Oppenheimer – January 2015

Experience: 8/10

By Tom Morton-Smith

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Tuesday 20th January 2015

Wow. We didn’t have high expectations for this play, despite it being in the Swan and starring John Heffernan (one of our favourite actors) as Oppenheimer himself. We were prepared for it to be a bit dry, a bit too technical, perhaps even – dare I say it? – a bit boring, but the whole thing was an amazing piece of theatre, with music, jokes and lots of interesting information as well as lively debates. And yes, the horrific effects of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were brought out in a very effective and moving way. Given that this was a preview, I’d expect the performances to come on even more, and now that we know who is who in the story, our second viewing should bring out much more detail. Time will tell.

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King Lear – November 2013 (1)

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 5th November 2013

We’ve seen Frank Langella on stage before in Frost/Nixon so we knew he could deliver a powerful performance, and we were keen to see how this would work in his interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s major roles. We weren’t disappointed, and as this was a preview we would expect the production to strengthen over its run, even though it’s not here for long.

The set was interesting, with an irregularly shaped raised area at the back leading down to the central stage area which was a mosaic of angled floorboards. I soon realised that this area depicted a rough map of Britain, with the different angled sections showing graphically how Lear intended to split up his kingdom. Along the back of the stage there were vertical wooden posts, staggered a bit to create both a screen and lots of possible entrances and exits; when characters did leave that way I could see there were steps down immediately behind the stage. A large wooden throne sat in the back right corner, above the map area, and looked remarkably like the English throne we’d seen in Edward II at the National. The costumes were historical, though I couldn’t say what specific period was intended; the general effect was mediaeval-ish.

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Canvas – June 2012


By Michael Wynne

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 5th June 2012

We’re not camping or outdoorsy people, Steve and I, so I suspect some of the jokes in the early stages of this play passed us by; others in the audience were finding it funnier than we were at the start. Once the characters were established, though, the humour became more general, and the laughs came more readily. The penultimate scene, the farewell party, was absolutely hilarious and well worth waiting for.

The play showed us three couples, some with kids, and the woman who was theoretically running the camping site they were all staying on. Justine and Alan had brought their kids to the camp site for a holiday at a crucial stage in their lives. Their landscape gardening business was in difficulties, as was their relationship. The camping put them under even more strain but also gave them the chance to work things out, and the final resolution of their situation was appropriate and not unexpected.

Bridget and Rory were another couple with children and completely different attitudes in just about every respect. Bridget was a teacher, and about as controlling as any mother could possibly be, scheduling every second of her children’s ‘holiday’ with worthwhile and improving activities which she mistakenly calls ‘play’. She threw her husband, Rory, out some time before, but allowed him to come on this holiday, which is his only chance to spend some time with his kids. He’s a bit of a doormat, but much more likeable than Bridget.

Alistair and Amanda were the posh couple, who brought so many extras to make their life more comfortable that they weren’t really camping at all. Both were into keeping young and beautiful, and Alistair was the sort who tries it on with every attractive woman in the vicinity. Amanda was used to this character flaw but not happy about it, and presumably only stayed with him to enjoy the lifestyle. The final party was held in their tent, and little extras like a microwave, TV and suchlike clearly made life easier for these two. I did like Bronwyn’s comment about forgetting the tents had a microwave – got a good laugh too.

Bronwyn was the lady running the camp, though she was hard to find whenever the couples wanted her. She was struggling to manage the ‘working farm’ holiday experience on her own, her husband having left her when he discovered there was work involved. The interactions between these people were entertaining and some of the observations were very accurate, especially when Justine recognised that Bridget was a teacher before she’d told them.

There were obvious similarities with Ayckbourn’s writing, but this was a little more realistic as well as funny. The performances were all excellent, and the set worked really well. There was grass at the front of the stage with a simple path up the central line to the tent at the back. It was a large tent with big canvas flaps at the front and a lot of space inside, as well as a stove, sink, table and chairs (some broken) and a bedroom further back which was curtained off from the living room. The tent space rolled forward for some scenes, with the canvas sides lifting up so we could get a good view of the interior. This made for a good staging, and kept the pace up nicely. We certainly enjoyed the performance, as did the rest of the audience.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Browning Version – October 2011


By: Terence Rattigan

Directed by: Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 7th October 2011

This had really come on since we saw it last. All the performances were sharper, and my main difficulty with the earlier performance, back in September, had been totally rectified. I’d felt then that Anna Chancellor’s Millie wasn’t as unpleasant as she needed to be for the play to work; tonight she was as bitchy as could be, and everything fell into place. The only down side tonight was that our viewing angle cut out quite a bit of Crocker-Harris’s reactions, so I couldn’t enjoy Nicholas Farrell’s performance as much as I would have liked. Nevertheless, this was a very enjoyable way to spend an evening.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Browning Version – September 2011


By: Terence Rattigan

Directed by: Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 6th September 2011

I like this little play very much. It’s well constructed, and while it might not be completely idiot-proof, it can certainly rise above mediocre performances. Not that this was a problem tonight. There were a few rough edges, but given that this is very early in the run, I’m sure they’ll be up to speed very soon.

