Romeo And Juliet – March 2015

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Sally Cookson

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 19th March 2015

One of the lovely things about the number of Shakespeare productions being put on these days is that we get a chance to compare and contrast performances much more quickly than before. This is a fairly typical case: an early performance of one production followed a few weeks later by a completely different version with a reprise of the first one close on its heels. There were some interesting similarities amongst the many differences, and both had a lot to offer with their individual take on the play.

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The Rape Of Lucrece – June 2014

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Elizabeth Freestone

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 26th June 2014

We saw this same production three years ago and were keen to see how they were doing it now. We had contrasting opinions this time: I didn’t think the production had changed much (although the performances had naturally developed) while Steve felt it was very different and preferred this performance to the previous one. To be fair, he didn’t rate our first viewing as high as I had, a fact which, in the glow of a wonderful evening, I seem to have omitted from my notes.

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Lovesong – November 2011

6/10

By Abi Morgan

Directed and choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett

Company: Frantic Assembly

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 16th November 2011

This was our first experience of Frantic Assembly’s work, and it was pretty impressive to see the strong following they have amongst the younger audience. Their style is very physical – the actors even rehearsed on the actual set, which is almost unheard of – and there was a lot of poetry to the performance style. The layered effect of the overlapping scenes was well done, and the music, movement, set and lighting combined very effectively. The performances were all excellent, and blended together really well. The only downside for us was that the story itself was pretty thin, and the movement sections, while they were well done, slowed everything down so much that I was nodding off a bit during the middle section. The idea was good – the same couple seen at the start of their marriage and at the end – and there was one really moving scene, but overall there wasn’t enough material for even the one and half hours without interval.

The set was fairly simple, but there was a lot going on. There were several tall panels at the back at various angles, which created both a barrier and lots of entrances. Their surface was slightly textured, and they were plain white, with lots of Chinese lanterns hidden behind them which were brought out for the final scene. In front of these panels was a wide space with a fridge far left, a wardrobe far right, a bed beside the wardrobe, and a plain kitchen table with three chairs to the left near the fridge. Around all this, and covering a large apron-shape to the front, was a bed of flowers, bright yellow things with hints of green leaves. In amongst these, several peaches had been hidden – even more important to stop the audience walking on the stage today – and some of these were discovered and eaten during the course of the play. The fridge and wardrobe were also entrances, with characters, particularly the early couple, appearing and disappearing through them from time to time.

The bed was also an ingenious contraption, with a secret hole which allowed the actors to slide up onto the bed and down again. This was used during a prolonged section of activity on the bed, when all four characters were interacting with one another; from the post-show, this was done to show the amount of sexual activity that went on, and how the older couple were still seeing their partner as the younger version, or perhaps remembering how things used to be. It’s a good idea, and well executed, but I’ve never related to movement so well as speech, and it went on far too long for me. I was amazed at how well Sian Lloyd and Sam Cox managed all the physical stuff – sliding on and off the bed so smoothly must have been hard work. At the post-show, they told us how the director/choreographers had worked with each actor’s own ability level, and with practice they’d all strengthened up and the movements became easier. (And apparently Sam Cox can do more pushups than Ed Bennett.)

The early couple’s story showed us their initial hopes when they moved into their new house – hopes for a family, a successful dental business, etc. With no sign of children, and the years passing, their relationship is put under a lot of strain, with each partner making some difficult choices. The later couple are facing the death of the wife, from some incurable but unspecified disease. Her choice to help things along was sad but understandable, and as both partners face the inevitable ending of their relationship, it’s natural that they would reflect on their time together. The most moving scene was one where the husband finally snaps and tells his wife he won’t take care of himself at all once she’s gone. It was the most telling display of emotion, and showed us how much he still loved her after all those years.

We were joined by all four members of the cast and Scott Graham, one of the director/choreographers, for the post-show. The discussion revealed how much more the play had given to others, particularly the younger audience members. Listening to them I became aware that we all have our journey of experience, and while Steve and I have come further down the road, so that this play seemed weak to us, there are others who have still to experience these things for themselves, and awakening them to these sorts of life events is no bad thing. The enthusiasm of Frantic Assembly’s supporters was good to see, and suggests that theatre is still thriving in this country and still appealing to all ages. Long may that continue.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Rattigan’s Nijinsky – July 2011

6/10

By: Terence Rattigan and Nicholas Wright

Directed by: Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Wednesday 20th July 2011

We attended a pre-show talk with the co-author of this piece, Nicholas Wright, which was very interesting. I often find, though, that when I haven’t seen the play, I either learn so much about the production that it spoils my enjoyment, or I don’t fully appreciate the information as I have nothing to relate it to. This one was probably the latter.

