Three Days In May – October 2011

7/10

By: Ben Brown

Diretced by: Alan Strachan

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 14th October 2011

This is a play of two halves. The first half was a bit slow, introducing historical characters that needed no introduction for many of us, and setting up the central dilemma: with France nearly taken by the Germans, should Britain’s government consider negotiating a peaceful settlement, or should they focus entirely on resisting the Nazi advance? The official history held that they never thought about negotiations at all, but the reality appears to be that there were three days in May 1940 when the War Cabinet did debate such a possibility. Their final choice, to fight on, shaped our world in ways we probably haven’t fully appreciated yet, and by looking at this ‘wobble’, the play brings the importance of that choice into greater focus.

The set kept things relatively simple. The back wall was covered by a vast map of Europe, which obscured the two entrances to the Cabinet room. The entrance on the left was double doors, while there was a single door on the right. The raised platform in front of the wall held a long table, and there was a drinks table behind this. In front of the platform was a space which held the chairs at the start but was otherwise empty, and Jock Colville’s desk was front right. The costumes were naturally of their time, including Chamberlain’s Edwardian frock coat which he continued to wear.

The play was narrated by Jock Colville, Winston Churchill’s secretary at the time. We were shown the five Cabinet members – Churchill, Chamberlain, Halifax, Atlee and Greenwood – at prayers on the Sunday, followed by a meeting between Churchill and the French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud. This triggered the Cabinet debate, with Halifax and Chamberlain keen to avoid the bloodshed of another war, and Churchill temporarily uncertain. Atlee and Greenwood didn’t push the matter initially, although they spoke up later on about the importance of keeping the momentum going so that the British workers (for these were Labour men) would be up for a fight. With Halifax threatening to resign if the negotiation option was ruled out, Churchill has to put pressure on Chamberlain to keep the War Cabinet together.

The second half started with Churchill and Chamberlain having a little meeting before the rest of the War Cabinet arrived. This scene contained most of the play’s humour, and livened things up a lot. Despite his natural inclinations, Chamberlain finally agrees to support Churchill, and keeps his word in the Cabinet debate. The play ends with Churchill smoking and drinking in typical fashion, while Jock gives us a brief update on the history, ending with a quote from Stalin. He leaves, and Winston is left in the spotlight for a moment, then they fade to black.

It was a good ending to an interesting play, as Ben Brown’s usually are. I did think the first half could do with being beefed up a bit; I felt we could have done with more background on just how much these men had been put off war from their experience of WWI (well, not Churchill, obviously). It’s hard to get into the mentality of the time when no one knew the outcome of these choices, while us knowing how things turned out automatically removes any possibility of suspense. But the second half made up for the first, and I thought all the performances were very good. Robert Demeger was not in the original cast, but was excellent as Chamberlain, while Warren Clarke did a very good impersonation of Churchill’s voice and delivery, so good in fact that I couldn’t make out what he was saying a few times early on. But I soon tuned in, and his stage presence was reassuringly strong. Jeremy Clyde was equally as good as Lord Halifax, and the rest of the cast were fine, though they didn’t have as much to do. It will be interesting to see how this gets on in the West End.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Absurd Person Singular – October 2008

8/10

By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Alan Strachan

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 13th October 2008

I liked this even more than I expected to. As is typical of Ayckbourn, this is a very good comedy, and this production is very well cast, so we had a great time.

The play covers three consecutive Christmas Eve gatherings, but we see only the kitchens. The first act is in the kitchen of Jane (Sara Crowe) and Sidney (Matthew Cottle); she’s into cleaning, he’s a handy man with a general store. They’re social climbers who are social misfits in terms of the people they’ve invited over for drinks. They’re so nervous that they end up behaving in completely bizarre ways, such as standing outside in the rain so as not to let on that you’ve had to go out and get some tonic water.

The second kitchen belongs to Eva (Honeysuckle Weeks) and Geoffrey (Marc Bannerman), and is a total mess. Eva doesn’t say a word until she starts singing at the end of the scene, having spent most of it trying to commit suicide and being hampered by the well-meaning assistance of her guests for the evening. Jane cleans her cooker, Sidney attempts to unblock her sink, and Ronald tries to repair the ceiling light fitting, electrocuting himself in the process. It’s darker than the first scene (and not just because the lights go out), but incredibly funny as well, for all the misery. Honeysuckle Weeks showed remarkable agility in taking all sorts of tumbles.

