts and one major reunion to enjoy.

First up was Sean Taylor, a solo performer with a strong blues influence. His guitar playing was fantastic and he produced some amazing sounds – bright and clear. His singing was good too, but as I’m not really into blues music I can’t really comment on that side of things. Check out his website –

The second act in the first part was Pilgrim’s Way, a group that are up for one of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. With three members – Edwin Beasant, Tom Kitching and Lucy Wright – they looked a little lost on the big Festival Theatre stage to begin with, but after they’d warmed up and relaxed they came across a lot better. They focus on traditional British folk music, and it was good to hear some different versions of songs we’ve become so familiar with in Steeleye’s repertoire, such as The Weaver and the Factory Maid.

Edwin plays just about every instrument under the sun – tonight he stuck to accordion, guitar and mouth organ, although he did actually play both the accordion and mouth organ at the same time for the final instrumental. Tom is described on our handout as fiddle, mandolin, reluctant vocals – didn’t notice any reluctance on his part for any of those tonight, while Lucy provided most of the vocals and also played the Jew’s harp, an instrument I’d heard of but not heard before; sounds a bit like a didgeridoo on speed. Their website is at

It was good to see some new acts, and hopefully we gave them a warm welcome as they stepped up to a larger venue than their usual gigs. No problems there for the headliners, who gave us over an hour of songs to entertain us. We’d seen the Oysterband back in 2007, but this time they were reunited with June Tabor. They’d worked with her about twenty years ago, releasing the album Freedom And Rain and touring together, including to the USA. Now they had reunited to record another album, Ragged Kingdom, and we were lucky enough to hear most of it during tonight’s performance.

The only downside for me was that I found I couldn’t make out many of the words when June Tabor was singing, apart from a few of the numbers where we either knew the words already or the band was much quieter (or even silent for one a cappella song). Even so, it was a great concert, and again it was interesting to hear some different versions of much loved numbers.

The lineup for tonight was John Jones, Alan Prosser, Ray ‘Chopper’ Cooper, Dil Davies, Ian Telfer and Al Scott, with June Tabor as well of course. The playlist was as follows (Ragged Kingdom tracks marked *):

Bonny Bunch of Roses* – good start. They had a DVD playing some images on the screen at the back which worked quite well with this one.

Fountains Flowing* – John Jones arrived on stage for this one, a variation on Fighting For Strangers.

All Tomorrow’s Parties

Love Will Tear Us Apart* – yes, this was the Joy Division song. One of the things I love about folk music is that it’s not cliquey; folk musicians will perform anything that they feel is a good song, and quite right too. I liked this version very much.

If My Love Loves Me* – June introduced this song very well, but as I couldn’t make out the words I had no idea what happened. From the printed lyrics, it all ends happily.

Molly Bond – an old song from the early days about a man who accidentally kills his own girlfriend. How careless! Another good one.

That Was My Veil*

(When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen* – the dangers of believing a young man when he says he loves you. There are a lot of songs in the folk tradition giving the same warning – not very effective, are they?

Bonny Susie

Mississippi Summer – lovely blending of June and John’s voices in this one.

Son David* – or Edward, as we know the Steeleye version by. This was a Scottish version, and very good too.

The Bells Of Rhymney – another one from the early days about the closing of the coal mines, though now it has a wider reach, sadly.

The Hills Of Shiloh* – a reminder of the reality of war, sung on their earlier tour of the States when the original Gulf War was all over the news. A lovely song, beautifully done, just June with Alan on guitar.

Meet You There – the singalong number. Great fun.

Dark Eyed Sailor – another one we knew, but this was a different version.

Seven Curses* – a less well known Bob Dylan number; thankfully they have much better voices than he does.

And for the encore:

The Dark End Of The Street* – nicely done.

White Rabbit – one of Steve’s favourites.

We stayed behind to buy some CDs and I was given a copy of the playlist as well, which is how I know the above list is accurate. I also took the opportunity to ask the Oysterband members for their autographs on said playlist – now there’s a memento to treasure. And their website is (and they won at the Radio 2 Folk Awards as well!)

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Our Country’s Good – February 2012

By Timberlake Wertenbaker

Directed by Alistair Whatley

Company: The Original Theatre Company

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 2nd February 2012

We saw this play many years ago at the Royal Court (1988) where they played it paired with The Recruiting Officer, the play being rehearsed by the convicts. The casts were the same, so we had all the fun of seeing the actors rehearse as convicts and then play the same parts for real. As it happens, we’re going to see The Recruiting Officer in a few weeks, as Josie Rourke has chosen that play to start her Donmar reign; although the actors won’t be the same, it will be interesting to see the combination again.