The play itself weaves together parts of a screenplay that Rattigan wrote towards the end of his life about the love affair between Nijinsky and Diaghilev – his first overt piece about homosexuality – and a framing piece by Nicholas Wright about the decision Rattigan made to withdraw the screenplay from production due to the threat of being publicly outed by Nijinsky’s widow, Romola. The action of the screenplay appears to Rattigan in his hotel room due to artistic licence and the hallucinogenic effects of a morphine concoction he was taking to dull his pain. (From the pre-show, this potion was introduced to represent Rattigan’s self-medication with the drug when he was in hospital.)

The interlacing of the two plots was well done, and allowed for some fun moments, with Rattigan the only one who could see both ‘realities’. It also allowed him to discuss the screenplay story with Diaghilev directly, and while this was a good way to tie the two stories together, I felt it made the play into too much of drama-doc. Even if Rattigan was writing more openly about a homosexual love affair, he would have done it by showing us the characters, theirs actions and words. Less repressed than usual, perhaps, but still a direct expression rather than via a narrator. This method over-simplified the Diaghilev/Nijinsky story too much for me, and I found it a bit dull as a result. Not the fault of the performers, of course, who all did a great job, often in numerous parts.

My other difficulty with the play was that ballet doesn’t really interest me as an art form, and while I’ve seen a few, and will occasionally watch documentaries on the subject, the characters just didn’t engage me as much as I would have liked. I did find the second half more interesting, as I didn’t know so much of the history after The Rites Of Spring, and I would be happy to watch the program if the screenplay was actually filmed, but overall that part didn’t impress me as Rattigan’s best work.

The framing sections worked quite well, showing us both Romola Nijinksy in her later years and Rattigan’s mother, chatting with him several years after her death – what was in that bottle? – along with Cedric Messina, the producer who wants to film the screenplay. There are a lot of parallels drawn between the two stories. Nijinsky is doubled with a young hotel porter called Donald, who clearly fancies Rattigan and ends up sharing a couch with him. Jonathan Hyde plays both Diaghilev and Cedric Messina, showing us their contrasting production styles. It’s artfully done, but didn’t give me any extra insights to the situation or characters.

What makes the production watchable are the performances, all of which are very good. Faye Castelow is particularly beguiling as the young Romola who sets out to ensnare Nijinsky, and succeeds with the help of a third party. Jonathan Hyde is also excellent as Diaghilev, and I loved Susan Tracy’s cameo as Rattigan’s mother. Malcolm Sinclair is fine as Rattigan himself, and the ensemble support is strong throughout, despite the shortage of lines for many of the small parts. I enjoyed the dancing, even though Petrouchka’s never been my favourite, and the music was very classy, of course. I’m not sure this piece does justice to the screenplay that Rattigan wrote, but it’s an interesting experiment in itself, and for all the polish of this early performance (only the second preview) it may well improve with time.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Kafka’s Monkey – April 2009

6/10

Adapted by Colin Teevan from A Report To An Academy by Franz Kafka

Directed by Walter Meierjohann

Venue: Maria Theatre

Date: Wednesday 1st April 2009

This was our first time in the Maria theatre. It’s an interesting space; bit cramped for leg room but reasonably intimate. Apparently this performance was being recorded, but I don’t think it affected the standard either way; the audience were very appreciative, even of the nit-picking.

My rating for this production is based on my enjoyment of the piece as a whole. Kathryn Hunter’s performance was superb – both Steve and I rated it as 10/10, and hopefully she’ll receive the recognition she deserves come award time – but the play itself was rather dull and after the early stages I found my attention wandering a bit.

The set was very plain. A large white square screen stood several feet from the back wall, plumb centre, and for a large part of the performance a picture of an ape was projected onto it. A lectern stood to the right at the front and there was a stool on the left at the front with a tray carrying two bananas. Some climbing apparatus on the left wall was the only other thing I can remember.

Kathryn Hunter entered through the fire doors back right carrying a suitcase and cane. She, or rather her character Red Peter, was dressed formally, in tails with a white collar and tie, and with a top hat. She made it clear she was waiting for us to welcome her which we did, eventually, and then she set down her suitcase and cane, very carefully, and strolled over to the lectern to begin her address.

I realise as I write this that it feels more natural to say ‘she’ when talking about this ape-man, so perhaps there was a flaw in the performance after all, as I really can’t get past her gender. Anyway, she told us that she couldn’t do what she’d been asked here to do, to talk about her time as an ape, as her memory of those days had been superseded by her experiences as a man. But she did offer to tell us about her memories of the period following her capture and how she changed into a semi-human.