The third scene is set in Marion (Deborah Grant) and Ronald’s (David Griffin) kitchen. Here the social turnaround is complete, as Jane and Sidney are doing very well now his business has taken off, while Marion’s alcoholism is rampant and Ronald the bank manager is having to suck up to his most important customer, Sidney. Geoffrey also needs Sidney’s help, as he’s an architect who could do with some work from the new shopping centre/megastore Sidney’s involved in.

The humour is only partly about the social manoeuvrings, though. There’s a lot of physical comedy, especially in the second act when Eva is trying to kill herself and nobody notices. She keeps leaving goodbye notes on the kitchen table, only for the other characters to grab a bit of paper for something, and so she has to do it all again. Finally she skewers the note to the table with an enormous knife, before attempting to hang herself from the light fitting. This is what leads Ronald to attempt to fix the light fitting, as they all assume that that was what she was trying to do. It’s a really funny scene, which is amazing given the subject matter, and full of wonderful comic touches, such as Eva picking the clothes pegs off the washing line to get her rope.

The final act gives Marion a chance to play grab-the-gin-bottle, which was brilliantly funny, but otherwise it’s much darker, as the characters who were on top in the first act now find themselves at the mercy of the ever cheerful Jane and Sidney. They’re the kind of people who don’t go away when there’s no response to the doorbell; they just sneak round the back to see if they can find a way in. Definitely a reason to book a holiday abroad, but make sure they’re not going to do the same thing first!

It was a good fun evening, and I enjoyed seeing an earlier Ayckbourn again.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

How The Other Half Loves – October 2007

6/10

By: Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by: Alan Strachan

Company: Peter Hall Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 1st October 2007

We hadn’t seen this play for many years, but we had enjoyed it before, and were looking forward to seeing it again. The plot is simple. Bob, who works for Frank, is having an affair with Frank’s wife, Fiona. When Bob’s wife, Teresa, demands to know where Bob was till 3 a.m. last night, he uses another work colleague, William, as an excuse. He claimed William is upset because his wife, Mary, is having a (fictitious) affair. Bob mentions this to Fiona during a surreptitious call, and she also uses this excuse to Frank when he quizzes her, only for her it’s Mary she was giving support to. When William and Mary turn up to dinner at Frank and Fiona’s one night, and Bob and Teresa’s the next, mayhem ensues.

This was a very enjoyable production. I felt the set wasn’t as clearly defined as we’ve seen before, but good enough, and the intermingling of the characters’ actions was still amazing, and very funny. I’d forgotten how the guests arrive at the combined dinner parties, each coming in one door or the other, and of course the swivelling chairs are a highlight. I liked all the performances, although Amanda Royle as Mary probably stood out just a bit from the rest – it’s always fun when the worm turns, and of all the characters, she’s the least repulsive. Marsha Fitzalan as Fiona gets about as many costume changes as the entire cast of Nicholas Nickleby, and Nicholas le Provost as Frank was wonderfully well-meaning and dangerously destructive at the same time. Good fun.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Letter – January 2007

5/10

By: Somerset Maugham

Directed by: Alan Strachan

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Tuesday 16th January 2007

This was a play adapted by the author from his own story. Set in Malaya, it’s an account of the trial of a woman for murder, following her shooting of a man who, she claims, tried to rape her. But is it that clear cut? Well, the title’s a bit of a giveaway, as you know there’s going to be a letter involved somewhere along the line, which will have a crucial bearing on guilt or innocence. And the plot doesn’t have many more twists than a willow wand, but the performances were good enough (although I couldn’t make out Jenny Seagrove too well in the early stages) and the story was watchable enough to make it an enjoyable evening. At least Maugham gets some good humour into the writing, and the characterisations have more detail than average, although we’re so used to his style now that there are few surprises. The set was rampant colonial, with bamboo screens being moved hither, thither and yon during scene changes, and the theatre was so stuffy I found myself nodding off a bit during the first half (that, and a very late night yesterday). Still, a decent play and very watchable, especially for the Chinese lawyer milking the letter situation for all it’s worth.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Entertaining Angels – May 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Richard Everett

Directed by Alan Strachan

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 23rd May 2006

This was an entertaining piece of theatre, with much to recommend it. The house was packed, probably because Penelope Keith was starring, as a vicar’s widow, guilt-stricken with the belief that she had killed her husband (Benjamin Whitrow). The support cast were excellent, including Polly Adams as the widow’s sister, who announces she had a one-night stand with the deceased thirty years before and bore him a son, in Africa, where she’d gone to work as a missionary. It transpires that at the same time as she was carrying one son successfully to term, the widow had been losing her son, so there’s much family grief and resentment to cover there.