The Recruiting Officer is a very funny play; Our Country’s Good makes full use of that comedy to lighten the darkness it’s exploring – our treatment of convicted criminals a couple of centuries ago, which just happens to be very similar to current events in many ways. Even if we hadn’t seen the play before, we had plenty of advance warning that it was a serious piece as we groped our way to our seats through thick fog. (Oh alright, it was only a light mist, but I have to keep my spirits up somehow.)

The set was evocative; there were two wooden frames which dominated the stage, and one of them had some pulley tackle attached which could have been on a ship or part of a construction site, both appropriate for the play. There were wooden boxes scattered around the place as well, and these performed a number of roles – mainly furniture, but they even stretched to a rowing boat at one point. A table was brought on from time to time as needed and there were blankets for the stage curtains; that was about it. The convicts were in tatty clothes of the period, while the officers wore splendid red coats and wigs. There was also a Reverend dressed in sombre black. As almost everyone doubled up at least once, the women all played officers as well – one played the parson – and they all did a very good job.

During rehearsal

Our Country’s Good

The opening scene is set on the ship taking the convicts out to Australia. As one chap was being flogged by a couple of the officers on the central frame, the other convicts huddled on the front of the stage, singing a song. The image of brutality was very clear. The next scene introduced us to the Captain and some of the officers. Their conversation covered the nature of the penal colony they were now running, their differing attitudes on punishment vs. rehabilitation, and the unusual flora and fauna to be found in this strange land. Despite professing some enlightened views about providing a civilising influence on the convicts, I noticed it was the Captain himself who was the first to shoot something.

We then met Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, a young officer missing his wife back home terribly and keen to find some way of earning his superior’s approval and preferment. One of the men suggested to him that he stage a play using the convicts as his cast, and he decided to act on this. The rest of the play showed us the casting process, the convicts’ different attitudes and abilities, the response from the officers, especially those who objected to the play being put on, and the developing relationship between Ralph and Mary Brenham, his lead actress and one of the few convicts who could read. The final scene showed the start of their performance, with the stage audience on the other side of the curtains as we watched the back stage preparations. From the reactions we could hear, this was going to be a total success, and rightly so.

There was so much meat to this performance that it’s hard to know where to begin. The story was told very clearly, and at times it was difficult to watch. The abuse of these people, treating them as sub-human when they were mostly ill-educated and poor, was beyond moving. These were harsh times, and people were being transported for stealing a loaf of bread. The number of lashes needed to be effective was being discussed by the officers at one point, and two hundred seemed to be a reasonable amount to them – it’s clear they never expected to be on the receiving end. I soon found myself longing, as the prisoners did, for the relief of a rehearsal scene; even so, the author cleverly increased the tension by having the most unpleasant officers invade the final rehearsal we see and, overriding Ralph’s protests, abuse the convict actors horribly. It only stops because one of them, the most enthusiastic actor of the troupe, starts performing and the others join in, a brave choice in the circumstances but the only possible one if the play was to go on.

From time to time throughout the play, one of the natives came on stage and commented on what he saw. At first he thought these strange white people were part of a dream, but it didn’t take him long to realise they’re no dream; nightmare more like. Just before the final scene, as they were setting up the stage, the native appeared again but this time he was covered in sores from the diseases the white folk have brought with them. This oblique referencing of the natives’ experience was very powerful, as it emphasised both the impact which the new arrivals had and their disinterest in the native population – two hours of soapboxing wouldn’t have been so effective.

I want to remember so much about this play that I know I won’t be able to get it all down in time. There were so many layers that I’m still discovering things as I write. The discussion among the officers showed us their brutality, and with the doubling, it emphasised for me that the officers and men were just as brutal and uncivilised as the prisoners, but with the power they had they could express it more easily. There were educated prisoners as well such as Mary and John Wisehammer, who was also interested in Mary but had to watch as she and Ralph gradually became an item.

Our Country’s Good

Harry Brewer represented the guilty conscience, as his obsession with the ghost of a man he’d hanged on ship eventually drove him to madness and death. His relationship with Duckling Smith, in which he wanted some kindness and she withheld it until it was too late, showed the difficulty for women in those conditions. They were expected to provide ‘comfort’ for the men, but how could they then have any affection or tenderness in a relationship?

Ralph’s gradual change from dedicated husband to Mary’s lover was nicely done, and there were many lovely moments in the performance. I did find it hard to hear the lines occasionally – Liz Morden’s story was particularly quiet – but it didn’t stop me understanding what was going on. The music was good – we like traditional folk songs – and the cast did a fantastic job. It’s still early in the tour, so it may even improve, though we were very happy with our experience.

It’s a dark piece covering a difficult subject, and it’s a shame there weren’t more people in the audience to appreciate this excellent production. I can understand the difficulty, but this is definitely a modern classic – should be done in schools if it isn’t already – and I wish them every success with the tour.

The Original Theatre Company website –

© 2012 Sheila Evans at