Amadeus – February 2018

Experience: 6/10

By Peter Shaffer

Directed by Michael Longhurst

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st February 2018

This was something of a disappointment. Given the high standard of some of his previous performances, we were looking forward to seeing Lucien Msamati as Salieri, as well as revisiting this excellent play in a different production. The reviews had been very good, although we hadn’t read any of the details, so it was only as we took our seats that the potential problems became apparent. Still, we kept our minds as open as possible and restrained our expectations: even so, I found myself revising my rating of the experience down and down again. Steve enjoyed it more than I did – he would have given it 7/10 – but we were largely in agreement with the overall standard. So was the paying public, it would seem, as this matinee was only just over half full, leaving large swathes of empty seats in the circle, rear stalls and sides.

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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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The Amen Corner – August 2013

Experience: 7/10

By James Baldwin

Directed by Rufus Norris

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 7th August 2013

I was pretty tired today and found myself yawning a bit in the run up to the interval, but that was largely because, with a three act play, they took the interval after the second act. It makes for a shorter second half (apologies to any mathematicians out there) but it can be a long wait for a chance to stand up and stretch. Once refreshed, the final act came across as more powerful, and I was wiping my eyes more than once in the last half hour.

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The Empress – April 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Tanika Gupta

Directed by Emma Rice

Company: RSC

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 15th April 2013

Both Steve and I had the sniffles tonight, him because he had a cold and me because the final scenes of this new play were very moving. The play covers a lot of ground, and there will be more to come with this production which at times is a bit jumbled, but the music, singing, dancing and colours plus the splendid performances made for a refreshing take on a neglected aspect of Victorian history. We’ve found Emma Rice’s work with Kneehigh to be variable in the past, but this time she’s produced a real good ‘un.

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Privates On Parade – February 2013

Experience: 9/10

By Peter Nichols, music by Denis King

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Noel Coward Theatre

Date: Monday 11th February 2013

Fabulous! We missed an earlier performance due to train troubles, so we were really pleased to see it tonight. I thought the production was excellent, very reminiscent of the Donmar musicals this director has put on in the past, and if there was anything lacking at all I’d put it down to a somewhat patchy audience response. From comments I heard in the interval, I suspect that some of the attendees were expecting It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum – The Musical, whereas this was a much more nuanced piece, mixing satire with sexual innuendo, drama with cheesy puns. I was moved to pre-sniffles at least once, when Sylvia was being consoled by Acting Captain Terri Dennis after discovering that Steven was leaving her behind – not the done thing to bring a heavily pregnant half-caste woman back to Swindon as his bride. Dennis did the decent thing instead, so hopefully the little one will have more tolerant parents than most.

The treatment of and attitudes to the local population were all too accurate, an embarrassing reminder of Britain’s colonial past, and I felt the play had a lot in common with Oh What A Lovely War and The Entertainer. The play began with the two Malay servants hitting gongs, starting with single bongs and moving into the continuous ringing sound. This sound was used a few times during the play, but I don’t know exactly what it was meant to represent. After the concert party left the country, the final image on the screen at the back was of modern-day Singapore at night, while the two servants, now in suits, shook hands centre stage. It was quite a jump from then to now, but it worked, showing us the growth in prosperity since the British left, and leaving us to ponder how much the colonial power contributed and how much it held the local population back.

The set was basically a very run down theatre building with the pros arch towards the back of the stage, doors showing above it, and side entrances – the usual. With lighting changes and the swift arrival of furniture, the other locations were deftly set up and the screen at the back, when not covered by a backdrop, showed appropriate pictures. The costumes were excellent, especially Dennis’s outfits as he gave us his Marlene, Carmen Miranda and one other woman we didn’t recognise. His Noel Coward was good fun too (and very apt for this theatre).

