Swallows And Amazons – January 2012

7/10

By Helen Edmundson and Neil Hannon, based on the book by Arthur Ransome

Directed by Tom Morris

Company: Children’s Touring Partnership/Bristol Old Vic

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 20th January 2012

I think I would have been better off not to have re-read the book shortly before going to see this wonderful adaptation. It took me a fair while to adjust my ideas, much as I loved some of the staging choices, and I would have probably found it an 8/10 experience if I’d warmed up sooner. As it is, I was thoroughly hooked by the end, joining in the shouts of ‘plank’ with enthusiasm. The cast all did a great job, and I hope they have a great time on tour.

The stage was littered with all sorts of objects before the start, some of which didn’t become clear until they were used. There were four tall irregular-shaped pillars along the back of the set, which each had a large band of white on them – I noticed during the interval that these were painted, and looked like brick. There was a picture frame hanging centre stage, and some musical instruments over in the far right corner, including a piano. I don’t remember anything else specifically, and they brought so much other stuff on during the play that I’d be misleading myself to attempt any more detail.

The play began with an old lady walking on to the stage, and sitting on a chair in the middle. She’d been carrying a pair of secateurs and a feather duster with bright red, green and yellow sections, and put them down to one side of the chair. As she looked through an old album of photographs, the characters of the Walker family started appearing on stage, with Mother and Father posing together in the central picture frame, Mother holding Fat Vicky, and other picture frames being held up for the rest of the family to pose behind. The old lady herself turned into Titty, and the feather duster and secateurs became the parrot. So now we had the four children, the baby and their parents. Father sailed away, and the action began with Roger arriving, breathless, with the telegram which would give them Father’s answer – to sail or not to sail.

Before I go any further, I must point out that the casting was weird and wonderful. Roger, the youngest child, nearly eight, was played by the tallest actor, and there aren’t many eight-year-olds with a beard! This worked really well, and gave us some humour from the start. The other ‘children’ were mostly to scale, although Susan was a bit on the small side. I always find the telegram a bit sniffly – “Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers won’t drown” – so this got me going early on, and then they were soon through the planning stage and off to the island. This was a musical, and the songs were pretty good, although I couldn’t always make out the words. The packing phase was done to music, and Swallow herself was a prow, a couple of wheeled dollies, a mast with a sail, some ropes and some ribbons – blue ribbons which other members of the cast held out and moved around to represent the water.

The story was told briskly, and while some bits were dropped – going to the farm to get the milk, for example – we didn’t miss much, and it made for a good piece of theatre. Other characters came on as needed, and there was plenty of music all the way through – this is a really talented bunch. Titty’s experience near Cormorant Island was staged as a dream sequence, with lots of pirate types carrying lots of boxes and singing a song, while the two ship’s companies and Captain Flint found the box the first time they searched the island. For the attack on Captain Flint’s ship, they passed out sponges to the audience, and we were told to throw them on the command ‘attack!’ which we did, and a fine old mess it made of the auditorium – great fun. When Captain Flint begged for mercy we were merciless, calling for the plank as loudly as we could (told you I was well into it by then). He dropped down through a trapdoor for this bit, and when he came back up and all was forgiven, they were about to head off for a feast on shore when he decided to give Titty a present for finding his book. The parrot was duly handed over, and with a final rousing song we were done.

The Amazons were also very good; two women with war paint and feathered headdresses. Peggy in particular had a great voice, and Nancy was all scowls, even when you’d expect her to be happy! Titty’s spell alone on the island came across better than the book for me – the way she read out her log entries was very funny. When anyone used the telescope, a round frame was held up and showed what they were seeing, whether it was Captain Flint sitting at his desk writing or Mother on her way to the island. Captain Flint’s ship was represented by a massive prow at the back of the stage, and it had a large mast too which may have been lowered down – I lost track a bit during the busy times. The reed beds were very well done, with the spare cast members holding long sticks and moving around the Swallow to show the way the reeds separated and came together again. The charcoal burners were included, but only to give the message about Captain Flint’s ship needing a lock – we didn’t get to see the snake – and this also allowed us to see John’s embarrassment at being called a liar when he tried to deliver the message to the Captain. It was good to see the way these children learned from their experiences, and from each other’s way of handling things. I also liked the way they meshed their fantasy versions of the lake and its islands, with Nancy recognising that Rio was a good name for the town and the Walkers accepting the Blackett’s name for the island.