The set used the same two wooden arches as the first play, but added in the walls of Crocker-Harris’s study, and some French windows out to the garden centre back. A screen shielded the main entrance to the right, and there was a small table beside the French windows on the left. Another small table stood front left, with a large dining table centre right and a sofa centre left. There were several rugs on the floor, and the sense of a 50s style study/living room was very clear.

I liked Nicholas Farrell’s portrayal of Crocker-Harris a lot. He was very stiff and formal most of the time, but not unpleasant, and the way he crumpled when he was given the gift was very moving. I’m intrigued by the way such formality of speech can actually be used to convey the emotions underneath – it was beautifully done tonight.

Andrew Woodall was fine as the headmaster, and Mark Umbers was good as Frank Hunter, the cuckolder who turns into a friend. Liam Morton was very good as Taplow, and I certainly got the impression that the gift was a kind gesture on his part, which is what it’s meant to be. The only fly in the ointment for me was Anna Chancellor’s performance as Millie Crocker-Harris. I didn’t get the full sense of her nastiness here; it’s as if she’s afraid to make the part too unpleasant, which undercuts everyone else’s good work. Perhaps I just need time to adjust to her way of doing it, and as we’re seeing it again next month I may find it’s improved. We still enjoyed ourselves tonight anyway, so we’re looking forward to the next time.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Goodnight Mister Tom – February 2011


By: David Wood

Directed by: Angus Jackson

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 4th February 2011

This was a sweet little story, with a surprising amount of darkness, and unusual in that it clearly worked for audience members of all ages. I hadn’t read the original book, nor seen the TV version (Steve had), so I came to this completely fresh. I enjoyed it more than I expected, and although this was early in the run (it starts at Chichester and then goes on tour), I felt that they’d got up to a good standard already, no mean feat given that there are three teams of children to cover the tour dates.

The play tells the story of young William, who is evacuated prior to the outbreak of WWII, along with many other London children. He’s billeted on an old curmudgeon called Tom Oakley (as William’s surname is Beech, I thought they were well matched). [Actually, it’s Beach, so not such a good match except sound-wise] Naturally, the child overcomes his difficulties which were due to the abuse he’s suffered from his mother, while the old man learns to open his heart again after many years mourning his lost wife and baby. In other hands, this could be sentimental schmaltz, but here it’s a moving tale, with many ups and downs, and a real feeling of the community that William ends up being part of. About the only thing missing was the grown-up William as narrator, and possibly all the better for that. There was a good balance between the two stories, with neither of the main characters dominating, and good support from everyone else, especially Sammy the dog.

Now, they say never work with children or animals. We’ve also seen that puppets can be a problem as well. So when we get animal puppets within a few minutes, we know we’re in for a good time, while the actors…… Well, the actors will just have to accept they’re being permanently upstaged. At the post show, Angus Jackson told us that he’d made a similar comment to Oliver Ford Davies during rehearsal, to the effect that he needn’t worry about how he said a particular line as there would be a dog on stage at that point, so no one would be listening to him.

Sammy was lovely. Laura Cubitt, who ‘played’ Sammy, was remarkable, even getting the dog to breathe while he was sitting or lying down, waiting for the next bit of action. In the post-show, she was asked if she’d done any ballet training, and she had, but even so, she found herself getting stiff sometimes with the awkward positions, so Sammy occasionally moved around a bit, sniffing things, to give her a break.

The set worked pretty well, although I felt it was one area which may improve with practice. There are a lot of changes, and occasionally the pace slowed a little too much for me in the first half, although the second half worked much better. The platform in the middle of the stage which served as just about everything from a train platform to a stage to Mr Tom’s house to a shop to everywhere else in the country, rose up reveal the dingy, grimy flat where William’s mother lives, and to which William returns, reluctantly, to find he has a baby sister. His mother is clearly a nutter – she’s obsessive about denying William any fun, and has rules forbidding any sort of normal life, although as she’s produced another baby she’s clearly a hypocrite where sex is concerned. She ties William up under the eaves and leaves him with the baby cradled in his arms, and when Mr Tom finds them (he’s come to London because he’s worried about not hearing anything from William for weeks), the baby is dead.

