Boris Godunov – November 2012

Experience: 6/10

By Pushkin, adapted by Adrian Mitchell

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 23rd November 2012

We saw the Declan Donnellan production of this play with the Chekov International Festival Theatre company, in Russian with surtitles (May 2008). Reviewing my notes I realise that I’d grasped the gist and enjoyed the staging, but now I was looking to get more of the details of the story, in English – hooray! As it turns out, I was probably better off in some ways with the Russian version, as Pushkin’s play seems to be a rambling piece with no clear focus, and in English this deficiency became more apparent. However the performances were all very good and made up for some of the gaps in the writing, and I definitely understood the story better this time around. As it’s still in preview, it will undoubtedly get stronger and it will be interesting to see it again next year.

The opening scene with the conversation between the two princes was a good start. They explained the situation, and one of the princes, Shuiskii, had actually been sent to investigate the death of the crown prince Dmitry and report back to the Tsar, so he knew the facts of the case. His prophecy that Boris would keep refusing the crown until the people practically forced him to take it proved true, and these scenes were a nice counterpoint to the equivalent bits in Richard III. I felt I could have done with more of these two throughout the play, as their conversations were both informative and fun, but they were relatively minor characters.

Boris’s suffering did come across, though I wasn’t entirely clear about the causes. Some of the crowd scenes were a bit of a jumble, though we did laugh at the treatment of a baby. First it was told to be quiet and got hit when it wouldn’t stop crying, then they wanted it to cry to show Boris their suffering, and it was hit again and even thrown on the ground to make it cry. Nasty stuff, but it was funny at the time.

Grigory’s wooing of the Polish princess Maryna was good fun. Lucy Briggs-Owen was clearly not interested in declarations of love, and his acting like a wimp didn’t attract her at all. There was enough of a change in Grigory’s behaviour to make sense of her change of heart, and I enjoyed her performance as much as those of the two princes.

The set mainly consisted of an open balcony at the back; there was a forest of coats hanging under this, and these were taken by characters as they came on stage so they gradually disappeared. There were ladders up to the central section of the balcony, and a large map of Russia hung in front of it for one scene. Otherwise, the furniture was brought on and off as needed, and there was only one use of a trapdoor as I recall. That’s it for now – so many plays and so little time.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

The Haunting – November 2012


Adapted from the ghost stories of Charles Dickens by Hugh James

Directed by Hugh Wooldridge

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 20th November 2012

Another splendid adaptation of Dickens tonight, this time by Hugh James. He’s taken Dickens’ various ghost stories, plus some atmospheric bits from the novels, and blended them into a really creepy evening’s entertainment, complete with special effects. For an audience used to compelling 3D CGI in films nowadays, it may seem a bit tame, but I found it tremendously scary – Steve’s hand is expected to make a full recovery. The performances were very good, and although some of the lighting effects seemed a bit strange, the story was so well told that I was gripped from the start.

I won’t give too much away (I hope). The two-person story concerned a young man, David Filde (James Roache) and an older one, Lord Gray (David Robb). Lord Gray had recently succeeded to the title after the death of his father, and he was back in England to wrap up the estate and sell off the remaining assets – the books, the house, etc. – so that he could clear his father’s debts and return to India, where he had established himself as a businessman. David Filde was the nephew of the book dealer who had sold the late Lord Gray many of the books which lined his study walls, and having been trained in the same business, had been sent by his uncle to catalogue and remove the books for sale. After a short while, David began to hear strange sounds, a voice asking him to “help me” and the like, and with only four days left before Lord Gray returned to India, the pressure soon mounted to unravel the mystery in time.

