By William Congreve
Directed by Theo Scholefield
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Tuesday 8th December 2015
The advantage of a production with such a loose, interactive style of performance is that the understudies’ run fits in perfectly. Pre-prepared mistakes are part of the enjoyment, so a few unintended ones from time to time can slot right in. This audience was already in an end-of-term mood, so the pre-show ‘warm-up’ was off to a flying start. We were sitting on the right hand side of the stage this time, close to the front, so we had an even more detailed view of the performance, and after yesterday’s fun we made sure we were in early to enjoy as much as we could of the initial activities.
I forgot that the crocodile was covered in a cloth at the start. The regular cast were supporting the understudies, although we spotted Robert Cavanagh (Scandal) sitting in the audience. The preliminaries were as before, and this time we were almost right behind the lady in the front row who was asked to play Queen Anne for the day. She was very happy to help out, and they gave her the royal crown – foam rubber and Velcro, with “Please return me” on the inner front spike. She gave some regal waves at the audience when we were invited to applaud the Queen, and was visited by several of the actors before the start, to ingratiate themselves and get some royal attention. One of the actors came over to say “he’s very good” and indicated someone in the program held by Queen Anne’s husband, which was open at the CVs. The chap on the ladder at the back fell off at the same point, and was rescued by a slightly smaller group of fellow actors. One of the men fell into the RSC hamper once they’d finished with it, and was wheeled off stage – this was shortly before the dead deer was brought through, if I remember correctly.
With everything set up for the start, there was an additional pause this afternoon before the assistant director took to the stage. He made the usual speech, and did it well, getting across just how hard the understudies had to work to learn their own parts plus several others in a very short timescale. As he left the stage – he sat on the left aisle, row B, with the text open on his lap, just in case – the actors began to bring on the set for Act 1, scene 1, but Daisy Ashford (the bent-backed nurse from yesterday) stopped them so that she could speak the prologue. They brought the lights back up for this bit – same as yesterday – but before Daisy could charm us with Congreve’s elegant lines, Justine Mitchell tried to barge her way into the performance by coming on stage and standing next to Daisy, who stood her ground and sent her packing – quite right too!
Again, she started the music up just before the last line of the prologue, and returned briefly to the stage to announce the “Act 1” information. As he lounged on the chaise, Valentine made as if to speak, but didn’t, and when he decided to be a writer, he went over to a chap in the front left corner and borrowed his cast list. The basic plot details were soon established, and although they didn’t make as much of “Ben” as in yesterday’s performance, we still got the point. Scandal arrived on the left balcony just as Jeremy was railing against wit, this Valentine managed to give the cast list back to the correct chap, and after Scandal toped up Trapland’s glass from his own, he and Jeremy touched glass and bottle behind Trapland’s back.
The real fun and games began when Tattle arrived. Since Elliot Ross was playing both Jeremy and Tattle, we had enormous fun seeing him put on his Tattle coat, then take it off, give it to himself, show himself in through the door, etc. Others helped out, of course, holding doors open and the like, but it was still a very funny section of the play. Having admitted to a liaison with Mrs Frail, Tattle was naturally startled when Jeremy announced her arrival, and tried to run away, again. For the final rhyming couplet, spoken by Scandal, I saw that Angelica was standing on the left balcony.
Act 2 started, and Michael Fenton Stevens came on as Foresight, accompanied by a servant. Before he started on Foresight’s dialogue, Michael came over to Queen Anne and kissed her hand. Foresight’s comments on his differently coloured socks were much clearer today, and the battle of wits with Angelica, a very unequal battle if you ask me, was sharp and funny. Foresight’s description of her included the line “she has a mole upon her lip”: he cupped his hand under his right breast for the first part of that line, and paused before “lip” – big laugh. There was some confusion over whether Angelica was calling for a cab or a chair, and then Foresight took a swig from his flask before greeting Sir Sampson.
If the Jeremy/Tattle combo was entertaining, the doubling of Foresight and Sir Sampson was hilarious. The dialogue between them was too quick for any real change of costume, so Michael had to make do with putting Foresight’s soft hat on or taking it off. This proved troublesome in itself, so within a few exchanges he threw the hat down in frustration and got on with the job by just acting, and moving from side to side of the stage – Sir Sampson on the left, Foresight on the right. We had laughed at the hat going on and coming off, we laughed even more when it was tossed aside, and we thoroughly enjoyed the marvellous clarity of Michael’s hatless performance thereafter. It was abundantly clear which character he was doing, and although I was more familiar with the play having already seen it once, I reckon his delivery got the lines across better than either of the main cast actors, good though they were. Michael Fenton Stevens has a great facility for working an audience, and he was clearly relishing both parts, as were we.
As Sir Sampson and Foresight’s argument reached its height, Foresight threw the bond at Sir Sampson – very funny when there was no one there – and picked it up again when he was next on that side of the stage. After Valentine came on and had the argument with his father – Foresight was fortunately very quiet during this part – Sir Sampson finished the scene with “come, brother Foresight”. He looked around, saw no one there, and went off alone to much applause. (I spotted Jeremy polishing the top of Valentine’s cane during the early part of that scene.)