The performances are the key to this show, and this production was strong in that department. I found John Marquez’s accent too strong for me and I couldn’t tune into his dialogue very well, but the rest of the cast were generally clear. Angus Wright was very good as the upright and uptight Major, producing some very John Cleese-like leg movements for one number. Mark Lewis Jones was a fine villain, Harry Hepple was very good as Lance Corporal Charles Bishop, while Davina Perera had taken over the role Sylvia, and didn’t look out of place at all. The big draw was Simon Russell Beale, though, and his performance as Acting Captain Terri Dennis was wonderful, both in the glamorous frocks and out of them, bringing out the character’s humour and showing us his caring side. We enjoyed ourselves very much, and were glad we’d made the extra effort to catch this one.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Bugle Boy – June 2012

7/10

Original concept and book by Den Stevenson

Directed by Bruce James

Bruce James Productions

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Thursday 28th June 2012

One thing we were sure of before we left for the theatre tonight – the music was going to be good! And it was, too, with a fifteen-piece band on stage to give us a rich, full sound throughout the evening. Three of the band left their seats at times to play other characters and contribute vocals, while Ian Knauer and Lisa Lynch, who played Glenn Miller and his wife Helen, also sang in character. With so many on stage, there wasn’t much of set, just a large screen above and behind the band, and a few furnishings as required for some of the scenes. The actors played the train journeys on tour by carrying suitcases and  jiggling a lot, and the whole story was framed by an interview with Helen telling the story of Glenn’s life on a radio program. The costumes were all good, and with the music really getting us ‘In The Mood’, we had a great time.

Ian Knauer was fine as Glenn Miller, having just the right degree of stiffness as he stood conducting the band. Lisa Lynch’s voice was a bit harsh for me, too brassy in the wrong way, but Maddie Cole was a great singer – she did the rest of the woman’s parts – and she was the only one we could hear clearly above the band. Of course they were all miked up, but then that’s a necessity these days, and much less strain on the vocal cords. I sniffled a good deal, especially when they announced the loss of the plane that he’d been on, and also during the final montage of pictures, and quite a few other times as well; just a big softie, me. They certainly got a good response from the audience; given the average age in Worthing, that’s not a surprise, but I hope they get an equally warm welcome wherever they play – they deserve it.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Heart Of Robin Hood – January 2012

10/10

By David Farr

Directed by Gisli Örn Gardarsson

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 4th January 2012

This was a fantastic Christmas show for kids of all ages! Written by David Farr, the story was based on the Yorkshire version of Robin Hood, back before he became a good-looking defender of the poor in revealing tights. Admittedly this Robin was also good looking, but his leather trousers weren’t as revealing as tights, and at the start of the story he’s not remotely interested in giving anything to the poor at all. It’s only through the intervention of Marion, or Martin of Sherwood as she became, that his heart began to open and he turned into the hero we’ve been led to expect in recent years. There was a post-show chat (naturally) and I’ve included some of the comments from that in my description below.

David Farr brought in a creative team from Iceland to help him realise his ideas on the main Stratford stage. This was an excellent choice. Börkur Jonsson designed an amazing set which really contributed to the physicality and magic of the performance. At the back was a steeply sloping wall of artificial grass, which came down in the region of the old proscenium arch. It had several sections within it which could be lowered to form platforms which represented various bits of the castle, and there were also holes through which several heads appeared for the cathedral scene – more on that story later. Above the stage hung the branches of a mighty oak; mighty scary to sit in, apparently, especially when the artificial snow made the branches wet! But these actors are tougher than they look, except for the excellent actor, also Icelandic, who played Pierre, the clown character. They had planned to set the opening scene actually in the branches, but apart from realising that the actors were hard to see up there, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Darri) has a greater affinity for solid ground, and as he opens the play, that was that as far as Pierre was concerned.

The rest of the stage, the walkways and even the steps up to the stage in front, were all covered in artificial grass. There was a pond to the right of centre stage, with a few tufts of grass masking it from our view. The water tank wasn’t that deep, we were told later, but although the water was warm at the start, it got very cold by the end, so poor Alice, who spends lots of time in there in the final scene, ended up shivering and wanting the rest of the cast to hurry up and finish. The surface of the stage was all lumpy – god knows how there weren’t more accidents, although they did say there had been a few during the run. (The main problem seemed to be friction burns when they were learning how to slide down the grassy slope in the first few weeks.) Apart from all of this, there were at least a couple of trapdoors, one to the left of the stage, and another in the front right corner – they’re making good use of the excellent resources they have in their new theatre – and lots of ropes everywhere for vertical entrances and exits.