Susan was much more priggish than I remember from the book, but it worked well enough for me, and the storm came early in this version, during the night raid on the Amazon’s boat shed. The sailing terminology was used sparingly – terms like ‘leading lights’ were demonstrated down at the harbour – so although it didn’t feel quite as inspiring in terms of the sailing, it still had that sense of adventure and freedom to use one’s imagination which is so strong in the book. The cormorants were quite scary. They were made out of bin bags and garden shears, and flew around in an intimidating manner.

Quite a few of us older children stayed behind for the post-show, and there was much praise from all sections for their performance. There were many stories of children young and old being introduced to the books and loving them; one chap has only got one more book before his wife divorces him, apparently – I hope for his sake that she’s a slow reader. It all went quite well until one man asked a rather hostile sounding question about what they were doing to take this sort of show to disadvantaged kids who might never see a play or read many books. The cast handled it very well, explaining the purpose of the Children’s Touring Partnership, and we finished on a lighter note, thankfully.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Uncle Vanya – November 2009

6/10

By Anton Chekov, translated by Stephen Mulrine

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: SATTF & Bristol Old Vic

Venue: Bristol Old Vic

Date: Friday 13th November 2009

I was a bit disappointed with this production. I liked the thrust stage, and the minimalist set design was fine as were the costumes, but I just couldn’t relate to the characters and their plight. It seemed to fall between two stools, the comic approach and the serious one and never quite got off the ground as a result. I will also say that the seats we were in, although they gave us a good view, were dreadfully cramped – I hope the refurbishment makes it a more comfortable place to sit. But it is a lovely little theatre, and I wish them every success in giving it the TLC it so clearly needs.

The post-show was an added bonus; they don’t usually announce these until long after we’ve bought our tickets, so it was a lovely surprise to find we’d booked exactly the right performance. The cast and director were there, of course, and the audience were suitably enthusiastic, with a good mix of ages. There was one chap on stage who’s involved in the revamp, and he told us some interesting things about the process, and either he or Andrew Hilton explained that thrust stages had disappeared because of health and safety concerns. Back in the days of wooden buildings a theatre had caught fire and killed lots of people so they brought in a law that introduced the safety curtain to every theatre. All naked flames had to be behind the curtain so that if there was a fire the audience could get out OK (shame about the actors, but that’s life). Since the only available lighting was limelight it meant the footlights at the front of the stage had to be moved back, which meant that actors who came in front of the proscenium arch could no longer be seen clearly and the front part of the stage was therefore redundant and disappeared. Now that we have the magic of electrical lights we can have the actors doing all sorts, swinging from the roof, leaping across the seats, strutting their stuff down aisles and round the back; you name it, an actor has probably performed from that very place. Fascinating stuff.

So a good night out in that we ‘discovered’ a lovely new theatre, learned some interesting things in the post-show, and semi-enjoyed the performance itself.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Much Ado About Nothing – YPS – September 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by John Hartoch

Company: Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Tuesday 5th September 2006

This was excellent. But for the severe truncation of the play, it would have been a 10/10 performance. I was amazed to find these actors had completed only the first year of a two-year course – several looked so accomplished I would have thought they were already professionals.

Although this telling was succinct, there was time to cover all the high points of the full version, and to include some original business as well. At the beginning, two soldiers march a surly-looking fellow (Don John?) onto stage. Leaving him in the middle, they march to one side and prepare to fire. Another man appears (the Prince?), and gives the signal to shoot. The guns fire, and streamers shoot out – it’s a joke! Not that the chap being shot at enjoys it much.

Then the regular plot starts, with Leonato telling his daughter and niece of the Prince’s return. I was delighted with this Beatrice (Emma Clifford). She nailed Beatrice’s character beautifully – full of chiding without any real malice, but unable to hold her tongue for long. Michelle Lukes was as lively a Hero as I’ve seen, registering a lot more of the character’s emotions, especially during her repudiation at the church. Adam Thomas gave a good performance as Leonato. An older student, he had the advantage of his own years to convey Leonato’s, and he carried the part well, doing a good impression of a bumbling amateur during the deception of Benedick.