William ends up in hospital, and because his mother can’t be found, the authorities are about to send him to a special nursing home where he can be tortured by psychiatrists instead. Mr Tom helps him escape, and takes him back to Dorset, where eventually he adopts William as his own son. All looks good for the lad, until his best friend, ????, also returns to London when his father dies, and gets killed by a bomb. It’s a tough time for William, and for us, but overall, we manage to get through it with the help of Mr Tom and Sammy (especially Sammy).

This was a very good production, and I hope they have a great time on tour. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again if it comes back this way.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Bingo – April 2010


By Edward Bond

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 27th April 2010

This play is just tolerable, thanks to the second half opening scene in the tavern, with Ben Jonson and Will getting totally blotto, and giving us most of the play’s sparse jokes in one chunk. This was a very good production, mind you, and the performances were all splendid, but Edward Bond can be so dreary. I suppose he feels he has something to say about life, or in this case about money and death, but he overestimates his abilities in my view.

I saw this one on my own for once, as Steve, bless him, had come down with a bad cold and couldn’t stop coughing. The performance was the quieter, apart from a mobile going off during the closing stages! It’s strange not to have our usual discussion afterwards, but as we’ve booked again for this one he’ll have a chance to catch up later. I’ll be interested to see how the performance changes in that time.

The set was entertaining in itself. The first scenes are set in the garden of New House, Shakespeare’s retirement place in the country. There were large hedges at the back with a central opening, symmetrical beds, indicated by woodchip mulch, on either side, and also at the front. The stage had angled corners on two levels and was cut away to provide triangular steps at the front and side. There was a gate front right corner, and a bench back left.

For the rest of the first half, there was an unspecified location. The hedges were on a revolve, and on the other side were bricks, which were now at the back. In front of them was a wooden pillar, and the poor Young Woman was set up there, now dead. She did at least have a wooden headrest to help her stay still. The gate and bench were removed, and the woodchip scattered across the stage. I thought it might be a barn at first, but the gallows with grass at the base suggested an outdoor scene.

The second half starts in the tavern, and the front of the revolve now has walls either side and a fireplace in the middle, thrust forward. There were two tables and assorted stools, Ben and Will at the one to the right. For the next scene, outside in the snow, the revolve turned to give us an open space – don’t remember what was at the back – and a pile of fake snow which was swept vigorously forward to cover the stage (and the feet of the folk in the front row). Simple and effective.

The final scene is set in Will’s bedroom, so it took a minute or two to set up. The walls are back, but this time with a sturdy-looking door between them. There’s a bed to the left, an upright chair to the right, and a small, very small writing desk in front, covered in papers.

The story covers Shakespeare’s last months in Stratford, and brings in the enclosures and the hardships facing the poor at that time. Shakespeare is approached by William Coombe to agree to the common land being enclosed, and eventually agrees to that provided his rents are guaranteed. A young woman wanders into their lives, who shows us the restrictions on movement between parishes. There are protests against the enclosures, and in the meantime, Will is in a kind of depression as he toils towards death. He doesn’t get on with his family, loathes them in fact, so living in Stratford is torture for him, though he no longer wants to be in London. Frankly, just about everyone is miserable.

Bond is a political writer, so there’s a bit of drum-banging going on, but on the whole I’d have to agree with Patrick Stewart’s comment at the post-show that this was one area where Bond was scrupulously balanced. It is, after all, the area he’s most interested in, and he does understand the other points of view, at least well enough to present them fairly. I’d also agree that it’s the only area that’s balanced. I was very aware that many of the characters simply don’t communicate with each other, and while that’s certainly a valid situation to demonstrate and explore on stage, it doesn’t necessarily work if the lack of communication extends to the audience as well. Surely Judith could have been given more opportunity to express her feelings about her absentee father? Surely she could have made better points about his lack of care towards his family? There was enough to hint at the past injuries, on both sides, but I never felt the personal was anything more than a side issue for Bond.

Unfortunately, the political side also felt underwritten. One of the main protesters, Son, son of Old Woman and Old Man, Will’s servants (God, these names are dreadful!) was so caught up in religious rhetoric, and spoke with such a strong accent that I lost most of his lines. I got the anger, but the arguments against enclosure were decidedly lacking. In fact, the best argument against was the wonderfully sleazy performance by Jason Watkins as William Coombe, the main mover in the land grab campaign. I will just say that the accents were all fine, as far as I could tell, and if I’d remembered, I would have liked to ask about them during the post-show, but they did make it hard to follow the dialogue at times.

So it wasn’t the greatest evening, but the time did pass fairly quickly, and we had some laughs along the way.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me