The performance style was really interesting. It’s a darker piece than I expected for a family show, but they kept it light through massive amounts of humour all the way through. Of course the kids loved the yucky bits, such as a tongue being cut out and waved around a lot, and given the nature of children’s stories through the ages, this wasn’t going to give them any nightmares. But there were also bits for us ‘grown-ups’ to enjoy, such as the reference to Jaws – a shark’s fin crossing the pond while the music played – and even a reference to Malvolio in Twelfth Night when Prince John is being taken away at the end and says “I’ll have my revenge on every one of you”. But mostly the humour crossed the age boundaries and gave us all a lot of fun. One of my favourite scenes was the puppetry session, with the recently deceased Guy of Gisborne (Tim Treloar) being manipulated by Little John to have a silent (on his part) conversation with Prince John. It was a masterpiece of movement, with a final rude gesture to the departing Prince causing a lot of laughter.

The play opened with Pierre introducing himself to us, and framing the story as an explanation of how he, a posh servant with fancy clothes and meringue-styled hair, had come to be a country lover with simple tastes. Pierre is the servant of Marion, daughter of the Duke of York who is away in the Holy Land, helping King Richard on crusade. She’s just received a letter from her father which says he’s going to be another year at least, and with her guardian wanting to marry her off, and Prince John due to visit the castle, she decides to head off into the forest and seek out Robin Hood. She may be a sensible sort of tomboy, but she still has romantic notions about the man, thinking he’s a noble outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor. We’ve already seen him stealing from a couple of rich folk, the very folk who bring Marion the letter from her father, and Robin showed no sign of helping anyone but himself. When Marion finds him, she realises the mistake she’s made, and leaves the forest temporarily. However, when she nears the castle, her sister finds her and delivers the news that Prince John has arrived and wants to see Marion straightaway. Knowing that he intends to make her his bride, she dons a disguise and returns to the forest as Martin of Sherwood, determined to be the noble outlaw she believed Robin Hood to be, by stealing from the rich to help the poor.

Thwarted in his ambition to meet his future bride, Prince John isn’t too pleased. He’s in the area for more than his wedding, though – his men are out collecting the Holy Contribution, which the Prince says is to help his brother in the Holy Land. Not all the locals are happy with this extra tax burden, and one man, Robert Summers, is actively speaking out against it. To make an example, he and his two children are arrested; after he is hanged, his son is made to proclaim his own father a bad person, and not only support the Holy Contribution, but even express his devotion to Prince John himself. Of course, young Jethro Summers only does it to save his sister, Sarah, but their future is anything but secure.

Meanwhile, back in the forest, and after a few weeks of Martin’s new rob-the-rich-feed-the-poor regime, Robin and his men are finding it hard to rob anyone, as all the carriages passing through the forest have already been picked clean. This is an affront to their territorial rights as outlaws, so they disguise themselves as rich travellers to smoke out their competitor. When Martin (with Pierre, who’s now called Peter) tries to rob them, they reveal themselves, and Martin realises she’s taken on more than she can handle. When Robin and his men insist that Martin and Peter strip naked so they can steal their clothes, Martin is terrified that she’ll be discovered, and makes a rash gamble. She bets her clothes that she can beat one of them in a fight, and loses. Despite this, she’s still determined not to give herself away, so she proposes another bet, with the stake this time being her life. Robin accepts, and after an even harder struggle, she’s beaten again. Before he can execute her, though, a peasant woman arrives, asking for her help to rescue the two Summers children who are being held in the castle.

For the first time, with two children’s lives at risk, even Robin’s men are keen to help somebody other than themselves. Robin just wants to get on with the execution, but the pleas from all and sundry make him rethink, especially when Martin claims to know a way to get into the castle. When Jethro had made his false proclamation to save his sister, the executioner who had been summoned to convey the explicit threat, is ordered away again. Only it isn’t the real executioner, it’s Robin Hood, and his men are with him. After a big fight, they rescue the children and escape back to the forest, leaving Prince John fuming.

There was a short scene which in the text was meant to be the Duke of York, Marion’s father, speaking a message to Marion to tell her that Prince John is planning an uprising, and that he’s on his way to prevent it. He tells her to do all she can to delay things until he gets there. In performance, it was done by her guardian, Makepeace, reading the letter that’s arrived for her, and naturally being disturbed by the news. Rather rashly, he confronts John in a later scene, and this leads to his tongue being cut out by Gisborne, Prince John’s right hand psychopath, and as nasty a piece of work as the Prince himself, if not nastier.