The set was detailed and elaborate. It represented the study where the older Lord Gray had spent much of his time, with a bedroom off it in which he had actually died. There was a surprising amount of humour in this production, and the current Lord Gray’s casual reference to the fact that the bed young David would be sleeping in was the one his father had died in was one of the early laughs. From the right: tall double doors to the hall, bookcases with steps up to them, a small dais in front of the central French windows where stood the desk with an armchair on the audience side, a large globe on a stand in the corner, the double doors to the bedroom, and more book shelves surrounding the fireplace. A portrait of the late Lord Gray hung over the fireplace, and there was a very strong resemblance to his son. Another armchair stood beside the fire, and there was the skeleton of a tree outside the windows, which were smeared with age. The room had fallen into such neglect that it had lost part of the roof – a chandelier lay front right on the floor, draped with cobwebs and dust. At the top of the walls were some broken planks, and a thick film of dust with cobweb trim was visible on most of the books. As the play progressed, and David sorted out more of the books, gaps appeared on the shelves and a couple of packing cases materialised near the doors to the hall.

The effects were not too surprising – books falling off shelves and doors opening and closing on their own and suchlike – but they were well used, and the plot unfolded with masterful skill. We had some ideas at the interval, and weren’t completely off the mark as it turned out, but there was plenty still to learn in the second half and the revelations were well done. The final scene put a whole new slant on the events we’d seen, and we were very happy with our evening’s thrills and chills.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Twelfth Night – November 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 14th November 2012

What a difference five years and an almost complete change of cast can make! When we saw this production in May 2007, it was paired with The Taming Of The Shrew, the latter being part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival. Although we like the actors involved in that ensemble, we just didn’t care for their take on these plays, so it was always going to be interesting to see this revival.

The set and staging were almost identical, but the performances were so different that we enjoyed ourselves enormously. They blended the dark and light aspects of this tricky comedy perfectly, and while we missed Tony Bell’s version of Feste, Liam O’Brien did an excellent job as well; not so much a Lord of Misrule this time, but still a strong character and with a lovely voice too. He played a guitar of some sort instead of a fiddle, but the music was still beautiful.

The start was the same, with Christopher Heyward’s Orsino being wonderfully melodramatic in his love-sickness. I was reminded of The Woman Hater at the Orange Tree (January 2008), with the over-the-top couple the Wilmots giving us plenty of laughs at their absurd over-reactions to events. Orsino’s behaviour seemed more in keeping with the grief theme than any form of love, and it also made me think that both he and Olivia are over-reacting to their situations – playing the drama queens – and that Viola and Sebastian bring them back to earth. I was keen to see how Olivia would be played in this respect, and Ben Allen did indeed play the role in keeping with Orsino’s portrayal, all moody and over-sensitive.

During the storm and shipwreck scene, I noticed a large glass bottle with a sailing ship in it which was held up as part of the choreographed storm movements. I suspect this was present in the previous version but I either didn’t notice it or didn’t note it down. The sea captain had some nicely detailed reactions to Viola’s dialogue, which isn’t normally the case.

Maria was played by Gary Shelford this time, who gave a much more memorable performance than the previous Maria. ‘She’ had a very expressive face, giving knowing winks or being serious when required, and really brought the part to life. This casting also explained her affinity with Sir Toby, as it made her a distant cousin of Bardolph (Gary’s role in Henry V). She moved round the stage during her first conversation with Sir Toby, removing the remaining dust sheets and putting the chairs upright. Vince Leigh was an affable Sir Toby, tetchy at times but too much of a drinker to be a real menace – it’s Maria who tricks Malvolio after all. He didn’t throw up properly on stage this time, just gushed some liquid out of his mouth – unpleasant, but not as gross as the earlier version. Sir Andrew, played by John Dougall, was older than usual and the humour was less obvious, but his pathetic attempts to join in and impress people were still good fun, and the sadness behind his silliness was plain to see. He held a long pause before the line “I was adored once, too”, and Sir Toby snatched off his ridiculous wig in the final scene, leaving him exposed and humiliated.