When the men arrive, we confirm that the characters in the initial mime were indeed the Prince and Don John. Oliver Millingham plays the Prince as a lively man, fond of practical jokes and arranging other people’s lives for them. Claudio (David Oakes) is tall, handsome and full of nobility and courage, while Benedick (Peter Basham) is a robust type, older than Claudio, and with a healthy dislike of marriage. He pines to “see a bachelor of three score again.” His sparring with and wooing of Beatrice were lively and entertaining, and he moved into the more sombre scenes smoothly and convincingly. His was one of the best performances in a good all-round cast.

Don John was a credible villain, sulking even more after his humiliation at the fake firing squad. Neil Jennings doubled this part with the second watchman, which gave him a chance to show a lighter touch in a comedic role. Another of the best performances came from Nick Whitley as Borachio. He slipped onto stage during the Prince’s promise to woo for Claudio, and seeing what was going on, hid himself behind the curtain to overhear. After they left, he strolled onto the stage, bottle in hand, to let us know his intentions. Nick looked very assured and gave plenty to this small, but important, supporting role. Don John’s other servant, Conrad, was played by Paul Jellis, who also played the friar. Conrad was fine, and I liked the friar, especially when he settled up with the Prince once Benedick agrees to marry.

The parts of Hero and Margaret were being alternated, and today Margaret was played by Notzarina Reevers, doubling with first watchman. Both of these were good performances. Margaret had her flounces from time to time, but she was still the loyal maid enjoying her part in snaring Beatrice for Benedick. First and second watchmen were a great double act, as first watchman had to assert her authority and retain her pike (they only had one between them!). She did this easily, and took to swinging it around in a dangerous manner, as when Dogberry is questioning Conrad and Borachio. Good fun.

So to Dogberry (David Edenfield) and Verges (Matt Barber, doubling as Messenger). Dogberry is such a difficult part to do nowadays, and I’ve rarely enjoyed it. This part was naturally cut right down, yet the character came across just fine, and the climactic “O that I had been writ down an ass!” was very funny. One of the few parts that benefited from the cuts. Verges and Messenger were small parts, and well done, though without much scope for catching the eye.

The set was very simple, as they have to be. Apparently they must be able to be set up and taken down in ten minutes. A curtain formed of four parts hung at the back of the thrust, with words from the play writ large across it. Underneath these were printed dictionary definitions of some of the words, e.g. love, honour, scorn, folly, etc. Two boxes covered in cloth stood towards either side of the curtain, with individual words on each side, echoing the curtain’s decoration. These boxes were moved forward, singly or together, to form seats, tables, plant pots, etc., and other props were added as needed; chairs, trees, altar cloth, and so on. Live music came mostly from behind the curtain, and sometimes on stage or from the sides. They’re a talented bunch, these actors, as they played all the instruments themselves.

The costumes picked up the general theme, as most of the outfits had a word or two painted on them. The Duke had both “Love” and “Scorn” on his trouser legs, Claudio had “Noble”, Benedick had “Sport” and Beatrice had “Scorn” across her stomach. The Prince was in off-white, Leonato in grey, and Don John in black. Because it was so short, there were no costume changes, so Hero had to start off in her wedding dress (white, drop-waisted, with a voile skirt), while Beatrice was wearing bright red, and Margaret wore a fetching blue number. The watch had pudding basin helmets.

One obvious difference from yesterday was the power of delivery. These guys could really fill the space, vocally. I heard virtually every word clearly, and they obviously knew what their characters were saying as well. There were a few problems with sightlines being blocked, but that’s a natural hazard in this space. All in all, this was an amazing production.

Some of the business has already been covered. The scene where the Prince, Claudio and Leonato convince Benedick of Beatrice’s love was a masterpiece. With Benedick lurking behind the curtain, though not completely out of sight, the Prince dishes out the ‘parts’ to the other players. Leonato, an enthusiastic amateur, manages to drop too many of his pages, and there’s a lovely moment of panic as all three scramble to find his lines. As the Prince and Claudio walk and talk, Claudio’s sword accidentally pulls back the curtain, threatening to reveal Benedick, who has to grab it to stay concealed. This amuses the others so much, they make another pass by the curtain to repeat the trick. Frankly, they were laughing so much that it nearly made Benedick a liar when he says their conference was “sadly borne”.

Finally, to tie the production up, the introductory scene was repeated – Don John was led onto stage, the firing squad prepared to shoot, the Prince raised his hand to give the signal – and then the lights went out, leaving us with a lovely, ambiguous ending. We all loved it so much we applauded past the house lights going up, so they took their final curtain call in semi gloom. Great fun, and I hope they all do well in their future careers.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me