In the forest, however, Martin ends up chatting to Robin about his no women in the forest policy. She discovers that he did meet a woman, once, who was different to all the rest, and it’s clear he means Marion herself. Unfortunately, she’s in no position to reveal herself to him, but she does a short while later, to the dog, Plug. She doesn’t realise that Sarah has been listening until she turns around and sees her standing there. Sarah hasn’t spoken since her father’s death though, so her secret’s pretty safe, for now.

Gisborne, on John’s orders, has inflamed the locals to hunt down and kill the demonically possessed children. At the same time Alice, the Duke of York’s other daughter, is out in the forest looking for her sister when she’s surprised by the outlaw band. Marion, still disguised as Martin, gets into an argument with her and the others let her get on with it, but it soon turns out they’re all in deep trouble. The townsfolk have them surrounded, and are coming for the children. Marion realises her only chance of saving them is to return to the castle as herself and persuade Prince John to spare their lives; she doesn’t actually spell it out, but we can see what she’s planning.

Back at the castle, she discovers that Makepeace has lost his tongue, and he helps her to get changed into a posh frock. Prince John is delighted to see her; although he’s not keen on women having a say in any important matter, he is swayed by her request for the children’s lives to be spared as a gift to his new bride. Despite her revulsion, she goes along with the Prince’s wishes, even though he’s already set their wedding date for Christmas day, only three days away! In the forest, with the children captured, Gisborne comes to the rescue just in time with the order from Prince John. Apparently the demons in the children can be removed by a spot of holy water shaken onto them, which Gisborne does, reciting some Latin as he does so. The “expelliamus” which this line started with was an entertaining reference to Harry Potter. Gisborne’s expression was less than delighted – murdering children isn’t just another job for him, it’s a real vocation – but he lets Robin take the children with him, as he has no orders to prevent it.

With only three days to go till the wedding, there’s a lot to do. Most importantly, Marion has to be shriven so that she can be pure on her wedding day. For this reason, she has to visit the Cathedral and meet with the Bishop. In the forest, Robin and his men are getting very worried about Martin – there’s been no sign of him since he left on his secret mission to stop the children being killed. When Much brings the news of the impending marriage between Prince John and Marion, both Pierre and Robin are appalled, though they try to cover up their concern. To help Marion, Pierre suggests they try to rescue Martin, and Robin actually agrees immediately. Pierre is left behind to take care of the children, and the others head off to the castle.

In the Cathedral, the Bishop’s face is peeking through the central hole in the ramp, with one hand sticking out of each side hole, several feet away! He’s hearing confessions, and the first three who come in are obviously Much, Will and Little John. Robin is next, and his confession is for a sin he’s about to do, i.e. replace the Bishop so he can talk with Marion. Once he’s done this, it’s his face peering through the central hole in the back wall, with two hands appearing at the side holes. His men don wimples and look out through two other holes which appeared higher up and to each side, and when Little John joins in, his hole is below Robin’s. (Do behave.)

Marion’s ‘confession’ was more a chat about Martin, and how Robin could get him out of the castle. They arranged something – didn’t catch all the details – and then Prince John returned to take her away. In the meantime, Gisborne has attempted to capture the children, and although he hasn’t managed that, Pierre has lost them as well, and is in despair. The children are wandering through the forest, and come across the Green Man, who descends on a rope and gives them three wishes. The first was for food, which they’d already eaten. The second was to see their father; their father appeared again and walked over to the front of the stage where a woman was doing some rope work. I realised it was their mother before the Green Man identified her. Jethro’s third wish was for Sarah to speak again – not in the Green Man’s power to grant.

When Robin returned to the forest, he discovered Pierre on his own, and realised that he hadn’t taken enough care of the children. Gisborne also turns up and Robin kills him, which gives him the idea for how to get into the castle. They turn up at the castle gates, with Robin apparently killed and hanging upside down, while Much and Will are off to one side, apparently tied up. This was where Gisborne did his puppet routine, and very funny it was too. Of course, Marion is very upset because she believes what she sees, but when she approaches the ‘corpse’ she learns the truth.