I didn’t realise at first that it was Viola who came through one of the wardrobes and took a grey jacket off the rail, but I did notice the flower in her hair about the same time she did; she threw it away to complete her disguise, and then Curio, in Valentine’s absence, started the next scene. I was concerned that I might not spot the difference between the twins, as both had bleached blond hair and were very similar in looks, but there was enough variation for me to know who was who. I found that Joseph Chance’s Viola was much more manly in disguise as Cesario, and while that lost some aspects of Orsino and Olivia’s confusion in their attraction to the ‘boy’, it did emphasise for me the general sense of ambiguous sexuality pervading the play. This was heightened by Antonio’s attraction to Sebastian which was shown to be clearly physical, although Antonio tried to hide it by making excuses for his ‘love’. Sebastian was uncomfortable with this affection (not averse to Olivia’s advances, fortunately) and I was conscious that Antonio was probably falling in love with Viola through her brother, as Olivia falls in love with Sebastian through his sister.

Olivia warmed up nicely to Feste’s fooling, while Malvolio (Chris Myles) glowered in the background. Chris is shorter than usual for this role, which added another dimension to Malvolio’s arrogance and self-regard. He played the steward’s role pretty straight, until the reveal of the yellow stockings, that is. He also had a badger goatee, with two dark grey strips on either side of a white one, which added to the impression of pomposity.

When Olivia sent the ring after Cesario, she had a devil of a job getting it off her finger, which got a laugh. Sebastian’s description of his sister to Antonio was emphasised by having him look into one of the wardrobe mirrors as he talked, while Viola stood on the other side and the lighting allowed her face to show through.

The late night drinking party went very well to begin with. Feste’s first song was very pleasant, and Sir Andrew and even Sir Toby added some extra vocals. The catch was as rowdy as one could wish, and when Maria turned up I was slightly distracted by the vivid red fluffy mules she was wearing. Mind you, that was nothing compared to the fact that Malvolio had taken the trouble to put his chain of office round his neck over his dressing gown before accosting the reprobates who were having a drunken orgy downstairs. It was a nice touch, and said a lot about Malvolio’s character.

Feste had to leg it pretty quick over to the Duke’s court for the next scene, where he was called on to sing yet another song. Orsino listened to it while sitting on the coffin (oops, forgot to mention that, just wait a bit) with Cesario sitting beside him. During this song, Cesario adopted a more feminine posture, and as Orsino was affected by the song and became emotional, Cesario ended up holding him until Orsino tore himself away at the end of the song.

The coffin: it was brought on when Olivia first arrived and sat centre back, then it was brought forward for the following scenes. Feste lay in it at one point, probably during the drunken revel. As I recall, it was taken off when the stage was cleared for the letter scene, and the triangular box trees were brought on instead. There seemed to be more of them this time, two sets of five, and there were three statues at the back, the same as before. The plinth for Olivia’s statue was front right, and again the statue held the letter out for Malvolio to spot, with two fingers sticking up at him all the while. Sir Andrew’s question about “her c’s, her u’s and her t’s” was answered by Sir Toby whispering in his ear, after which Sir Andrew smothered a laugh and disappeared behind the shrubbery again.

With Fabian not present, Feste took part again in this scene. The other masked actors did plenty of sound effects to cover the noise of the hidden men, mostly in the form of birds cawing and flying off. The statues were more active than the people, and were constantly reforming, often including one of the characters as well. Malvolio was too excited at his discovery to notice much, and rushed through the letter without losing clarity, although his hands were trembling. The “revolve” led to the letter itself being rotated vertically, and his final grimacing ‘smile’ was a sight to behold! The first half ended with Maria’s explanation of the trick and their exit.

No songs during the interval, sadly, but there was plenty of music at the start of the second half on stage. Viola interrupted this with her question to Feste, and the rest of the masked men gradually eased themselves off stage till they were alone for their conversation about cheverel gloves. After Feste left, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew came along, and Sir Andrew was again completely flummoxed by Cesario’s simple French reply to his own greeting.