But that’s not all. The vicar having died, a new priest is being installed in the vicarage, and a woman at that (Caroline Harker). The widow’s daughter, Abigail Thaw, is a helpful-to-the-point-of-control-freak counsellor/therapist, who doesn’t seem to be grieving so much as sorting out everyone else’s lives. She contributes to the next generation’s lapses by having a one night stand with the new vicar’s husband (Michael Lumsden). Just to round it all off, the recently departed vicar is still to be seen pottering about the garden, doing those important odd jobs, and chatting to his widow about life, both before and after death.

This sounds like a fruitful opportunity for farce, but while there is a great deal of comedy and humour in this play, it has that lovely balance between humour and sadness, and even anger that is much more representative of ordinary life than more easily categorised dramas. This was even commented on in the post-show discussion by Ms Keith.

The funniest moments for me arose out of the husband’s (Lumsden’s) infatuation with the daughter (Thaw), believing their brief encounter to be more significant than she does. He tells the daughter that he has already told his wife everything, and that he wants to start a new life with her, much to the daughter’s horror. While she’s busy dealing with her difficult mother, her aunt has a heart-to-heart with the husband, and discovers that he hasn’t really told his wife anything – chickened out at the last minute. She advises him wisely to handle the changes in his life more practically than throwing himself at the first new woman that comes along, and on no account to tell his wife what’s happened, but to stay with her and work at their relationship. He agrees. At this point, the wife arrives, as does the daughter, who proceeds to launch into the most abject apology for her own behaviour, completely ignoring all pleas to leave well alone from husband and aunt, and completely mystifying the wife, but thoroughly pleasing the audience. The scene went on for some time, and I really thought the wife might twig, but no, she remained blissfully innocent.

Penelope Keith played the widow very well. She’s had years of resentment bottled up, and now she’s letting it out on everyone around her – not a pleasant character to be with. Apart from her belief that she’d killed her husband (not true), she resented losing him emotionally after the death of their son, and finding out about the other son is more than she can handle to begin with, understandably so. Of course, these details come out bit by bit during the play – it’s very hard to report them as they happened.

Benjamin Whitrow as the deceased husband has a fine time meandering through the play, giving us an insight into their relationship, and adds much of the humour, too. The daughter I have already described – very much the organiser, not happy that her mother is going batty and pretending to talk to her father all the time. The aunt is enjoyable, a little off the beaten track, as it were, through having very different experiences from the average Brit, but with a lot of common sense gained through painful experience. The new vicar comes across as almost New Labour in her perkiness and over-the-top intimacy, such as holding the widow’s hand to comfort her and show sympathy regardless of the widow’s preferences. But she obviously has a good heart, and while I would have liked her to have been more savvy about her husband, there wouldn’t be drama if characters didn’t have flaws. Her husband is beautifully portrayed, as a man who has reached forty, started to re-evaluate his life, and fallen for the first female he’s met who’s different from his wife, thinking she’s perfect and will make him happy.

The set design was interesting, with walls blending into sky and foliage, presumably suggesting the blurring of the boundaries between this world and the afterlife. Unfortunately, some slack had crept into the backdrop, so we were treated to some peculiar-looking swag-shadows this evening – a not-to-be-repeated event, I’m sure, certainly not if the designer has his way. Along the front of the stage was a stream, with real water, and the garden area had real grass. To create different scenes, a swathe of willow branches was lowered towards the front of the stage to distance the stream from the garden, making it more secluded. I thought this worked really well.

The less good things I found were the lack of sympathy I felt for the central character, some theological comments which went over my head, and a sense that the play has more to offer. See below. But despite these few cavils, this was a very enjoyable evening with a splendid cast.

         Post-show discussion: All the cast stayed behind (this was a short play, finishing at about 9:30 p.m.), along with the writer and set designer. Points raised included the difficulty of projecting to such a large auditorium, especially with the audience on three sides, and the need to keep turning round to include various sections of it; it’s better to have a writer who’s also been an actor because he understands their needs; the possible changes that might have to be made if the show were to transfer to a proscenium arch theatre; possible rewriting anyway now the author has seen such a good cast bring the play to life and given him new ideas; many actors’ terror at having to do post-show discussions, although some, such as Abigail Thaw actually enjoy it; the importance of audience vocal feedback, letting the actors know the audience is with them; how differently audiences react to significant revelations in the play, especially the widow’s announcement that she’s killed her husband – the response varies, but again shows the audience is taking it all in. The discussion ended with much appreciation of the cast from the audience members who had stayed behind.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me