It’s looking good for her escape now, as all she has to do is a quick change into Martin’s clothes and be off with Robin. But unfortunately Alice turns up and spoils the whole thing, calling for the guards. With Robin recaptured, properly this time, Martin goes to fetch Marion, who does her best to save Robin. John isn’t feeling so friendly this time, though, and actually slaps her for suggesting he spare Robin’s life. Nasty.

Fortunately, Pierre has managed a bit of robbery on his own. He steals Lord something-or-other’s identity, and by pretending to be on John’s side, gets the guard in charge of the prisoners to give him his gun and then the keys, enabling him to free Robin and his men. During the wedding, when the bishop asks if anyone knows of any reason, etc., Sarah finally speaks again, and tells everyone that Marion is actually in love with another man. John is busy trying to get back to the wedding ceremnoy, but when he calls in the soldiers to take the girl away, who should they be but Robin, Much and Will! Big fight, a very big fight. Alice ends up in the pond (described as the font in the text), and Robin, Marion and the others defeat the Prince of Evil just before the Duke of York turns up to arrest him. Despite Robin’s complete lack of social status, the Duke bows to the inevitable (he clearly knows his daughter well) and accepts Robin as his future son-in-law. Given their history, the only place for the wedding is in the forest, so they all head off there. At the very end, Alice suddenly sticks her head up out of the pond, clambers out, and realising we’re all looking at her, smoothes back her hair and starts to preen herself on the way out, no easy task as she’s dripping wet and only has one shoe on. A very funny ending.

That’s just the basics of the story, an amazing amount to cram in, but they did it so well and so fast that we took it all in and the time just flew by. There was a lot of humour in the performance, and a lot of music, with many of the cast playing instruments as well as acting, throwing themselves down the ramp, etc, occasionally at the same time! The animals were particularly good, with an actor and a musical instrument combining to represent the various creatures. For example, there was a white duck which was one of the actresses done up in a white tutu affair and playing a clarinet(?) waddling across the stage. She was very flexible – squatting and walking at the same time isn’t easy. This was during a scene with Prince John talking to either Makepeace or Gisborne. The Prince tried to shoot the duck, but it ducked out of sight down one of the trapdoors each time, so he missed. The other character kept handing the Prince another loaded gun, so he had several goes, but we were glad the duck got the better of him and survived. Actually, Steve thought the white bird was a swan (we were in Stratford, after all) while I thought it was a goose. We were able to get the correct identification afterwards.

There was also a boar which attacked the children in the forest; this was an actor with a cello, and after they killed the boar – a brave act by young Jethro – they kept the cello while the actor slipped off stage, and roasted it over a fire. All of this was very evocative, but the best of all was the performance of Plug the dog (Peter Bray). Similar to Crab in The Two Gentlemen Of Verona during the RSC Complete Works Festival, Jethro’s dog was played by an actor, who used a woodwind instrument (possibly an oboe?) to make the dog noises. He was great fun, cocking his leg at the audience, and generally being a regular dog. Of course he snarled at the baddies and bit Gisborne, and we all loved him enormously.

There were too many good bits to record them all, but I’ll just mention a few extra funny moments. There was the wonderful way Pierre said “We!” when Marion was talking about how “we” could go to the forest, etc. It was a lovely performance all the way through by Darri, and I do hope they can cast him in something else in the future – he’d make a great Falstaff. And when Marion first met Robin in the forest, his men were all off stage, but Little John, played by a very short actor, Michael Walter, rose up through the trapdoor on the left as she was saying “you and your merry…”. She paused, looking at him, and then finished the line with “man”. Very funny. When Marion first appears as Martin, she’s spotted by Prince John, who chats to her for a bit. She ends up with a limp, thanks to a contribution from Pierre, and the Prince ends up believing her attitudes towards women are entirely in tune with his own. He’s almost overcome at one point – it’s so rare for him to find anyone who understands his point of view. Apparently David Farr allowed the actors free rein to embellish the characters themselves, and Martin Hutson, as Prince John, certainly brought out the Prince’s inner psychopath very clearly. Alice (Flora Montgomery) was also very funny, being completely obsessed with appearance and social status. She’d have been more than happy to marry Prince John herself, but he did have some standards.