Olivia seemed to come to terms with Cesario’s refusal to enter into a personal relationship with her, but her feelings got the better of her and she ended up on the floor, clutching Cesario’s hands in a desperate attempt to persuade him to stay – no chance. Sir Andrew entered for the next scene carrying a large suitcase and a smaller bag, and began packing his clothes which were on the rail. Sir Toby and Feste manipulated him into writing a challenge, and then Maria arrived to inform them that Malvolio was about to make a fool of himself.

Sebastian and Antonio’s scene was straightforward, and then Olivia came back for her first encounter with the new Malvolio. He leaned on the side of the door, grinning broadly at her, until stepping forward to strip off his trousers and reveal what lay underneath. Yellow stockings covered in black fishnet tights were complimented by a leather studded codpiece of considerable proportions. We laughed, and kept on laughing as Malvolio chased Olivia round the stage. Then when Sir Toby, Feste and Maria turned up, they had to use a large syringe to sedate him, leaving him fast asleep at the front of the stage as Feste delivered the “improbable fiction” line to much laughter.

Sir Andrew’s outfit for the fight scene was almost as funny as Malvolio’s. He still wore his evening jacket but with white satin boxing shorts and boxing gloves, and his hair was pulled up through the holes in his protective helmet giving him a very strange and funny appearance. The challenge was read out, with Maria giving Fabian’s responses. The mock duel was well done, with lots of struggling to avoid the fight on the part of both duellers, and never a blow struck in earnest with the boxing gloves. Antonio soon parted them and was arrested, and Cesario reacted noticeably to the mention of Sebastian’s name.

The real Sebastian threw Antonio’s purse at Feste to get rid of him – very generous – and after his fight with Sir Toby he was quite happy to accept Olivia’s offer of entertainment, while she was absolutely thrilled at his acceptance. With two such similar ‘twins’, there was no difficulty believing that one could be mistaken for the other, quite a change from recent productions.

The stage was darkened for the next scene, with Maria, Sir Toby and Feste up on top of the wardrobes looking down on Malvolio beneath them. Malvolio was down to only the codpiece this time, and chained up. Sir Topas stayed up on the wardrobe for his initial conversation with Malvolio, while Feste came down afterwards to talk to the man directly. Sir Toby’s parting instruction to Maria – “Come by and by to my chamber” – suggested a close personal encounter was in the offing.

Sebastian was again in bed for the start of the next scene, and again the sheet which he’d wrapped around himself fell off when Olivia arrived with the priest – nice. Fabian’s request to see the letter was dropped, so the next scene began with Orsino’s entrance and rattled along very nicely, with all the fun of the revelations and a few sniffles as well. The reunion between the twins was moving; it was understandable that they would both be reluctant to believe the evidence of their eyes, given what they’d been through.

Maria was on stage for this scene, although she did try to sneak off when the letter was handed to Olivia. No such luck; she was called back, and gave Fabian’s speech, suitably altered, in which she announced her marriage to Sir Toby and flashed her ring, a large gaudy one, at the assembled throng. Malvolio mustered some dignity as he limped off, and the performance ended with Feste’s final song. Despite this seeming a rather downbeat ending, we were all very happy as we applauded, and even carried on singing the song as we left. A huge improvement on last time, and a reminder that it’s well worth seeing this sort of production more than once, as even with the same cast there can be lots of changes.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Duet For One – November 2012


By Tom Kempinski

Directed by Robin Herford

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 8th November 2012

What a shame this had such a small audience tonight. I know it’s not the most cheerful of subjects, but it’s a good play and with Hadyn Gwynne and William Gaunt as the cast I would have expected a better turnout. Still, they gave us excellent performances and we enjoyed this production even more than the Almeida’s 2009 revival.