The story was quite difficult to listen to at first, despite many funny moments. Some sailors had shot at her pack of monkeys and she was the only one wounded. They took her on board and kept her in a small, cramped cage, where she couldn’t stand or lie down or sit. She spent the first days in captivity with her back pressed against the bars and her face to the wall. It was unpleasant to listen to and brought up echoes of the slave ships and humankind’s general bad treatment of animals.

She learned to copy the humans she saw, culminating in drinking off a bottle of rum which led to her first spoken words. She was sent to a variety of trainers and with hard work developed enough skills to become independent. She now performed in variety theatre and otherwise led a quiet life, with only a female chimpanzee for company at night. The story over, she left us the way she came.

Her movements were totally in keeping with her character. The way Kathryn Hunter managed to twist her arms round to point behind her looked impossible, but she did this regularly, usually to point at the screen. She picked up the tray of bananas and offered them to people in the front row, again using a very peculiar twisted arm movement. After the two women in the front took the bananas, there was an extra treat for one of the women as Peter checked out her hair for insects, eating what she found and commenting that there were lots in there. She also made use of a chap on the other side of the front row. She gave him the empty rum bottle that she was using to demonstrate that story and when she was caught in a cage of light she gestured to him to bring her the bottle, which he did. She also romped into the audience at least one other time, as well as using the climbing bars at the side, and given her small size this was probably as close as a human being can get to impersonating an ape.

I wasn’t sure what Kafka had meant by his original story, but I decided this was meant to be an allegory on the way society imposes its norms on the untrained human being, taking them from a place of ignorant freedom to a prison of education and knowledge. I was glad that the state of innocence wasn’t presented as some kind of ideal, a paradise to be yearned for and whose loss we should mourn. Mind you, there was still a strong sense of loss in the ape’s story, a sense that the suffering and hardships had left their mark and that there was no going back to the old ways. A creature caught between two worlds, neither of which was home anymore.

An interesting afternoon then, with some marvellous moments but ultimately less satisfying than I’d hoped for.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – February 2009

6/10

By Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn

Directed by Felix Barrett and Tom Morris

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Friday 13th February 2009

Actually, much of this short play with orchestra merited an 8/10 rating, but then there was the overlong dance interlude, and being dance illiterate I found it dull and pointless. Otherwise, this was an interesting and entertaining look at the Soviet Union’s treatment of dissidents in the 1970s (and even now according to the program notes) through the experience of one man, who had spoken out against the state hospitalizing sane people. This is coupled with another man’s experience of an imaginary orchestra (in which he plays the triangle). Neither man can be released until he denies that which he knows to be true. The dissident is prepared to die for his truth, going on hunger strike and refusing to surrender even when his son pleads for him to say what they want to hear. The triangle player is also quite willing to state that he hears no orchestra, provided the doctor can get them to stop playing! The impasse is resolved by the gaudily uniformed KGB Colonel, sorry, doctor, marching into their cell, sorry, ward, and asking some simple straightforward questions. He asks Alexander Ivanov if he thinks a Soviet doctor would ever commit a sane man to a lunatic asylum, to which the triangle player responds ‘no’. The Colonel/doctor then asks Alexander Ivanov if he hears an orchestra, to which the dissident replies ‘no’. The Colonel/doctor decrees that both men are fit to be released. So, when the Colonel/doctor put two men with identical names in the same room, was he being extremely stupid, or was this a shrewd manoeuvre to get two ‘patients’ off his books? As Steve said, it looked like the first, but was actually the second.

The layout for this performance (I can’t really call it a set) was probably less complicated than it looked. On the revolve sat the orchestra, violins to the left at the start as usual. They wrapped around the conductor’s podium, which was in the centre of the revolve, but there was room at the front for two hospital beds, one occupied by the triangle player (Toby Jones). A light coloured wooden path led from the back wall, in a zigzag pattern, to the side of the beds, and along this path comes the dissident (Joseph Millson). There’s a school desk off to the right, forward of the revolve, and as the revolve turns during the performance, we see another desk, the doctor’s, snuggled in amongst the musicians. There are numerous banks of lights high up around the back wall, and a couple of double bass players are off to the right, also outside the revolve.