In the confrontation between Mrs Frail and Mrs Foresight, the latter had great difficulty pulling out the bodkin which proved that her sister had been at the World’s End. It was so awkward that she swore out loud – much laughter. She also had to put on a pink hair band and frill to play Prue, while Mrs Frail was being doubled with Angelica which was generally easier and didn’t seem to require changes to her costume. I noted that Prue slapped Mr Tattle and stamped on his foot – same as yesterday. She also ran off, came back on and used her dress as a matador’s cape to lure him to follow her.
Moving on to just before Ben’s arrival, I was aware that Angelica was flirting with Sir Sampson when she told him that she wanted a good estate, and would rather marry Sir Sampson himself than his son. Fortunately, he was still staking everything on Ben, so wasn’t interested at that point. A fish came out of Ben’s hat when he took it off – didn’t see that yesterday – and I preferred today’s Prue during the ‘wooing’ scene. When Scandal was conning Foresight into believing he was sick, he gave Foresight a mirror, provided by Mrs Foresight, to check out his complexion. Foresight held it in front of members of the audience and asked them to check for him, and after asking “is there a doctor in the house” – “yes” – added “you don’t fancy playing one of these parts?”, which got a huge laugh.
The sailor’s song and dance were as before. I had thought they might have been a little light on numbers, but the regular cast joined in to keep it all going. It was very clear this time that the barrel was brought on too early for the dance, as Ben and his two fellow dancers yelled “get it off”. With the dancing over, they went through the short section of dialogue, but something went wrong with the final couplet. As they left the stage, Michael Fenton Stevens said “only two hours to go”, so they exited for the interval on a laugh.
After a few minutes, Michael Thomas came on with young Elliot (Jeremy/Tattle) and the two of them chatted for a bit while they did some work with the front right lantern. When Michael went to the back left corner to pull on the rope he lifted Elliot up, and he dangled there by the leg until the stage manager came on and told Michael to let him down. Michael, meanwhile, had been declaring that he didn’t like young people and he didn’t like talented people (all of which we assume to be completely untrue). After Elliot left the stage, Michael and the stage manager took the barrel off between them, with the usual mutterings about risk assessments.
They did the rest of the tidying up, and I noticed that the instruments in the musicians’ corner near us looked period as well, a nice touch. The stage manager walked across the stage a couple of times before coming back on with the regular Valentine to get the chair moved. He was wearing a cap, and took it off a few times while he bowed, then went into the reprise of the dance as in yesterday’s interval performance. He wasn’t into the techno moves like yesterday’s dancer, but it was good fun nonetheless.
The understudy Valentine’s madness was equally as good, and the cuckoo just as annoying (and just as dead, later on). Valentine came on round the door holding a skull this time, which got a good laugh. When Tattle was comparing himself to Valentine, hoping to win Angelica’s affection, he referred to Valentine as “a poor decayed creature” and tapped him on the shoulder, whereupon Valentine ‘melted’ onto the floor.
These later scenes became trickier today, as so many of the actors were playing two parts at once. Having seen the play yesterday helped, as it was fresh in my mind, but it was still hard work for both us and the actors. Steve found it difficult to distinguish between Angelica and Mrs Frail, though I felt they were clear enough, but it must have been hard for first-timers to follow. They also needed a few prompts now and again, which wasn’t surprising, especially with such tricky language, so all credit to them that they were mostly off book.
The next song was sung today by Scandal (Hywel Morgan). When Valentine threw the pillow at Jeremy it hit the door frame this time, and I noticed that Jeremy picked up the dead cuckoo. The (slightly reduced) female chorus reprised the lines at the end of Act 4, then turned and blew on the candelabra which caused it to light up – beautiful. Sir Sampson went down on one knee to ask Angelica to marry him, producing a high-pitched, strangulated “I love you”, another funny touch. He grabbed Angelica after kissing her hands, and she had to push him away.
The next scene between Jeremy and Mr Tattle was another funny one, short though it was, and then the play built to its climax. With an increasing number of characters on stage, the doubling became more intense, and they handled it all brilliantly. Sir Sampson kicked the bucket on his way out, and the cat was similarly abused, judging by its howl. Angelica helped her Valentine out by tearing the bond again, and they had the same dance at the end. The closing lines were well delivered, and we gave them rapturous applause for their heroic efforts. This was almost better than yesterday’s main cast, and I do hope the RSC get some of these actors back again to give them bigger roles, as they’ve shown they can handle it well.
There were some prompts today; Scandal and Mrs Foresight in particular needed help with some of their lines, but we noticed that Michael Fenton Stevens was word perfect, even when ad-libbing. We enjoyed all the performances, although I felt that Mrs Foresight/Prue was a little under-rehearsed compared to the others; even so, I liked her version of Prue very much. The extra familiarity meant we got even more out of today’s performance, and it looked like they were having as much fun as we were. I do hope so. (The crown was left on the stage after the performance, by the way.)
© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me