The set was as required for the piece: music stacked on shelves on the left – CD format – with the player, bookcase beside that, windows centre back with a plant on a table in front of them, desk and chair to the right with more bookcases behind, stacked with books. There was a picture on the wall, a rug in the middle of the floor, an armchair which the doctor moved before his patient arrived and that was about it.

This play definitely isn’t about the set, though, it’s about the performances. Hadyn Gwynne was very believable as the virtuoso violinist whose MS has left her without a reason for living and who isn’t yet ready to deal with the emotional issues this is bringing up for her. Despite her sarcasm and attempts to plead ‘normality’ we could see the vulnerability and despair lurking under the surface, and her gradual discovery of her inner workings was judged to perfection.

Her performance was well matched by William Gaunt as the doctor. He didn’t go in for the tremendously long pauses and distinctly odd behaviour we’ve seen before; his behaviour was measured and kind, and completely believable for a doctor who had seen a lot of human suffering and done his best to help each patient come to terms with it in their own way. His strong outburst when he saw the danger his patient was in was very moving, and certainly affected her as well. Her final realisation of her situation, not yet ‘cured’ but at least willing to do the work, was a fitting end to the play.

We applauded as loudly as we could to make up for the small numbers; I do hope they get the full houses they deserve on the rest of the tour.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Good Grief – November 2012


By Keith Waterhouse

Directed by Tom Littler

Theatre Royal Bath Productions

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st November 2012

I think this sort of thing is called a ‘gentle’ comedy, as there aren’t quite as many laughs as you get with a robust comedy. Based on a Keith Waterhouse novel, this play covers a few months in the life of a recently widowed woman whose husband had been an editor in Fleet Street. She tried to follow his deathbed instruction to her that she write a diary of her feelings after he died, but she ended up talking to him instead which effectively meant we heard her inner thoughts about the people she was dealing with, plus the occasional discourse on things in general. The comments were often very funny, and the situation provided some humour as well, though it wasn’t the strongest I’ve seen for this kind of story.

The set was fairly elaborate and provided two main locations – the living room of the widow’s house and an area of the local pub. There were one or two other places which were usually just spotlit areas of the main stage, but mostly we were in one or other of those two settings. The living room went from the front bay window on our left across the sofa, table and chairs to the folding dining table and kitchen door on the right. The front door was just off back left with a door to the garage beside it. The stairs started next to the main entrance and went up to the landing which had one cupboard door on the left and a couple of bedroom doors. For the pub, these stairs slid to the right and the pub seating slid forward – an L-shaped nook with a table. The bar was round by the garage, and the stairs became the stairs of the pub, leading to the loos. Occasionally the characters came forward and used the sofa area as part of the pub, and though I found this a little confusing, overall it worked pretty well, and it did make the scene changes a bit quicker.

The main problem for me was the casting. Penelope Keith is very good at certain things, but she can’t do Northern grit for love nor money. Her accent toured round the British Isles, touching base most often in the Home Counties, but with a fair amount of reference to her character’s point of origin. Her comic timing was still fine, but without the biting delivery that gives that kind of humour a real kick. She did her best and it wasn’t bad, just adequate, which was a shame for the others in the cast who were, I felt, capable of more if they’d had a more suitable leading lady. Maybe we’ll see another production of this in years to come and be able to judge it better.

Christopher Ravenscroft was fine as the potential love interest, a downsized office worker whose attempts to set himself up as a handyman were doomed to failure, judging by the refitting of the widow’s fridge door. Flora Montgomery played the step-daughter, whose relationship with her step-mother changed after some revelations, while Jonathan Firth was wonderfully smarmy as the recently deceased journalist’s ex-boss – you knew he was a wrong ‘un the minute he walked in the room. The understudies also saw some action as the other people in the pub – waitresses and customers – which must have been more fun than doing crosswords in their dressing rooms, and gave us the momentary pleasure of checking out who would have understudied whom.

Not the greatest production we’ll see this year by any means, but with Ms Keith in the lead role they should do good business.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at