The orchestra, after the usual tuning up rituals, began to play silently as Toby rose from his bed, took out his triangle and little metal stick (what do they call those things, anyway?) and listened to the music, waiting for his cue. Gradually, the sound came in, and it was lovely music; in a modern style, with some slight dissonance giving it a bit of an edge but without scaring the horses. The triangle player had to stop them at one point, and told them to restart from the tympani bit, which they did. He strikes the final note on his triangle, and turns around to find a new person is in the room. The dissident has been quiet all this while, trying to figure out which of the two rumpled beds is meant to be his, and eventually plumping for the one Toby’s just left. Triangle player is keen to know what instrument the dissident plays, and isn’t put off by his total lack of experience with any musical instrument. He interrogates him avidly, in between complaining about the standard of the orchestra, and it’s a very funny scene, with lots of clever word play.

From here we get a mixture of music and dialogue, with the dissident explaining in a couple of speeches how he got arrested, and what he’s experienced in prison and hospital, which is what the authorities want to stop him talking about. We also see his son having difficulties in school because he doesn’t conform – his teacher tells him off because he played more notes on his triangle than were in the score – and find out that the doctor is also a part-time violinist in his own orchestra, which all adds to the fun. Then there’s the dance bit, with what looks like various members of the orchestra standing up and dancing a version of kicking the crap out of each other. It may have been good dancing, but it didn’t tell me anything about either Ivanov’s story, or the orchestra experience, so I can only assume it was inserted as some sort of special offer – you get the band, the dancers come for free.

There wasn’t much more after the dance, just the Colonel’s magnificent cure technique and the son finding his father, and then we were done. The orchestra had been leaving their seats gradually during this last bit, so I assume the music was pre-recorded, as I don’t see how they could have kept it going so strongly otherwise, but I’d be happy to learn differently.

And so we return home, reasonably happy with our evening, and hoping the signal failure at Haywards Heath won’t make us too late back. [12:30 a.m.!!! @*&%$£@!!!]

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The 39 Steps – April 2008

8/10

By John Buchan, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the Hitchcock film of the novel

Directed by Maria Aitken, redirected for tour by David Newman

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 22nd April 2008

There were so many visual images in this production that I’m not sure I’ll get even half of them down. Unlike Doctor in the House last week, this show managed to get just the right tone when making use of their “mistakes”. Early on, Hannay and Annabella Schmidt are in his flat, and both look at the phone. He says, ‘it’s the phone’, and then it rings. Very funny.

It’s all good fun, with lots of knockabout silly humour. When escaping through a window, Hannay shoves his head and shoulders through, then realises he won’t be able to get any further, so he just lets the window frame slide down and steps out of it, handing it back to his lovely Scottish hostess afterwards. What a thoughtful man.

The performance started with an announcement about switching off phones, watches, etc, done old style, which was good fun, and then there was a period of strobe lighting as the cast brought on furniture for Hannay’s flat. I couldn’t watch the strobe, so for me the action began when the lights came on to reveal Hannay sitting in his flat. There was a comfy chair, table, hat stand, window frame and some other shapes covered in sheets. Otherwise the set was a bare stage, with the brick wall showing at the back. On either side there were theatre boxes, for use at the London Palladium.

Hannay talks about his disillusionment with life in London – no friends, nothing interesting to do, sigh. It’s a lovely performance, mixing the stiff upper lip gentleman, man of action, and tongue in cheek approach very nicely. When he brings an exotic woman back to his flat, she’s wary of being seen at the window, insisting he lower the blinds before he puts the light on. He does so, and when he checks out her story that there are two men waiting underneath a lamppost in the street below, the other two actors rush on in great coats, carrying a lamppost to stand under. When Hannay releases the blind, they dash off again, only to reappear the next time he checks. The third time, Hannay can’t quite make up his mind whether to look or not, leading to a stop-start bit of confusion, and some exasperation from the men, as they eventually head back into the wings, trailing their lamppost.

These men were played by Colin Mace and Alan Perrin, who played a vast number of parts between them, often more than one at the same time. They carried spare hats with them for some very quick changes, and also swapped coats so that the two hoteliers could talk to the two fake policemen. At the end, Colin Mace also put his police coat on, but only on one side, so that by turning from side to side he could play two people having a conversation. It’s remarkable how well it all came across, and it’s a testament to how hard these actors were working.