The rest of the cast all did a good job too, and the whole production was really entertaining. It didn’t matter that the fight scenes were a bit confusing, that I couldn’t make out all of the dialogue, nor that there was a lot of chatter from young voices to contend with; it was such good fun, and had so much energy all the way through, that I totally enjoyed myself. And from the enthusiastic questions from the youngsters afterwards at the post-show, so had they.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – December 2011

6/10

By CS Lewis, adapted by Adrian Mitchell

Music by Shaun Davey

Directed by Dale Rooks

Company: Chichester Festival Youth Theatre

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 27th December 2011

This is the first Chichester Festival Youth Theatre production we’ve seen, and it’s not a bad standard overall. They had the advantage of a Simon Higlett set, which worked really well and looked fantastic. The opening set had the façade of a building, with a couple of flying buttress platforms to either side; between them they allowed for all sorts of rooms, and a twisting dance through lots of doors. The central double doors became the doors of the wardrobe, and each time the children went through them, the two halves of the set opened up and were swung round – good old elbow grease – to reveal a magical winter set, with two snow-covered slopes, frosty trees, etc. Other locations were simply set up with a table and a few chairs, while the White Witch’s front garden was chock-a-block with frozen statues.

With a large cast, there were plenty of winter sprites about the place, and all the usual characters for this magical story. I was a little disappointed with Aslan at first; he was played by three young lads, two of them holding shields on either side for the body, while the front one held the face and mane and did the talking. Once I got used to it though, I thought it worked very well. We particularly liked Mr Tumnus (Joel Banks), Mr and Mrs Beaver (Sam Peake & Alice O’Hanlon) and the White Witch (Georgina Briggs – very good evil laugh), though there was plenty of talent on show all round.

The performance started with a group mime of the evacuees’ train journey, and I was finding it a bit dull until the train got going. The children with their suitcases were all lined up across the stage at this point, and as the train whistle blew, the suitcase of the lad in front let out a puff of smoke, while the suitcases behind gradually started to move like train wheels – very effective, and it got me laughing as well. The rest of the audience seemed a bit quiet though, and I did feel they could have responded more – they were doing enough on stage to deserve it. Even so, I enjoyed myself and had the mandatory sniffles in the later stages, so not a bad end to the year’s theatregoing.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Call Mr Robeson – November 2011

8/10

By Tayo Aluko

Directed by Olusola Oyeleye

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Thursday 24th November 2011

I knew very little about Paul Robeson before tonight – black singer and actor, politically active, married a white woman (wrong, they were only ‘close’ friends) which angered both the white and black communities in America; that was about it. Turns out I knew more than many Americans do about this amazing man, who stood up for the rights of black people, but even more strongly for the rights of all working people, regardless of skin colour, and whose powerful influence was so cruelly wiped out by a hostile American government that his name is largely forgotten amongst many of the groups who ultimately benefitted from his contribution.

His life story was compellingly told by Tayo Aluko, who also wrote the piece. He had been ignorant of Paul Robeson’s existence until a chance remark by someone at a concert he performed at.  He had unknowingly sung a song performed by Robeson, and the person commented on this. Once he’d heard the name, the Paul Robeson biography pretty much threw itself at him in a library, and he was hooked. He wrote this play not just as a tribute to the great man, but to make people more aware that he existed, and to promote a passion to fight for a better world for all, a passion which Paul Robeson exemplified.

The set was interesting. At first it looked a bit of a jumble, with boxes, flags, books and photos everywhere. The piano was far left, draped with what turned out to be the flag of one of the International Brigades, and we were entertained as we entered the auditorium by Michael Conliffe, a talented pianist who accompanied Tayo for the evening. As I sat and looked at the objects, I realised there was a pattern. The centre of the stage had an irregular piece of an old record, a single of Going Home, much enlarged. Then I registered that there were other sections of broken record placed around this, with some hanging up at the back, and the pattern fell into place. The flags which were draped over some of the boxes – USSR, Wales, USA, titchy little Union Jack – represented places that were important to Robeson, and the photos were part of his story too. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was a great lover of books, reading a great deal and with a ‘yearning for learning’ – the books represented that aspect of his personality.