The train sequence was excellent. The sheets had been whipped off the trunks in Hannay’s flat by the cleaning lady who discovers the dead woman (do keep up), so they’re easily moved to form two rows of seats. As the train chugs along towards Scotland, the actors move with it (from the post show, this took some time to get the hang of, jiggling and talking at the same time, but it all fell into place eventually). When the train stops in Edinburgh (the platform sign moves across the stage, then comes to a halt), the guard and a paper seller materialise, and have a long conversation. Rather too long, I felt, and then Hannay himself asks them to get a move on. With the police now searching the train, Hannay opts for the snogging disguise, only the young woman he’s just assaulted takes exception to this and gives him away. He then climbs out of the window, and clambers back along the train (you know the sequence), eventually being pursued along the top of the train. As the woman and policeman look out of the window after him, they’re buffeted by the wind – she holds the brim of her hat, and gets it to shake in very realistic way, and the policeman does something similar. Hannay’s coat is blowing out behind him, and it all looked very effective. Eventually he gets on to the bridge, and there’s a ramp brought on across the back of the stage to show him falling into the river. It’s a great way to do an action sequence on stage, and it was both exciting and funny, an unusual combination.

Later, after Hannay has climbed out of the window, he’s chased across the hills, and escapes on the other side of the loch. This is the bit we see in silhouette. A white sheet comes down, and cut-outs of the banks of the loch come in on each side. Wee figures run down the hillside, then Hannay appears on the other side, as does a stag, and he’s off to apparent safety. The story followed the Hitchcock film so closely that we even got the mandatory appearance by the great man himself. During this part, as Hannay was racing up the far side of the loch, a silhouette of Hitchcock came on and walked about a bit on the left hillside. Then a plane appears from our left, and starts to follow him (Hannay, that is). The pole it’s on isn’t long enough to stop us seeing the hand holding it, as the plane flies over the loch and the far bank. Then, as the cut-outs are taken away, the actor involved has to make a quick getaway, though not too quick for us to miss the fun. There’s still some silhouette work, but with Hannay running around behind the sheet – he really did work hard, that chap.

The section in the house on the other side of the loch (the one owned by the man with the missing part of one finger – and we all know what that means!) involved a lot of doors. Actually, there was one door, but Mrs X (don’t remember her name) kept leading Hannay through it, then wheeling it around to give them another doorway opportunity.

The hotel that Hannay stays in with the young woman he’s handcuffed to (look, watch the film on DVD if you don’t know what’s going on!) had a wonderfully silly couple in charge. The room they’re shown to was a large wardrobe, which opened out to reveal a fold-up bed. They also had a fireplace, and frankly I’ve stayed in worse. The woman manages to slip the handcuff off her wrist, and creeps downstairs, just in time to hear the two fake policemen discuss bumping both of them off, so now she’s on Hannay’s side.

Hannay heads back down to London to stop the villain getting the secret plans out of the country. He heads for the London Palladium, a tip based on the woman overhearing the fake policemen’s conversation, and he realises the plans are securely hidden in the mind of Mr Memory. We’d seen Mr Memory before, and been amazed at his prodigious powers of recall. Sadly, we weren’t actually able to ask any questions ourselves, and less kind people might have thought the questions were possibly planted, but we put those ideas to one side, and just enjoyed seeing a master at work. Alas, the poor chap gets shot, and then the villain gets killed by a fifth man. He dies (and that takes long enough!) complaining that there’s only supposed to be four people in the cast, so whose arm was it that came through the curtain and shot him? We’ll never know. His dead body tumbled to the ground, looking suspiciously like a dummy.

After that, Mr Memory dies backstage, while the policeman and the stage manager have their two-in-one conversation. Hannay and the woman shake hands and he heads back to his lonely flat, now clear of dead bodies, to have a proper brood in a manly way. I think she turns up later, but I’m getting a bit hazy on some of the details. Anyway, it was a fun ending, and we all applauded very loudly as we’d enjoyed ourselves so much.

There was a post-show. A large number of folk stayed behind, mostly youngsters, and they asked some interesting questions. A couple got the seal of approval from the cast: how many people were helping out behind the scenes so that they could do all the quick changes, etc., and what did they do between a matinee and evening performance, given that they were working really hard during each show. I forget how many people there were helping out (but lots), but for the second question the point was made that when performance time comes round, there’s an adrenalin boost that sees them through – “Doctor Theatre”. They also explained that, unlike most tours of a West End show, they were a completely new cast, and had to learn how the play was currently being done, rather than developing their own characters, although it was inevitable that they would end up doing things according to their own styles. Their favourite scene was the train sequence, and they did mention that in an earlier performance elsewhere, which a member of this audience had been to, the lights hadn’t worked for the silhouette part, so it briefly turned into a radio play for that night only.

It was an interesting post-show with lots of questions, and all the cast getting a chance to participate, so we went home well happy. Definitely one to see again, and possibly the West End version, to see if there are any significant differences?

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me