When the lights went down, the singing started off stage – I forget which song. Gradually the voice came nearer, and then we saw him, standing but bent under the weight of a heavy load (he had a plain chair upturned on his shoulders), coming from the back of the small acting space to place the chair down on the centre of the record. The lights had come up gently, and when this entrance was complete, we could see a tall, dapper man in a smart, slightly flashy suit. He started into Ole Man River, and was well into it when he was interrupted by his wife, who didn’t want him singing ‘that darn song’ anymore. From here on he told us his story in a blend of narration, acting and singing that was very effective. There were recorded sound effects used as well, and one of these related to the title of the play: ‘Call Mr Robeson’ was the effect used when he was being summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

He covered some aspects of Robeson’s youth, especially his American football career and the attack on him by not just the opposition but his own team as well. This story brought out his father’s encouragement that he should stand up for what he believed, and to set an example which would help every black boy who came after him. Other events, such as his mother’s death (in a fire?) were glanced at, but he avoided the detail while showing us Robeson’s emotional reaction – a very compact form of storytelling, and I very much liked this layered effect. I feel I could watch the play several times and come away with some new aspect of his life that I hadn’t realised before.

The story continued for about 75 minutes, covering Robeson’s hugely successful early career, the unfortunate remarks which were misinterpreted quite viciously in the American press, the government’s suppression of his work by keeping him a prisoner in his own country, the suicide attempt, his appearance before the McCarthy hearings, his all too brief reprieve and travel abroad, and the final ignominy of being unrecognised by a journalist who asked him for his views on the Civil Rights movement as he walked through Harlem. The final song was Going Home, and he reversed the entrance by taking the chair up on his shoulders again and walking off. It was a fitting end to the evening’s performance, but we weren’t done yet.

After we’d applauded for a while, Tayo interrupted us to say that he was happy to answer any questions we might have, unless we needed to leave, which would be fine. Nobody left. The questions were mainly specific ones about Paul Robeson’s life, but we also found out about Tayo’s discovery of the man (see above) and learned that he is hoping to perform the show at Carnegie Hall on his 50th Birthday next year – good luck with that. He’s also planning some new plays, including one on the exploitation of the Congo – sounds interesting.

It was a powerful evening all round, and the chance to ask questions afterwards was the icing on the cake. I felt moved by the story many times, and the section describing Robeson’s treatment by the US government was hard to listen to. This stifling of his talent was a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ for such a man, not to mention robbing the world of its enjoyment of his talent. No doubt his popularity would have waned in due course as new styles of music came along; good as the songs were, and the singing, they were simpler than the modern taste prefers. Still, in his time he was the biggest star, and for him to speak up as he did was perceived as a threat by the people in power at that time – we can only hope we don’t see such events again, but don’t hold your breath.

I enjoyed the story of the Welsh miners singing in London during the 1930s, and I liked the shift in Robeson’s awareness to a recognition that working people all over the world were being oppressed, not just black folk. After the show, Tayo told us a story from a time he’d been in Wrexham and someone had pointed out the hotel (no longer there) where Robeson had sung from a balcony to raise money for a local mining disaster. His feeling for the ordinary working folk came over very strongly, and was probably the most attractive aspect of his character.

Not that he wasn’t attractive in other ways. He had a succession of ‘close’ female friends throughout his life, but always returned to his wife Essie, who acted as his agent and manager. His fulsome praise for the Soviet Union was unfortunate; they may have treated him as an equal, but we now recognise that their workers weren’t as free as they claimed under Kremlin rule, so his views now seem politically naïve. Even so, his compassion and caring for his fellow human beings shone through.

His deteriorating mental state was signalled by Robeson interrupting himself and looking around, as if there was someone there. This had happened with his wife in the early stages, so I wasn’t concerned at first, but eventually it became clear that Robeson had become paranoid about being spied on (presumably he was being spied on?) and his breakdown was very difficult to watch. Apparently Robeson had some ECT treatments in England which may have been at too high a dose, and this may have led to his inability to resume his career afterwards. It was a sad end to a remarkable life, and sadder still that his name has been largely forgotten by so many. Steve and I are old enough to know of him, and I suspect most of tonight’s audience did, but in America his reputation appears to have been virtually obliterated. Hopefully this play can change all that.

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© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me